In my high school physics class, one of our projects was to build a bridge out of balsa wood and glue that weighted under a certain amount and then see how much weight the bridge would hold. In theory, this would allow us to apply the basic engineering concepts we were learning to a real world problem. However, the bridge was more or less an arts and crafts project; those people who paid the most attention to their building process (i.e. cut pieces precisely and used a lot of glue) had the better bridges, not necessarily those with superior designs. Building the bridge was also extremely time consuming, so we only made one bridge and did not have the chance to learn why our design failed and to improve upon the bridge, which is where the bulk of actual learning would occur.
Now imagine this project if you could somehow rapidly design and build bridges. With 3D printing, students could design a bridge, test it, see what failed, and then redesign their bridge based on what they learned. The precision and repeatability of 3D printing means the only variable that changes is the student’s design. Small changes to a bridge, or even entire re-designs, can be tested knowing the quality of construction will be consistent, allowing students to learn from their failures.
While this is just one example, 3D printing offers a wide variety of educational uses, allowing students to design and create actual objects to test in a real world environment. The only limits to this technology are the creativity and imagination of students. The low cost, biodegradable FDM (fused deposition modeling) material combined with the decreasing prices of consumer 3D printers makes 3D printing a cost-effective and safe way for schools and school districts to allow students to learn and experiment. 3D printing is billed as a technology of the future so why don’t we get it in the hands of the future, today’s students?
Everyone can see that the 3D printing industry is in a state of flux. First off, the public has become rapidly aware of this technology over the last two years, even though it has existed for over two decades. Publicly traded 3D printing companies are becoming Wall Street darlings, and new startups are setting crowd funding records on Kickstarter. At the same time, low end Rep-rap inspired 3D printers are beginning to challenge established industrial players in the rapid prototyping industry. While two years ago The Economist featured German 3D printing company EOS in its “Print me a Stradivarius” cover article, it was newcomer Makerbot that graced the cover of Wired Magazine last October.
So what does this mean to someone looking to buy a 3D printer? It means buyer beware. Who wants to buy the last $80,000 machine before it is rendered obsolete by a $5000 alternative?
This is particularly true of larger, more expensive machines capable of producing large 3D printed parts. Those machines can top $200,000 without break a sweat, but don’t think they aren’t also under pressure from disruptive new platforms.
All of this is to say that the days of investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in one machine to be the flagship of a company’s 3D printing fleet are also dwindling. And this means that once again, large format 3D printing is kept inaccessible due to the sheer lack of machines capable of building large 3D printed parts. Clearly a new solution is needed. Something more flexible for the owner and operator, and something that can be upgraded rapidly as new advances in 3D printing hit the market.
3D printer material cost: limits of a razor & blade business model
Most people are familiar with a razor and blade business model. Made famous by Gillette, first a company sells people the razor (or whatever the base unit is) at or below its true cost, and then the company charges a high premium on the blades now that it controls a large market share. As business strategies go, razor and blade is a pretty great approach because it allows consumers to get what they want now, and also guarantees a continued revenue stream for the producer in proportion to how much the consumer actually uses its product. This is the same strategy used by HP with printers and ink, and it can even be seen in electronics, such as cell phones or the mobile payment device Square, where the hardware is cheap but the associated service is controlled by the hardware maker or its partners, who make their real profits from a device’s use, not its sale.
It is no big surprise then that 3D printer manufacturers went for the same razor and blade strategy with their machines. Especially as a new type of industrial hardware in a price-sensitive enterprise marketplace, getting that initial sticker price down was important. It was almost certainly the difference between selling and not selling. So in other words, I don’t blame them. There’s just one problem. That is, for many types of 3D printers, the “blade” is really just a spool of plastic.
Fused Deposition Modeling, or FDM, is the 3D printing technology behind the Statasys line of 3D printers. Stratasys alone is a pretty big fish (the #2 3D printer manufacturer in the world), but the reason I focus on FDM in particular is because it is also the basis of the Rep-Rap, and in turn nearly all of the low-end, next generation hobbyist 3D printers that have come along in the last five years. And the thing is, FMD is really quite simple. It is essentially a hot glue gun being controlled by a computer, except that instead of extruding hot glue, it extrudes melted plastic. And what is the input to this extruder? You guessed it, nothing but a continuous filament of ABS or PLA plastic, usually coming straight from a 1kg spool.
