3D printers are cool, new, and fun. And they certainly have a lot of potential. Building something unique out of nothing, layer by material layer in front of our eyes is no small feat, right?
But research by my colleague Stephanie Overby has found that the real workhorse driving increased customization of manufactured goods on the production line is the Computer Numerical Control (CNC) Machine.
When Humans Cost Less
Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, bankrolled by the U.S. Department of Defense, developed the first numerically controlled machine tool (the archetype for the modern CNC machine) more than 50 years ago. But the high cost of computing power at the time meant that the machine offered no cost advantage over human beings. But as processing power became cheaper, CNC machines gradually replaced human-operated alternatives like mills, routers and lathes.
CNC machines make it easier for companies to customize products; alterations are just a matter of reprogramming the software. While traditionally used to cut or remove material, computer numerical control is the real power behind a number of increasingly affordable production technologies fueling the make-for-me movement of manufacturing:
- Laser-Powered Machines. Laser cutting machines use computer-controlled lasers to cut through materials including wood, acrylic, plastic, marble, and fabric, leaving a high-quality finish. Once limited to large scale manufacturing operations, their use by individual makers and start-ups is increasing. Laser engraving machines use the same approach to engrave, etch or mark materials including wood, acrylic, plastic, glass, leather, fabric, coated metals, anodized aluminum, ceramics, Mylar, Corian, pressboard, and more.
- 3D Scanners. These use multiple lasers to capture objects in three dimensions in order to digitize models for production, often on a 3D printer. The popular NextEngine 3D scanner retails for $2,995. MakerBot’s portable Digitizer scanner hit the market in October at $1,400.
- Single-Ply Cutting Machines. Capable of cutting a wide array of materials, single-ply cutting machines are an efficient option for smaller job lots such as prototyping, made-to-order and supplemental production.
- 3D Printers. Sure, don’t get me wrong. 3D printers are important. But mostly for their future potential. Employed by manufacturers for years to cheaply produce prototypes, 3D printers can create a three-dimensional object from a digital model by building it up by layering material (known as laser sintering) – most often plastic, but also ceramic, stainless steel, bronze, sandstone and sterling silver. And experiments have also been done with organic materials; meat for example (spoiler alert: most study participants weren’t crazy about Burgertron v.1). In 2014, key patents on the most advanced laser-sintering 3D printers will expire, further fueling competitive pricing in the market. The cheapest 3D printers cost as little as $1,000.
But it’s not just big business that’s benefitting from the next generation production tools. TechShop, which offers paying members access to 15,000-square foot shops that have everything from 3D printers and CNC machines to a textiles lab and water jets, is one of the fastest growing private companies in the U.S. Startups like i.Materialise, Kraftwurx, Ponoko, Shapeways, and Sculpteo operate brisk 3D printing services and communities connecting makers, buyers and sellers of unique items, from gadgets and games to jewelry and housewares. Shapeways has gone from producing approximately 7,000 unique printed items a month three years ago about 70,000 a month today. Manufacturers no longer have a monopoly on the methods of production; these new tools of industry may soon be available to all.
Have you experimented with any of these technologies yet? Please tell me about it.