Which application areas are leading the way in adoption of 3D printing for prototypes?
Cobb: Two areas of consumer products are particularly strong. One is consumer electronics, such as cell phones and plasma TVs. The other is medical devices, primarily instruments, medical enclosures and small hand-held devices. Another very important area is education, including junior high, highs school and college, where use of 3D printers helps to show the benefits of using 3D solid-modeling CAD.
Because of this education focus, are we looking at a future generation of engineers who will be much more adept at using rapid prototype systems?
Very definitely. I am amazed at the number of high schools that are purchasing 3D printers. More and more in the schools today, 3D printing is being taught as part of the design process. The whole idea is to help students better visualize their designs, and models from a 3D printer are much better in that regard than a picture or a drawing. In the high schools, this Dimension equipment really helps engineering come alive for students and is a big recruitment tool in getting students to sign up for CAD courses. Those students who go on to study engineering in college and get additional experience with 3D printers are going to expect to see this equipment in the workplace when they take engineering jobs.
Getting back to the real world of engineering, what are the chief benefits that engineers are getting from 3D printers?
Most parts generated by 3D printers are part of an assembly, so engineers are quickly able to see how a new design mates with other components in the assembly that might already be in manufacturing. Prototypes also enable engineers and other members of the product development team, such as marketing, to evaluate styling, ergonomics and other features. Product managers can also in effect preview a new design with a potential customer. Another big use of these prototypes is in the quoting process. Since companies rely so much today on outsourced parts, prospective vendors include 3D-printed parts right along with their drawings and other documentation that they submit with their quotes.
Is 3D printing helping to bring design and production closer together?
Definitely. These 3D models have great value as communications tools, and communications between the design engineer and the manufacturing engineer is really enhanced by the ability of both functions to see a physical model. By reviewing 3D models, you are able to make modifications to a design for optimum manufacturability much earlier in this process. And this can result in considerable production savings, as well as greater reliability in the parts being produced. In a related benefit, those in customer service can also evaluate 3D models of parts with an eye toward serviceability and maintenance issues.
To what extent are small and medium-sized companies embracing 3D printing?
We are seeing a lot of growth in the 3D printing market from small and medium-size design and/or manufacturing firms. Some companies as small as one or two-person operations are buying Dimension machines. This is a tremendous asset for an engineer to have right at his or her desktop.
How much of a learning curve is involved in adapting to a 3D printer for a company that is not familiar with rapid prototypes?
The concept of the 3D printer that Dimension started out with in 2002 was to offer a tool that was as easy to use as an inkjet or laser printer, and I believe we have captured that. Once a machine is set up on an engineering department’s network, it is a matter of an hour or two of training to show the engineers the various options available. For example, there’s a nesting function in which you can put a wide variety of parts onto the build service and build them all at once. Or you do scaling and rotating of parts. Our software that drives the printing process -- Catalyst® EX – automatically imports the 3D model as an STL file, and it takes only a few minutes to understand that process and to build a part.
What is Dimensions doing to make this technology more affordable for engineering departments?
When Dimension started in 2002, we had one 3D printer that cost $30,000. Today, we have four products, starting at $18,000 and going to a maximum of $30,000. The same product we used to sell at $30,000 is now available at $18,000. These cost reductions have really fueled the marketplace, allowing a greater range of companies to afford this technology. Meanwhile, the ease of use and the reliability of these products have gotten better and better. For example, the equipment is now about 20% faster.
What are some of the other factors that companies should consider to justify this investment?
Just the convenience of having the ability to generate a model at your desktop, versus going to an outside service bureau, is a major factor. If you have to rely on an outside vendor, you typically have to get a quote, send the file to the service bureau to be printed, and finally the model has to be physically shipped back to your company. At best, this is a 24-hour process, but it ordinarily takes 48 hours plus. Compare this with the 3 to 5 hours that it takes to generate a typical, 5-inch-cube part onsite with a 3D printer. In a single day, your engineering team can easily generate a part, evaluate the design, make needed changes and send a new STL file to the printer for another model, which will be ready when the team comes to work the next morning. So in a single 24-hour period, you have seen two prototypes. You also do not have to worry about confidentially issues, which can be a factor when you are dealing with an outside vendor that might also be serving competitor companies. From a cost standpoint, you’re using roughly $15 worth of materials to produce that typical 5-inch-cube part with an in-house desktop printer. With a service bureau, you are looking at costs 10 to 20 times that for the same part. The cost savings allows you the freedom to look at more variations and ultimately come up with a better design.
Besides cost questions, what other challenges do you face in making 3D printing a widely accepted engineering tool?
It’s primarily a matter of awareness. We have thousands of customers out there who are extremely happy with the product. Some are purchasing their sixth or seventh machine, and virtually none of them would want to ever do without this equipment. Still, our industry has a lot of work to do to make people aware of the enormous advantages of these systems. Dimension goes to about 40 trade shows a year, and I am still amazed at how many people do not realize that high-quality 3D printers are available for $18,000.
What kind of growth do you envision for 3D printers?
From 2004 to 2005, according to reports from Wohlers Associates, we saw a 31% growth in sales of 3D printers. For the Dimensions 3D Printing Group, we should well exceed that level of growth in 2006 – perhaps reaching a 40 to 50% increase – and we continue to be the leader in market share. As you look to 2007 and beyond, we are expecting to achieve continued annual growth rates in the 30 to 50% range.