So what’s the problem with this? What does FDM or a razor and blade business model have to do with large format 3D printing? Let me tie it all together. First off, as I explained in my last post, industrial 3D printer companies made the decision to focus on precision and cost during the last 20 years of development. Part of that cost strategy was to get the price of buying a 3D printer as low as possible, so they sold the units at lower margins and then made up for it with high margin materials. 3D printing was new, only a few players were doing it, so it was easy to control the supply of build material to customers. Besides, how would a customer know he is paying a 10x markup on plastic? High material prices were simply accepted, and they were factored into pricing across the industry, to include 3D printing service companies, through which most small firms who can’t afford their own printers get their 3D printed parts made. And what did this mean for ordering or making large 3D printed parts? They were expensive. Really expensive. And so designers making large prototypes continued to use methods other than 3D printing.
Yet today, with the Maker Movement gaining steam and low cost 3D printers popping up everywhere, the game is nearly up. While Stratasys and 3D Systems will no doubt continue to charge huge markups to their installed industrial customers, companies like Makerbot will eat away at many of their low end customers. Not only is a Makerbot Replicator 2 one-fourth the price of the cheapest Stratasys machine, its materials are one-fifth the cost ($48 vs $250 per kilo) – and that’s if you buy directly from Makerbot. A quick search on Alibaba gives prices closer to $25 per kilo.
All of this is to say that while the true cost of an industrial 3D printer might actually be higher than the sticker price, the true cost of printing something (i.e. the material cost) is much, much lower. And this means that large format 3D printing isn’t nearly as crazy of an idea as those experienced with 3D printing might think it is.
Large format 3D printing – what is holding us back?
Want to 3D print large objects? I mean, really large objects? To most people who are experienced with traditional rapid prototyping, this still means something only the size of a basketball, because the mere thought of 3D printing something larger than that makes them shudder. Why is this?
There are several reasons, but namely this is because the pain points of current 3D printers amplify greatly for objects bigger than something you can hold in one hand. Rapid becomes slow, cost-saving becomes expensive, and ultimately a convenient tool becomes a capital-intensive mammoth. Yet each of these pain points are self-induced by the same businesses that currently lead the 3D printing industry. Limitations on large format 3D printing are more the results of business decisions than physical limitations of the technology, and therefore most if not all can be overcome with a new approach to 3D printing.
Below I will discuss the first of the three major obstacles to large format 3D printing as I see them: build speed.
3D printer speed (or lack thereof) – a logical choice, missed opportunity
In the 1990s, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin coined the phrase “Faster, Better, Cheaper” for the space agency’s approach to building and launching missions to Mars and other faraway places. Unfortunately for him (and played out over a series of failed missions, including a rover that crashed directly into Mars due to botched unit conversion), any engineer worth the paper their diploma is written on knows this is not actually possible. You can get two of the three attributes – faster and better for instance – but it always comes at the expense of the third (i.e. much more expensive instead of cheaper).
The same basic quandary faced 3D printing companies in the 1990s. Apparently they decided that an industry known primarily as rapid prototyping didn’t need to worry about being too slow for anyone, so “better” and “cheaper” were the areas to concentrate their R&D. The problem is, once that became the thrust of their products, that’s also what their customers expected more of. So machine costs came down and precision went up, but speed more or less stayed the same. And the thing is, this is exactly what their installed customer base wanted because they were designing tiny things for which build speed didn’t matter. Waiting overnight for a four-inch tall prototype seemed completely reasonable to medical device companies and small-scale product designers. In fact, these people loved rapid prototyping, and they still do.
So throughout the 1990s and 2000s, as surely as one class of designer reaped the extraordinary benefits of 3D printing, everyone else was left out, specifically those who wanted to 3D print something larger than a basketball.
In my next post I will discuss how I see artificially high material costs and disruption on the low cost end of 3D printing also keeping large format 3D printing from taking hold.