Recent advances in rapid prototyping technology allow engineers to produce plastic objects of their own design right on their desks. A development attracting the attention of everyone from hobbyists to entertainment and automotive industry professionals. While most printers have cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, newer models, such as 2010's BFB panther, lower the price to a few thousand. Rapid prototyping technology offers both efficient and cost-saving advantages to the design process.
Engineer Keith Curtis is with Microchip Technology Inc., a semiconductor manufacturer based in Arizona. The company often needs prototypes to show customers how small items, like some plastic car parts, might work when attached to a larger unit. He says that the ability to produce an object in the office has enhanced the design process.
"With the prototyping machine, what it allows us to do is basically try out ideas," said Keith Curtis.
Before they had a 3D printer, Curtis says that crafting these objects was complicated, often involving a third-party.
"And now when our salesman goes into the customer and instead of saying, 'Well can you give me two pieces of plastic and can you give me all this stuff,' he can go in and say, 'Well we did this example, which kind of looks like what you are doing, and here it is working,'" he said.
Curtis and his team use one of the least expensive 3D printers, a $1,500 model that requires assembly by the user. He says learning how to build and best use the machine were the difficult parts, and since then it has operated without malfunction.
Some 3D printers can run into the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Smaller models, like the one Microchip uses, can fit on a desktop, while others span several feet in width and height.
David Cox holding a Statue of Liberty figure made by a 3D printer
Purple Platypus, a 3D distribution company based in California, carries several printer models. Its founder, David Cox, says that regardless of their size or expense, most of these printers operate under the same principle.
"So this extrusion technology is really another way for a glue gun," said David Cox. "It is basically a motorized glue gun that prints layer by layer."
Inside each printer on display at Purple Platypus, a mechanism feeds extremely thin layers of material, mostly plastic and rubber, back and forth over a base. Often within several hours, the printer turns a computer-designed image into a 3D prototype from the bottom-up.
Cox says these 3D printers offer several advantages. First, sending a design to a third party production team usually requires days of waiting for one object. Second, for businesses with a high demand for prototypes, these in-house machines and their materials are more cost effective.
Current 3D printers do not offer consumers much beyond prototyping, but research into 3D printing technology extends far beyond plastic models. Joel Johnson is a reporter who has covered rapid prototyping for Gizmodo, an online technology guide.
"This is definitely an area of technology where the implication of the technology is far, far more interesting and long-term and profound than the immediate state of it is," said Joel Johnson.
Bio-engineers are currently researching the machines' ability to print organic tissue while some inventors are looking into ways to produce large-scale objects for more long-term use.
"Everything that you can make with this stuff right now is generally going to be of relatively brittle plastic," he said. "Nothing is anywhere close to creating that has the strength or the durability or even the price efficiency of a normal consumer good right now."
While many industries are looking into the future of this technology, for the moment 3D printers offer a unique tool for design application.