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The ProJet 3500: designed to build accurate parts/models within the office environment.

The Cube: will this revolutionize how people—especially young people—think about making things?

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3D Tech & the Re-localization of Manufacturing

It’s the week after Thanksgiving in the U.S., but in Frankfurt at the expo center where the motor show is held, in hall 11 of the massive complex.  The hall is full of equipment for additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping, full of booths where companies are presenting their materials that allow quick prototype or product realization, or their design and engineering capabilities that can be hired to get things done with greater speed.

One of the exhibitors at EuroMold 2012 (euromold.com) is 3D Systems (3dsystems.com), the South Carolina-based company that offers printers, materials, and services for fast part creation, a company with a range of printers that start at $1,300 and go up to the $950,000 sticker.

The company uses the opportunity to introduce two new printers, the ProJet 3500 HDMax and the CPXMax.  Both offer a net build volume of 11.75 x 7.3 x 8 in.  Both offer a typical accuracy (depending on factors including build parameters, part geometry and size, part orientation, and post-processing) of 0.001 to 0.002 in. per inch of part dimension.  Both have exterior dimensions of 29.5 x 47 x 59.5 in.  Both are designed to be used for use in an office environment (e.g., low noise, no odors).  But the HDMax is engineered to print durable plastic parts with a variety of materials (including VisiJet X, also being debuted at EuroMold, which is described as “the first jetted plastic available with the look, feel and performance of injection molded ABS plastic”) for applications including functional testing and rapid tooling.  The CPXMax is for use with VisiJet Hi-Cast, a material that is used to create precise wax patterns for casting applications.

The company also used the opportunity to announce that it was expanding its Quickparts on-demand custom manufacturing service for plastic and metal parts to Europe and Asia, and to show the software capabilities—3D scan to CAD and inspection—of Rapidform, a company that it acquired some six weeks prior to EuroMold.

In other words, 3D Systems had a presence at EuroMold that spoke to its breadth and depth in what it calls the “3D content-to-print space.”

But what is as interesting is what is in the foyer of hall 11, a stand that resembles something like the one that MINI would have at an auto show, with sloganed T-shirt-wearing young, attractive people, throbbing music, lights, and a display of stylish products.

And this, too, is a 3D Systems stand.  The “Cube Café.”  It is centered on the company’s Cube, a consumer 3D printer.  It’s the one that has the aforementioned $1,300 price point.  While many of systems inside hall 11 require a forklift to move, the Cube measures just 10 x 10 x 13 in. and weighs 9.5 lb.  There are boxes of the product available for sale at the stand.  The café also entails aspects of Cubify.com, the company’s website that allow people to buy customized products (jewelry, lighting, iPhone covers, etc.) that have been designed by others, or which the consumer, working with available apps, creates herself.

People talk about the “democratization” of producing things.  This array of 3D Systems technology shows it in spades.

And so we talk with Abe Reichental, president and CEO of 3D Systems.  About the professional aspect of 3D printing.  About the recreational and educational aspects of the technology.

On the subject of the impact of the tech on manufacturing, he talks about how it can facilitate what he calls “re-localization of manufacturing.”  Reichental says that in his “Neutron Jack” days at GE, Jack Welch launched the wave of offshoring manufacturing, a process that many companies followed.  “That is now dated, stale, ineffective, bad for sustainability and the environment, and every time the price of crude oil goes up, it becomes cost-prohibitive.”

A couple weeks prior to EuroMold, Reichental says that he attended the annual Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum, where there were a couple thousand business executives.  “Everyone was talking about bringing manufacturing back home.  ‘Back home’ could be here in Germany or the UK or the United States.  Every major corporation is talking about the importance of quick turn, rapid, distributed and localized manufacturing.”

Does this mean that there will be a wave of manufacturers everywhere using 3D printing (or the technologies being shown by 3D Systems’ competitors within hall 11) to accomplish their tasks, that additive manufacturing processes will be the panacea for re-shoring production?

Well, to a degree.

“What you are going to see on the production floor,” says Reichental “is a hybridization between traditional and additive manufacturing.  There will be some subtractive processes.  Some injection molding.  It is not going to be an all-or-nothing but an and-both environment.”  He adds, “Don’t be surprised that within the next five years you’re going to see some hybridization in the technology itself—you may have milling capabilities in a 3D printer.  We are actually making quite a number of investments in CNC machining and injection molding because we see this as us enabling the re-localization of manufacturing.”

As for the educational and recreational aspects, Reichental says that they are developing apps that are aimed at engaging you people in the process of realizing 3D designs.  What they are working at, he explains, are apps that will seem game-like, so that the creation of objects, such as with a Cube, will be perceived as fun.

“Where will we be in five years?  Hopefully we’ll have millions of kids who think about 3D printing the same way they think about their tablets.  And hopefully we’ll have thousands of startup companies that will use 3D printing as part of their re-localized manufacturing,” Reichental says.—GSV

 

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