By Drew Dixon…
3D PRINTING FOR ONE AND ALL
There have long been high-end 3D printing operations since the 1970s, but usually for larger-scale industrial and mechanical operations, such as the military and major manufacturers. Most 3D printing operations remain on that level, said Bill Decker, chairman of the Association of 3D Printing, which has 1,200 members around the world.
The cost of the printers varies depending on the task. Some 3D printers still cost more than $1 million and are used for complicated objects such as airplane flying devices, crowns for dentists and replacement parts for military weapons.
At any cost, the printers still can’t produce a single mechanism with complex moving machinery. But 3D printers can produce each moving part, which work together after assembly. 3D printing’s profile heightened in the past year after several media accounts reported that guns could be produced on one of the replicating machines.
Decker said while that makes for a sexy headline, that’s not where 3D printing is headed. He said the 3D printers that cost as little as $100 and allow anyone to experiment are not very high grade. He compared the current evolutionary stage of 3D printing to that of the Internet in 1992: It’s very formative but could soon undergo such a transition that 3D printing shops become as common as Kinkos used to be for paper, two-dimensional printing.
“3D printing is still pretty much run by engineers. That reminds me of the Internet where pretty much the geeks were in charge. But that flipped,” said Decker from his office in Denver. “The salesman [eventually] became in charge of the Internet, not the programmers. That’s going to happen in 3D printing.”
The nomenclature is already changing in the 3D printing industry, Decker said. The traditional heavy-industrial 3D printing operations are still referred to as “makers” — they make devices. “Service bureaus” are stores such as FORGE that take a customer’s needs and reproduce an item for a custom need.
And there’s the pending conversion, when 3D printing jumps to a new level through the service bureaus, Decker said.
“There are going to be a lot of them that say, ‘I have this machine,’” Decker said. “They’re going to be makers and service bureaus at the same time.
“The big advantage is time,” Decker said, noting his organization actually managed to 3D print an electric guitar in 19 hours as part of an experiment. “The average person who needs something made … you’re seeing more of that kind of consumer model.”
His association has courses online at their website, associationof3dprinting.com explaining how to handle the 3D printing business. (http://3dprintingmba.com)