tba,nged Japan




Overlaying data on the real worLd

The rise of the DNAhackers

3-D images: not just for cinemas




The Economist Te-chnolo-gyQuarterly September 5th 2009

A factory on your desk
Manufacturing: Producing solid objects, even quite coinplexones, With 3-D printers is gradually becoming easier and cheaper. Might such devices some day become as widespread as document printers?


USTbefore gain.g on holiday you decide to buy a new pair of trainers. The usual procedure would be to pop down to the shops, select a style and tryon a pair to make sure they are comfortable. Instead, imagine doing this: designing shoes exactly the right sizein the style and colour:you wanton a computer, or downloading a design from the web and customising it. Then press print and go off to have lunch while a device on your desk manufactures them for you. On your return, your trainers ate ready. But they are not quite right. So after another fiddle on the computer you print a second pair. Perfect. The technology to print a pair of trainers, or-atieast to do so in one go rather than in parts that have to be glued together,isnot yet available. But it is getting close-. n increasing number of things, A from mock-ups of new consumer products to jewellery and aerospace components, are being-produced by machines that build objects layer by layer, just like printing in three dimensions. The general term the industry uses for this is "additive manufacturing", but the most widely used devices are called 3·0 printers. Some of these printers are becoming small enough to be desktop devices. They are malting their way not just into workshops and factories, but also into the offices of designers, architects and researchers, and are being embraced by entrepreneurs who are using them to invent entirely new businesses. The 3-0 printers currently available use a variety of technologies, each of which is suited to different applications. They range inprice from under $10,000 to more than $1ffi for a high-end device capable of making sophisticated production parts. Depending on the size of the object, the material itis made from and the level of detail required, the printing process takes around an hour for a relatively

smaU, simple abj ect that-would fit into the palm of your hand.and up to a day for a bigger,more sophisticated part. The latest machines can produce objects to an accuracy of slightly less than O.lIDm. Terry Wohlers, a consultant based in Colorado who monitors the industry, reckons the global market for additive. manufacturing was worth $1.2 billion in 2008 and thatit could double in size by 2015.He estimates thats-n printers of various sorts account for about 75% of sales, and high-performance industrial

machines the remainder. He expects lower-costj-n printers to accountfor as much as 90% of the market as prices fall and performance improves. Model-making and rapid prototyping remain the most popular uses, but all types of machines are increasingly being used for direct manufacturing of parts for finished products, rather than just prototypes. Although powerful design software allows the virtual creation of j-n objects on a computer screen, many designers and their clients prefer to examine, touch and hold a physical object before committing to huge investments in manufacturing or construction. Models help take some of the guesswork out of the process: They are traditionally crafted by hand from materials such as clay,wood or metal. It is a slow and costly business. Even making a nonworkingmodel of what might seem to be a relatively simple thing, like a new sale for a shoe, is in fact a complex process. It used to take Timberland, an American firm, a week to turn the design of anew ~~


