Cory Doctorow's craphound.com

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  1. Cool idea, and thanks for bringing Shapeways to my attention. It looks like using i.Materialize as the sort of marketplace that you describe (as opposed to as a manufacturer) is a bit more round-about than for Shapeways (the relevant i.Materialize blog post is here:
    http://i.materialise.com/blog/entry/i-materialise-etsy-facebook-shops-copy-paste-our-strategy-here)

    Comment by Mark V — July 2, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

  2. Your first lines reminded me of Damon Knight's, "A for Anything."

    Here's something we published about a local "factory in a box":

    St. Paul Pioneer Press
    Sunday, June 12, 2011

    By Leslie Brooks Suzukamo

    Factory in a box

    For years, rapid prototyping occupied a niche, usually tucked in the basement of corporate laboratories or small outfits like VistaTek. Today, 3D printing is used to make everything from factory parts to fantasy figurines to King Tut --- or at least his replica.

    By Leslie Brooks Suzukamo

    Dan Mishek and his siblings operate VistaTek, a small manufacturing concern in Vadnais Heights started by his parents 15 years ago.
    To hear him tell it, they're running Santa's workshop. Or a small arms factory. Or a medical device maker with a whiff of Old MacDonald's farm mixed in.
    "My favorite story is that at one point, we were making children's toys, an assault rifle, a hearing aid and a horse manure pitchfork, all at the same time," Mishek said.
    VistaTek doesn't suffer from mission confusion. It makes prototypes for a wide variety of manufacturers, cranking out plastic and composite parts and assemblies using computer-aided designs.
    Something that might take weeks with traditional molds and methods can be done overnight by pushing a button.
    In the world of manufacturing, it's called rapid prototyping. Most people call it 3D printing, because it transforms two-dimensional drawings into three-dimensional objects.
    Lately, some people in the business have been calling it "the factory of the future," said Jon Cobb, vice president of global marketing for Stratasys Inc., an Eden Prairie company that makes 3D printers for companies like VistaTek.
    "You don't have to have a lot of tooling or a lot of inventory on hand," he said. "You design the product, input it and it prints out quickly."
    It's a factory in a box.
    Stratasys even created a side business it calls "Redeye" to handle quick turnaround jobs using its own machines.
    Most of Redeye's work is making either prototypes or things that Cobb calls "jigs and fixtures" - plastic tools or brackets that are used in manufacturing.
    You don't need hundreds of thousands of them. Maybe a couple hundred or even a couple dozen will do. But they have to be precisely made.
    For instance, autoworkers at BMW used an aluminum tool to adjust the headlight lenses on its 5 Series cars, but handled carelessly, the tool could scratch the car.
    BMW turned to Stratasys' Redeye to make a better replacement. It was lighter, ergonomically designed and made of plastic so it was less likely to scratch the cars, Cobb said.
    For manufacturers in industries where designs turn over regularly, like automakers, it's easier and faster to order jigs and fixtures from a 3D printing concern than doing it the old way with molds and metal or plastic, he said.
    "I like the technology," said Mishek, who uses machines made by Stratasys as well as other brands. "It allows my customers to get some early testing in, so that when they do go to volume manufacturing, it's close to perfect."
    "Everything we get," he added, "is rushed. We're the last thing before they go to manufacturing."
    For many years, rapid prototyping occupied a niche, usually tucked away in the basement of corporate laboratories or small outfits like VistaTek.
    But in the past few years, as technology has improved and costs have come down, 3D printing is being used more often to make parts for sale.
    The parts usually don't require high-volume manufacturing. The F-16 fighter jet, for instance, has about 30 parts that are made via 3D printing, experts said.
    The uses aren't limited to the military or the industrial. Some entrepreneurs have created companies to use 3D printers to make almost anything: fantasy figurines for computer games like World of Warcraft, one-of-a-kind jewelry, table settings, light fixtures, custom-fitted artificial hips and dental implants such as crowns and caps.
    Even King Tut.
    The Boy King's mummy on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota through Sept. 5 is a one-of-its-kind reproduction made with the magic of 3D printing.
    The original mummy was put into a CT scanner, and his digital doppelganger was sent to a 3D printer that slowly spun a new Tut down to the tiniest detail.
    The 3D process has led to a new term the industry wants people to use: additive manufacturing.
    It comes from the "printing" process. When Michelangelo sculpted his masterpiece "David" from a block of Italian marble, he said he first envisioned what he needed to remove .
    Additive manufacturing goes the other way. Think of a spider spinning a cocoon.
    Inside a printing machine that resembles a mainframe computer, two or more nozzles rotate around a frame and spray a microscopic layer of plastic or another material on to a frame.
    Each layer can be as thin as one-one-thousandth of an inch, or about one fifth the thickness of human hair. Layer upon layer is added. It takes hours or even days to complete a job.
