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3-D Printers Give Picture of Future for Consumers

CHICAGO TRIBUNE – Derek Ellis has been getting a lot of unusual requests.

The account manager at PTE Distribution Inc. in Willowbrook typically makes prototypes of potential new products for big companies like Procter & Gamble Co. But lately he has been doing more work for smaller firms and even some entrepreneurial-minded individuals.

One woman in particular, he said, wanted to scan her face so she could sell custom dolls with her likeness.

“You can create anything you can dream of for not an awful lot of money,” Ellis said.

His firm is using a technology called rapid prototyping, which can quickly produce a smorgasbord of different models for a variety of applications.

Those include new designs for industrial equipment or to test an idea for a new mobile phone. They can also be used to create molds for actual products.

One technique is to use a 3-D printer to create conceptual prototypes. The printers use powdered resins and plaster to create full-color models.

The machines have shrunk to the size of office copiers and can be had for as low as $25,000.

Although the prototypes are more fragile and less detailed than those made by other methods, companies are using them to communicate ideas with other divisions.

Motorola Inc. has been using 3-D printers to design handsets for nearly a decade. A pair of Z Corp. printers recently allowed the Schaumburg-based electronics giant to compress the timeline for getting its svelte Razr V3 phone to market.

“The product development for the V3 was a year from inception to shipping,” said Jim Caruso, Motorola’s director of operations.

“We made 10 to 20 Z Corp. models, which led to three final variations of the theme,” he said. “It’s much faster and less expensive to create prototypes this way. The typical handset takes an hour to an hour and 15 minutes.”

In contrast, prototypes that are built by hand can take days, at least, cost thousands of dollars and require shipping to offsite partners every time there is a design change.

For a company like Motorola, a lot of time can be lost waiting for FedEx. Today Motorola just e-mails the latest working designs to its partners, who can print the models on their own 3-D printers.

The models can then be used to estimate, for example, how much Styrofoam will be needed for packaging.

“We’re working with our Korean team at the same time because we put one of our Z Corp. machines in Seoul,” said Bill Maes, global prototyping manager for Motorola. “It enables us to share ideas and make better decisions.”

Tom Clay, president of Z Corp. in Burlington, Mass., equates the ZPrinter to a 3-D fax and said three dimensions offers a more intuitive proof. “It’s harder to absorb in 2-D on a flat sheet of paper. People can understand and work in three dimensions.”

The ZPrinter uses inkjet nozzles to spray resin, plaster and binding materials onto a tray. When a layer is finished, the tray will drop and another layer will be built. That process is repeated until the model is completed.

The method resembles how desktop inkjet printers print on paper, except the ZPrinter can create 3-D prototypes with surface features and even full-color packaging.

As the design cycle progresses, Motorola turns to more refined and expensive rapid prototyping methods like stereolithography, laser sintering and computer-aided manufacturing–a process that can carve metal into shapes.

Motorola, for example, used computer-aided manufacturing to test the durability of the magnesium hinge in the V3 handset.

Another advantage of higher-end rapid prototyping machines is that they can use a variety of materials–such as resins, metals and ceramics–which are solidified using ultraviolet lights or lasers. Of course, the cost is substantially higher and the machines much bigger. They require full-time operators to use and special hazardous-materials handling. Motorola said it usually outsources this work.

The military is also a big user of rapid prototyping technology since it uses a lot of equipment that is no longer in production. Aircraft like the 50-year-old B-52 bomber need replacement parts, for instance, and those can be made in part by using the technology.

Analysts believe it won’t be long before 3-D printers will be able to produce parts that have sufficient strength to be used for production purposes. The printers are rapidly increasing in resolution, so they are able to create prototypes with more detail.

Clay said Z Corp. was dedicating resources for developing new, stronger materials.

Statasys Inc. in Eden Prairie, Minn., a competitor to Z Corp., already offers printers that utilize a durable plastic. The models are not as detailed as those produced by the Z Corp. printers and they do not offer color, but Terry Wohlers, principal consultant for Wohlers Associates, believes the convenience of the material outweighs the shortcomings.

“Durability of models is the most requested feature that designers want. It’s kind of a hassle to infiltrate and wait for drying time unless you want the model for a quick and dirty” evaluation, Wohlers said.

Experts predict 3-D printers will hit consumer desktops within the next 10 years and 3-D models will become widely available to buy and download.

Wohlers envisions this happening in three phases.

The first phase is already beginning as more companies like PTE Distribution give consumers access to prototyping technology in retail environments.

“You’ll be able to go to Kinko’s and have a model built,” predicts Wohlers.

The second phase is on a professional level, where the technology will be used by self-employed consultants and designers to work at home. Many 3-D printers are already designed to be used in office settings and do not have any special material disposal issues.

“You see people in their garages at night, and professional engineers who work out of their homes,” said Wohlers. “Those types will be using the technology.”

The final stage will occur in seven to 10 years when component parts get cheap enough and printer costs fall below $500.

“Then I’m going to buy one for my 10-year-old daughter who loves to build things,” said Wohlers. “She’ll download action figures and print them out.”

In the meantime, PTE will continue to offer its services to anyone with an interesting idea.

“A woman recently had us scan her two sons and gave the dolls with their faces to them for Christmas,” said Ellis.

“It beats pictures, I suppose.”