On-demand printing … of anything

There’s a technological revolution happening, an underground revolution that’s creeping into our everyday lives so quietly that you might not even notice. There’s a new technology that promises to be a game-changer on the scale of personal computers, cell phones and television, even as smart phones and tablets are becoming integrated into our business transactions.

These days, if, for instance, you look at the dizzying area of televisions (smart, 3D, LED, LCD, plasma, everything except a TV that makes coffee on demand) at the Sears in the Hudson Valley Mall, your salesperson will offer to send you a recap of the products you looked at. Using a computer tablet, he or she will plug in contact information, add a link to the TVs you are considering, and send it to your email inbox while you’re still in the store.

Stop at Oriole 9 in Woodstock or Yum Yum Noodle Bar in Kingston for lunch and your server will swipe your credit card through a small screen, and then ask you to sign the electronic receipt with your finger. You will be appalled to discover your flowing script turns into childish scribble when your finger does the writing, but it is apparently acceptable to the credit-card gods.

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The NBC News magazine “Rock Center” recently featured an analysis of the impact smart phones are going to have on health care. Customized health care, efficient testing, even “smart dust” that, implanted in your blood stream, would notify you via two weeks before a heart attack. I wonder what that notification would look like.

Incredible though all this technology is, it’s all communication-related and an expansion of existing technology.

From metal to chocolate

Now imagine a breakthrough in manufacturing, one that will make it possible to bring manufacturing into small storefronts and, someday, even to our homes. For now, it’s called 3D printing, a name that simply doesn’t properly describe what it does.

A printer implies images and text. This machine, now not only practical but affordable, duplicates objects. This process, also called additive manufacturing, creates objects from digital information.

Industries like footwear, jewelry, industrial design, engineer and even dental and medical technology are already using this process. The price for the machines has dropped so dramatically that investor newsletters like The Motley Fool are calling this technology the next big investing opportunity, claiming it will be the end of China’s dominance of manufacturing.

Simply put, it is a machine that can create an object from a digital blueprint. It’s not a hologram or a virtual image. It creates an object that you can pick up and use.

The process is called additive manufacturing. Instead of using traditional manufacturing methods that create a product, and then refine it through trimming, sanding and refining, it creates an object by building it layer by layer. A shoe, for example, begins as just the first layer of the heel and the sole. The actual shoe is built up layer by layer, with the digital blueprint telling the machine exactly how to do it.

Using 3D printers, the 2012 London 3D Printing Show demonstrated the versatility of this technology. Originally used mostly for creating prototype molds in plastic, printers can now create objects in everything from metal to chocolate.

It sounds like science fiction — think the replicator from “Star Trek: The Next Generation — but it’s already here. MakeEyewear, for example, offers custom eyeglasses created by a 3D printer based on your design.

Creative destruction

The Economist magazine has been extensively discussing the economic impacts of 3D printing, reported Harold King of the Hudson Valley Council of Industry in New Paltz. He said the applications are virtually limitless. Work being done in North Carolina will allow a doctor to create custom joint and bone replacements onsite in just hours, made of materials that the patient’s body won’t reject.

But the most sweeping change will probably be in the return of small businesses. “Probably the biggest impact is in costs.” Harold King predicted. “A sophisticated machine shop like Fala Technologies in Kingston has millions of dollars invested in the equipment necessary to make a part. With 3D printing, an investment of $25,000 to $30,000 allows you to make those same parts.”

King sees room for that new printer in existing machine shops, allowing the more efficient creation of prototypes, and also in new, small businesses operating with low startup budgets.

“On the low end,” he added, “there will someday be a guy in the mall who takes your picture, then makes you a bust of yourself on a machine that cost him just a couple of thousand dollars.”

Could this mean there will be no need for the Chinese manufacturing that supplanted American factories? “It’s creative destruction,” King replied. “Right now there are certain materials that still don’t lend themselves to 3D printing, but eventually that could change.“

And that could mean the end of the Made-in-China era and the beginning of Made-in-Your-Town.

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