Case history

-The Economist Technology Quarterly Septembersth


The ability of 3-D printers to speed up the design process will have a big impact on industry.
~ sole into a model, at a cost of around $1,200. Usinga j-rrprinter made byZ Corp oration, based in'Burlington, Massachusetts,it has cut the time to 90 min' utes and the cost to $35. The ability of 3'D printers to speed up the design process will have a big impact on industry; "Now engineers can think of an idea, prin fit, hold it in their hand, share it with other people, change it and go back and print another one," says David Reis, the chief executive of Objet Geometries, an Israeli firm that makes 3-D printers. "Suddenly design becomes much more innovative and creative." Objet'srnachines can produce not only solid things out of plastic-type materials, but complex ones with moving parts to 0, such as a working model of a bicycle chain or a small gearbox. Andthey can print obj ects in multiple materials, such as a plastic remote-control unit with rubbery buttons. When the process is complete and the material is set, the loose powder is blown away with an air jet to reveal the completed structure. The powder can be one of several substances including plastic, a special material that can be treated to become flexible.like rubber, and casting materials suitable for malting moulds. Each layer takes 15'30 seconds to output. Objet's machines have print heads that slide back and forth depositing extremely thin layers of two types of liquid photo· polymer. One type is printed where the cross-section is required to be solid, and the other where there are cavities, overhangs and other features with spaces. After each layer is printed, an ultraviolet light-source in the printhead hardens the polymer in the areas that need to be solid, and causes the second polymer to assume a gel-like state to provide structural sup' port. The build tray then moves down and the process is repeated for the next layer. At the end, ajet of water washes away the gel-like support material. The machine is capable of malting objects out of multiple kinds of solid photopolymer, each with different colours or properties, Another form of 3-D printing is "fused deposition modelling". Stratasys, based in Minneapolis, is the market leader in this field. This approach involves unwinding a filament of thermoplastic material from a spool and feeding it through a moving extrusion nozzle, heating the material to meltit and deposit it in the desired pattern on the build tray. The material then hardens to form the solid p arts required in each layer. As subsequent layers are added the molten thermoplastic fuses to the layers below In areas such as overhangs. physical supports can be added and removed later, or water-soluble materials canbe deposited and then washed away. Fred Fis cher of Stratasys sees the mar' .ket developing in two directions. On one hand there will be more demand for cheaper and simpler 3-D printers capable of quickly turning out concept models, which are likely to sit on the desks of engineers and designers. Onthe other hand there will also be demand for more elaborate machines with addedfeatures and higher performance, the most elaborate of which will provide a cost-effective way to manufacture thousands, and perhaps even tens of thousands, of components. Today's rapid prototypmg, in other words, will shade into tomorrow's rapid manufacturing. Mr Fischer draws an analogy with the development of docu· mentprinters, which range from small,

I Ob]eitt~5~tln'

Howa 3-D ~nnfer wofks -

1. A model of the object is created on a com puter, Software analyses this model, taking a series of cross-secticns.and working outthe distribution of space and solid matter within each lay,;:.

Print head

Little by little
The first step in all 3-D printing processes is for software to take cross·sections through the part to be created and calculate how each layer needs to be constructed. Different machines then take different approaches. Most processes can trace their roots back to the earliest form of 3-D print· ing:.stereolithography. It was pioneered by 3D Systems, based in South Carolina, Which made the first commercially available stereo lithography machine in1986. Such machineS build up obj ects, a layer at a time, by dispensing a thin layer of liquid resin and using an ultraviolet laser, under computer control, to make it harden in the required pattern of the cross-section. The build tray then descends, a new liquid surface is applied and the process is repeated. At the end, the excess soft resin is cleaned away using a chemical bath. A related approach, which also dates back to the 1980s, is sele ctive Iaser-sintering, in which a high-temperature laseris used to melt and fuse together powdered' ceramics, metal or glass, one layer at a time, to produce the desired 3'0 shape. BothZ Corporation and Objet, by contrast, use modified forms of Inkjet printing: Z Corporation uses the printing heads in its machine to squirt a liquid binder onto a be d of white powder, but only in the areas where the layer needs to be solid, Colour is applied at the same time, allowing multicoloured objects to be created. The bed is lowered by a fraction of a millimetre and a new layer of powder is spread and rolled. The print head then repeats the process to create the next layer.

.2. The 3-D printer builds up the object. one layer at . a time, using one of several methods. A bed of .powder may be laid down and then solidified in .certain places by squirting a liquid binder onto it . (above); lasers may be used to fuse together ". powdered ceramic, metal or glass in selected areas; . 'plastic may be squirted outofa nozzle to build up material in the appropriate parts of each layer; or light may be used to harden selected regions of a photoserrsitivc gel. Some devices can use more . than one material for each layer, or app\yinks to . .produce multicoloured objects: ."'._

3. Once each layer is complete, the build tray is lowered by a fraction ofa millimetre and the construction of the next layer begins. When all the layers have been completed. any excsss material is cleaned ~~~-- to reveal the finished object .away -=-- ---- _-.-

cheap devices for home use to industrial printing presses capable of producing high·quality glossy magazines. Today's largest and most expensive 3-D printing machines, capable of directly producing complex plastic, and metal and alloy components using selective laser· sintering, are becoming increasingly popularin the consumer· electronics, aerospace and carrnaking industries: It is not ))

