Continuing on from my previous post on the Mcor Matrix 3D printer that uses paper as its raw material, I hope to provide here a review of other recent developments relating to 3D printing hardware. Not all of these are immediately relevant to the idea of consumers printing objects in their own home, but do illustrate an accelerating pace of development, and gradual reductions in costs for 3D printing technologies.
First off, Objet Geometries launched the Alaris30 Desktop 3D Printer, which can create smooth surfaces, complex geometries, small moving elements, fine details, stand-out text and whatever else the design demands.
The Alaris30 is based on Objet’s Photopolymer Jetting Technology, and the company says that the strong model material and highly accurate printing enable thin walls and small moving parts.
The Alaris30 operates as a network printer, allowing multiple designers in the office to send their files to be printed. The 300 x 200 x 150 mm (11.81 x 7.87 x 5.9in) build tray enables large models or many small parts to be built simultaneously. As can be seen in the picture, the Alaris30 is (relatively speaking when compared with some 3D printers) small and lightweight enough to fit in any office, on a desk or with the stand Objet offers with the printer. It uses sealed 1kg cartridges of resins and the printed models are fully cured on the build tray.
Like the Alaris30 described above, the uPrint is designed for the desktop, requiring only a 25 x 26 in. footprin, and features an 8 x 6 x 6 in. build envelope.
Stratasys developed the rapid prototyping process known as fused deposition modeling (FDM). The process creates functional models and end-use parts directly from any 3D CAD program using ABS plastic, polycarbonate, PPSF, and blends. Using FDM, uPrint builds models with Stratasys ABSplus — a material on average 40 percent stronger than the company’s standard ABS material, making it ideally suited for testing the form, fit and function of models and prototypes. uPrint also features a soluble support removal system, allowing for hands-free removal of the model support material.
uPrint is being targeted as an alternative to using external prototyping services – the company says it makes 3D printing “immediate and convenient through every design iteration, with no waiting in queue for a shared printer and no waiting for models to arrive from an outside service”.
In an article on the uPrint in MCADCafe, editor Jeffrey Rowe asked
“Does the announcement of the uPrint Personal 3D Printer finally usher in the era of 3D printing for everybody? At $15,000 it’s still a bit out of the price range of casual users, but might be the start of the 3D printing revolution that has been promised for a several years now by some vendors and industry pundits.”
He goes on to describe some of the other projects aimed at developing low-cost 3D printers, including RepRap, Fab@Home, and the somewhat troubled Desktop Factory (of which more later). It is clear that 3D printer with a price of €15,000 will never be a consumer product, but it continues a general downward trend in hardware prices. It is this trend, rather than the current generation of 3D printers themselves, which fuels the belief that commercially produced 3D printing hardware will eventually become accessible to consumers.
The RepRap and Fab@Home projects are, of course, already accessible to individuals in terms of cost, but the requirement that the customer assemble their 3D printer is likely to be an obstacle to their mass-market adoption.
Meanwhile, Desktop Factory has encountered difficulties with its technology and financing. In March, Desktop Factory CEO Cathy Lewis issued a statement that the company was “forced to reduce our spending and focus on just the most vital activities to preserve our cash”. This followed a period from October 2007, during which the company had to deal with major technical issues. Assessments of this issue pointed to the need for a redesign of the company’s imaging sub-system. Work on this continued during 2008, and the re-design was ready for customer acceptance testing in February 2009.
The statement went on to describe issues with investor financing:
“From a macro view we have done well with $2M raised and another $1 million needed to finalize the round. However, we had not planned for the extreme deterioration of the financial markets and need to comply with an important ‘contingency’ from the venture capital firm. The contingency stipulates that no monies go into the round until all monies are available, which is the crux of the problem. We still need $1M and sufficient time to find the third investor in this difficult economy.
While we continue to aggressively work this issue we have judiciously delayed the customer beta. We need to make certain we have the right resources available to meet with our investors and that we are able to fully support our customers during a rigorous beta process.”
The Desktop Factory 3D printer, which has a list price of $4,995, uses an inexpensive halogen light source and drum printing technology to build robust parts layer by layer from composite plastic powder. Notwithstanding its current difficulties, it appears to be lowest-priced commercially produced 3D printer to date. The outcome of these current difficulties may have a bearing on the future direction of the 3D printing hardware sector as a whole. If Desktop Factory does manage to get a 3D printer to market at the price indicated, it would be a significant step towards consumer accessible commercially produced 3D printing hardware.