    But the layering process allows designers to make intricate objects that would be difficult or impossible with traditional tool and die methods, adherents say.
    Things that would need to be fitted together in pieces can be made in one seamless structure, such as ductwork for a jet aircraft.
    The precision helps with fit and finish.
    In the basement of one of 3M's lab buildings at its Maplewood headquarters, the conglomerate has its own rapid prototyping lab.
    The lab gets orders from all 3M divisions, from making everything from the new bodies for a handheld electronic device to prototypes for new Scotch Tape dispensers, said John Esch, technical manager for the 3M Rapid Prototyping Center.
    The designers want something to pick up and hold to test how well it will actually work, he said.
    "One product that has really opened up the whole industry's eyes is custom manufacturing, where each product is unique," he said.
    Hearing aids made through 3D printing would be one example, he said. Those invisible braces that come in sets, with each one slightly different to move the teeth a little more, are another example. 3M's dental materials used in fillings and crowns are already being used that way, he added.
    "That's where the big growth in additive technology is going to be - highly customizable technology," Esch said.
    The industry is already growing. For 20 years, it has enjoyed a 26 percent annual growth rate, said Terry Wohlers, principal analyst at Wohlers Associates of Fort Collins, CO, a consultancy that closely follows the industry.
    After declining 10 percent in 2009 to $1.01 billion worldwide due to the recession, it bounced back to reach $1.33 billion last year, Wohlers said.
    He's predicting it will exceed $5 billion globally in goods produced and services worldwide by 2020.
    To be sure, that's a drop in the bucket of total manufacturing. U.S. manufacturing alone generated $1.6 trillion of value, or 11 percent of the country's gross domestic product last year, according to Karen Kurek, head of RSM McGladrey's national manufacturing practice in Chicago.
    Additive manufacturing doesn't appear likely to produce a lot of factory jobs to replace the 5.3 million lost in the United States over the past decade.
    In most cases, once the engineer downloads the CAD data into the machine, he pushes a button and turns out the lights for the night. The machine does the rest.
    "I know of companies making thousands of parts a year with one person and one machine," Wohlers said.
    "But," he added, "before, they never made that many things."
    He and others note the machines are allowing people to make things that couldn't be made previously and that more people are finding interesting uses and creating businesses that didn't exist five years ago.
    "I think the jobs have shifted to manufacturing the machines and servicing the machines," he said. "The jobs are moving up the food chain away from the shop floor."
    Others, like Robert M. Johnson, see another possible future: combining nanotechnology with medical devices.
    Johnson, a professor who teaches automation systems at the University of St. Thomas, regularly takes his students on field trips to VistaTek.
    His students are engineers at some of the big medical device makers in town like Medtronic, St. Jude Medical and Boston Scientific. Some of those companies already use VistaTek to make prototypes in their parts development programs, Johnson said.
    The ability of additive manufacturing to create small objects with layers only a few microns thick makes it possible to make implantable devices that never need to be touched by human hands during manufacturing, he said.
    "I think this will be part of the nano-future as much as rapid prototyping," he said.
    That's the kind of thinking that convinced the Society of Manufacturing Engineers to bring its annual rapid prototyping convention, called RAPID, to Minneapolis for the first time last month.
    The industry wanted to make sure it got the attention of the Twin Cities' well-established medical technology community, said Gary Mikola, director of RAPID.
    It may have succeeded. Attendance in Minneapolis broke last year's record in Anaheim by 28 percent, attracting 1,681 people to the Hyatt Hotel, according to Mikola.
    The other development that is catching a lot of attention is the emergence of home 3D printers.
    These printers, which can sell for as little as $750, don't do the kind of finely detailed work a $450,000 Stratasys printer can, but hobbyists find them amusing. Some of them are showing up in grade schools as teaching tools.
    People in the industry like Mishek are skeptical these machines will ever catch on widely. To use them, you need CAD skills, he noted.
    But others aren't so sure. They remember how a few decades ago, the computer printer was so expensive only businesses had them. Consumers would have to make a trip to a Kinko's to get a paper printed.
    But it's the far-off promise of 3D printing that gets the geek set excited.
    They see the Star Trek "replicator" that would make anything instantly at a voice command - a bowl of chicken soup, a phaser - or, in the words of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, a cup of "tea, Earl Grey, hot."
    Yeah. People in the industry laugh, too.
    "That's what we get compared to," said Joe Hiemenz, spokesman for Stratasys. "But we're a lot slower."

    Reporter Julie Forster contributed to this story.
    Leslie Brooks Suzukamo can be reached at 651-228-5475.

    Comment by Hal Davis — September 1, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

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