Categories: Editorial

Earlier this year, I wrote an article stating that desktop 3D printing was not yet ready for serious commercial use in manufacturing companies. At the time my position was based on the observation that desktop printers lacked the precision, robustness, support of a range of engineering grade materials, as well as the lack of comprehensive technical support. While that was true in February, progress has accelerated to the point where I am convinced that desktop 3D printing is about ready for adoption by manufacturers today.

If anyone doubts that desktop 3D printing has reached a level of maturity necessary for manufacturers to use it in day to day operations, please read on. Recently Price Waterhouse Coopers, the giant CPA
 firm turned consulting organization, published a white paper (see separate article) indicating the extent to which top 100 manufacturing companies are already employing 3D printing in their operations. The biggest enterprises have already decided to jump into 3D printing in one manner or another. What about the rest of us? While walking the exhibit floor at the recent 3DPrinterWorld Expo, held in high tech Bellevue Washington, I was struck by two changes from previous 3D printing shows I attended earlier this year.

  1. Half of the attendees I met were professionals from companies with a manufacturing orientation; Boeing, Siemens, and many other smaller companies were represented.
  2. Several new vendors representing next generation printers, scanners, software, materials and accessories populated the exhibit hall. Many claimed to already support commercial customers in manufacturing applications.

Here are a few noteworthy examples:

  • New 3D printers: LeapFrog (lpfrg.com), a new dutch printer maker, and AirWolf (airwolf3d.com), a California based maker with new higher performance models, are worth a closer look. Leapfrog’s new line of three 3D printers begins to bridge the gap between hobbyist level printers and entry level commercial printers. The new Xeed model features two extruder heads, an enclosed print chamber and a large, 230mm by 270mm by 600mm high print volume. The vendor claims they can print as low as 0.05 mm layer height (we plan to test and verify this impressive claim in a future article). AirWolf’s new HD2X dual material printer provides an all metal extruder designed to support polycarbonate and other other temperature filaments.
  • New Filaments: Proto Pasta and Avante Technology: these two startups offer state of the art high performance filaments that work in most desktop printers that have a heated bed with temperature controls. Proto Pasta (proto-pasta.com) offers a carbon fiber filled PLA and an ABS/Polycarbonate blend. Avante Technology (avante-technology.com) offers a proprietary engineering grade composite filament that is moisture resistant and does not give off any noxious fumes during printing.
  • New Software: Avante Technology also offers a new, automated STL file repair and validation application called Emendo that ensures the file input to the printer will be printable and faithfully represent the object defined in the source CAD drawing.
  • Solutions Providers: US Cutter (uscutter.com), a Redmond, Washington based, value added reseller of 3D printers and industrial cutters, and Matter Hackers (matterhackers.com), Lake Forest, California are two noteworthy companies who now provide full service technical support of a multiple vendor lineup of printers, filaments and software directly to commercial accounts.

These companies and new products don’t address all needs for functional prototyping and production of 3D printed parts, but they represent the growing number of companies that are now focusing on supporting the commercial sector with improved products and support at affordable pricing.

I know of several manufacturing companies who are currently engaged in their first attempts at making functional prototypes and/or manufactured parts using desktop 3D printers. One is a subsidiary of a major brand consumer products company. One is an established manufacturer of industrial parts, and one is a startup in the medical products industry.

All three manufacturers have on thing in common: an understanding of the strategic impact 3D printing is having on their industry, and a strong desire to climb the learning curve as quickly as possible by experimenting with affordable,
state-of-the-art desktop 3D printers now.

I believe they have the right idea: start small and start now in order to make informed decisions on major 3d printing investments in 2015. If you don’t now, your competitors will force you to respond soon. Please check for specific product reviews on the products mentioned along with other new breakthrough desktop
printer products in the months to come.

Robert Zollo
A “serial entrepreneur”, Bob has founded two companies that have contributed to the advancement of desktop FDM 3D printing, one in the software arena and one in the FDM plastic materials category.
Recognizing that desktop 3D printing has the potential to become as valuable and ubiquitous as personal computers in industry, Robert’s vision for ProForma3DPrinting.com is to educate, promote and assist the vast number of design, engineering and manufacturing professionals seeking to incorporate desktop 3D printing as part of their work process.
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Posted on Oct 14, 2014

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