Heading a start-up after leaving his position as head of Microsoft Game Studios, Ed Fries thought that he might be able to sell 10,000 units of his product — personalised online game figurines — the first year.
After two months, about 100,000 people had signed up, and Fries had to institute a lottery to determine which customers would actually be served.
Fries and his start-up, FigurePrints, are using a process called 3D printing that uses printer-like machines to build small models, parts and prototypes. The technology has been around for a while but is moving closer to the SME market and perhaps even the consumer space, some say.
FigurePrints.com makes one-eighteenth-scale figurines of action characters developed by players of the World of Warcraft multiplayer online game.
With four machines built by 3D printing specialist Z Corp running around the clock, Fries can make 48 figurines per day.
3D printing is the low end of a market variously called rapid prototyping (RP) or additive manufacturing. 3D computer-aided design (CAD) files are converted into thin slices that are then built one upon the next using various processes, including heated powders, extruded plastic filaments and resins precisely cured with lasers, says Terry Wohlers, head of Wohlers Associates, a rapid prototyping consulting firm.
It's almost the reverse of taking a small model and slicing it into a multitude of layers. A 3-D printer is able to "print" the first layer of the model using, for example, a plastic-like substance. It then "prints" the next layer on top of that one, and so on. In the process, all the slices are bonded together.
Fries' experience might be a foreshadowing of a technological development that could sweep away economic pillars such as manufacturing and distribution.
The idea goes like this: Today, information is readily available online and can be faithfully reproduced locally with laser or ink-jet printers. But tomorrow, many more descriptions of 3D objects may be available online, and consumers will be able to faithfully reproduce them using 3D printing, circumventing most stages of commerce.
Most of the resulting models are basically plastic prototypes suitable for form, fit and function testing, or for casting molds. But some high-end processes produce metal parts suitable for immediate use, Wohlers says. Prices for commercially available 3D printers currently start at about US$20,000 (NZ$24,800).
As for the accuracy of the printed models, rapid prototyping tolerances aren't as good as what's available with plastic injection molding, says Todd Grimm, president of rapid prototyping and marketing consulting firm TA Grimm & Associates.
Regardless of its merits compared to other prototyping methods, wouldn't customers of companies such as FigurePrints be happier if they were able to print their figurines — and other items — at home?
One company hoping to meet this potential demand is Desktop Factory, which is taking advance orders for a US$4,995 system to be delivered sometime later this year.
"I see the low-cost availability of 3D printing as having major implications," says Cathy Lewis, Desktop Factory's CEO. She anticipates the system being popular with schools and hopes it will promote the education of a new generation of US engineers.
"But the long-term vision is rapid manufacturing in the home," Lewis says. "You have the ability to create one-off products and customised toys. Instead of importing items by millions from China, transporting them to warehouses and then stores, where we drive to pick them up, you will download a legal file, for a legal fee, and print your own repair part. Our parts are durable enough to serve as end-user items."
She anticipates that the "cost of goods" to create a Desktop Factory unit will fall to US$500 by late 2011. "So in 2012, I should be able to sell it for US$1,000" . But she also wants to see more low-end software tools become available. She and others point to Google's SketchUp 3D design package, available as a free download, as an example of what would be needed. Lewis says the Desktop Factory unit may eventually have an interface for SketchUp files. (Professional 3D CAD tools can cost thousands of dollars.)
As for the Desktop Factory system, which involves plastic and metal powder heated with a halogen light, "in terms of accuracy, they have some work to do," says Michael Berman, chief technology officer at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
Berman tested a Desktop Factory beta unit for three months. "If you were doing a doll, an expensive 3D printer would produce something like a manufactured doll you'd get in a store, whereas from this unit, the eyebrows would not be sharp, and a mouth would lack a sharp edge — like a photo a little out of focus. But obviously it's a much lower price point, and we are enthusiastic about it."
The whole premise of a consumer rapid prototyping market seems shaky to Grimm. "I don't think that soon everyone will be printing your own widgets," he says. "The technology is not there in terms of ease of use or material strength."
Jon Cobb, vice president for 3D printers at Stratasys, a 3D printer maker, says "From a hardware standpoint, I think prices could fall to the point where 3D printers could become home appliances.
"The real impediment would be the software — how are you going to get the information to create a model?"
At FigurePrints, Fries says that every figurine file has to be inspected before it's printed, to look for capes with the proper thinness, for example, or flaming swords that require artistic interpretation.
He says there might be a market for home 3D printing. "When you have children, an amazing amount of plastic crap comes into the house every day, and you might as well download it from the internet," he says.