Tf\e E.onomist Teclinol(Jgy Quarterly September: 5th -2009

Case history


workshops of artists and enthusiasts.
~just their ability to make a small number of parts, without having to spread the massive tool-up costs of traditional manufacturing across thousands of items, that makes these machines useful They can also be used to build things in different ways, such as producing the aerodynamic ducting on ajet-fighter as a single component, rather than assembling it from dozens of different components, each of which has to be machined andtested. Some 3-D printers can already befound in the workshops of artists and enthusiasts. Jay Leno, an American television celebrity, bought aStratasys machine to help keep his large collection of old cars on the road. He can scan a broken part that is no longer available into a computer, or design a missing one from scratch, and then print out a copy made of plastic. This can be fitted to a vehicle to check that the design is correct. After any adjustments, a final plastic copy can either be used by a machinist to make an exact copy from metal, or themodel's numerical data can be fed directly into a computer-controlled milling machine. Mr Lena's 1907 White steam-driven car is now hack on the road thanks to his 3-D .printer. Wherenow1 Many in the industry believe that low-cost J- D printers for the consumermarket will eventually app ear. 3D Systems launched a new model costing less than $10,000 in May. That may sound a lot, but iris what laser printers cost in the early 1980s, and they can now be had for less than $100. Desktop Factory, a start-up based in Pasadena, California,hopes to launch a 3-D printer for $4,995 that is around the same size as an early laser printer. o bj et believes the way to the mass market is via inkjet technology, just as it has been with 2-D printers. The ability to print different materials with inkjet heads greatly increases not just model-making abilities but production possibilities, too. The firm thinks it is getting close to being able to print with engineering-quality plastics through inlqet heads. "When we reach that point, it would allow us to go to short-term manufacturing," says Amit Shvartz, Objet's head of marketing. As with 2-D printing, many individuals and small firms-may not need sophisticated machines, especially if they can use 3-D printing bureaus to produce their more demanding digital creations. Some of these make-to-order services are starting to appear. Z Corporation's machines are being used by companies to let players of

3-D printers can already be found in the

video games, including "World of Warcraft", "Spore" and "Rock Band", produce colourful, 3-D models of their in-game characters, for example. "We are at that point where people are looking at this technology and saying 'We can make a business out of that'," says Scott Harmon, head of business development at Z Corporation. Shapeways, a firm basedin the Netherlands, lets users upload designs, choose a construction material and get a production quote. It then turns the design into an object with a 3-0 printer and ships itto the customer. 3D Systems recently set up a j oint venture calledMQast, which is an online provider of aluminium and stainless-steel parts pIO duced using its machines ..And iKix, based in Chennai, India, has equipped itself with Z Corporation machines and set up a chain of online service-bureaus to produce architectural models, for delivery anywhere on earth. Me Wohlers thinks medical applications of 3-D printing also have a lot of potentiaL Itisalready possible to print j-n models from the digital slices produced by computed-tomography scans. These can be used for training, to explain procedures to patients and to help surgeons plan complex operations. Some hospitals have started using 3-D printing to produce custom-made metallic and plastic parts to

be used as artificial implants and in reconstructive surgery. "It is , possible to deposit living cells through inkj et printers onto a biodegradable scaffold," adds Mr Wohlers. "There are a lot of problems to overcome, like the creation of blood vessels, but eventually I think we willsee replacement body parts being printed too." Meanwhile, what about making those trainers? A 3-0 prmtercheap enough to do that at home is probably many years away. But customising a standardised product by changing its outward appearance, like re-skinning a mobile phone, would be easier. "You can do that pretty much with existing technology," says Mt Harmon. You could also make other simple but useful things; like a missing piece for a broken toy; And you might even make your own 3-D printer. TheRepkap project, an open-source group based at theUniversity of Bath in England, has produced designs for a 3-D printer which can be· built for around $700, including royaltyfree designs that can be fed into the machine to produce the plastic partsneededto create another RepRap machine. This . could be fun for the mechanically minded. Others might want to wait until the local hardware store buys a 3-0 printer and begins to offer one-off manufacturing services on demand, •

One of Z Corporation's


(above) and a finished model of a camcorder (top~

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful