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By Greg Mills
As I have previously speculated in this column, I consider the desktop 3D plastic part printing revolution fertile ground for being one of Apple's next big things. I think Apple is uniquely situated to do for 3D printing what they did for desktop printing on paper 20 years ago.
3D printing is using a computer to create physical objects from software files utilizing a special 3D "printer." Star Trek's "replicators" were sophisticated voice-controlled, computer operated 3D printing devices, able to reproduce just about anything. Replicator devices were as common aboard the starship Enterprise as microwave ovens are to us. Imagine the forerunner of such a futuristic device sitting on your desk and hooked up to your Mac or iPad.
References to cool new things in the R&D labs at Apple seldom give us enough information to do anything more than make our imaginations soar. In the absence of actual tips on what is going on behind the doors at Apple, one can only speculate based upon historical information and synergy with what is known. This is speculation, based upon Apple doing what is cool, developing markets where they have synergy and making money with a combination of hardware, operating software, consumables and an on-line store for selling and buying part files.
As an inventor, I have built numerous prototypes of my proposed products. I have had a number of original plastic parts made over the years. These parts were created with what is called "rapid prototyping" technology.
This is a prototyping process that is very common in engineering and R&D labs where a 3D rendering is created on a computer and the output file is called "STL format." Software such as "SolidWorks" creates object files that are used with stereolithography or 3D printers.
Stereolithography is one system of the two types of systems for creating 3D parts. 3D printing is another. In a nutshell, in stereolithography there is a tank, sort of like an aquarium, full of transparent liquid resin. Two laser beams from two directions converge at a point inside the tank. The two laser beams, at the point where they converge, create heat. Heat makes the liquid resin harden. If a computer continuously aims the beams and moves them around very precisely a physical plastic object can be thus constructed, one layer at a time.
3D printing amounts to something similar to an inkjet printer, but the ink is a plastic filament fed off a spool, and the print head heats the plastic to melt it to adhere what is already laid down in previous layers. Colored plastic can be used to create colored parts. Perhaps a multicolor head could allow an advanced 3D printer to create colorful parts without stopping to change the color the printer is putting out.
Typical of technology Apple feels is right for commercial development, 3D printers have begun to move from being an engineering device that costs $50,000 and up, to hobby devices that are selling on eBay for $500.
The problems in the developing 3D printer market are that:
1. 3D part creation software isn't even close to Apple simple. I have checked out software that can be used to design and print plastic 3D parts and it is both relatively expensive with a considerable learning curve. While the Mac can run the 3D software, it really takes either a class or a lot of learning to get part design down pat. Apple is the master of making hard software easy and intuitive. Apple software that will make 3D part designing easy and drive 3D printers would be a very Apple-like thing to do.
2.The current crop of 3D printing devices aren't designed to the point you just take them out of the carton, plug them into an electrical outlet, hook up a USB or Thunderbolt cord to your computer and load software to get it working. This is something Apple could do well. Apple 3D printers might come in two or three sizes and use proprietary cartridges of the plastic material.
3 The supply chain for 3D printers and the consumable plastic material isn't well developed yet. Apple would sell the printer, the software that drives the printer and the spools of plastic on-line and at Apple stores around the world.
4. While one could create their own original parts using the software, stock files for common parts could be bought and sold on-line. Ready-to-use 3D files for parts really need an on-line "store" to create a vast library of files that would drive sales of both the printers and the consumable plastic fiber. You want to print a chess set? Go on line and choose the style of the chess set you like, select the size pieces you want, download the file and fire up your 3D printer. 3D part files could be free or sold as downloads with Apple and the software author sharing the money, just like books or apps.
5. Cool multicolor printers need to be developed for the market to really take off. A low enough price point for 3D printers would drive hobby use of the devices as well as commercial engineering use.
Once you have printed your original part, silicone molds and two part plastic kits would allow you to pour your own molds and then pour your own plastic parts cheaply.
That is Greg's Bite.