3D Printing and Desktop Turf Wars

7 Mar, 2007 By: Jeffrey Rowe

More than one manufacturer plans to take up residence on the product designer's desktop.

Earlier this year, 3D Systems Corporation, a manufacturer of rapid 3D printing, prototyping and manufacturing machines, announced its plans to introduce the V-Flash desktop modeler this summer.

The V-Flash desktop modeler is the first product 3D Systems plans to bring to market that's based on a new technology platform. The company claims its proprietary FTI (film transfer imaging) technology is what makes this desktop modeler possible, although details on it are lacking beyond broad specifications.

The 25" X 26" X 27" V-Flash desktop modeler weighs about 100lb and has a maximum build volume of 7" X 9" X 8" (WxDxH). The V-Flash desktop modeler will cost about $9,900, making it affordable to a wide range of potential customers.

3D Systems exhibited the V-Flash at the SolidWorks World 2007 user conference in February, and the parts it produced were quite impressive with regard to resolution and surface finish, although not as high quality as those produced by SLS (selective laser sintering) or SLA (stereolithography) processes.

Introducing the V-Flash could be a good move for 3D Systems as it adds this newest machine to round out its product portfolio. With the announcement of the V-Flash modeler, the desktop is fast becoming highly coveted real estate for so-called 3D printers. So, although 3D Systems calls the V-Flash a desktop modeler, I’d classify it as a 3D printer based on its relative low cost, part creation speed and ease of use, although this might be stretching the definition a bit.

3D Modeler or Printer?

By definition, 3D printing is a subset of the rapid prototyping technology that most people associate with an inkjet printing system. In this type of system, layers of a fine powder (plaster and resins) are selectively bonded by "printing" a water-based adhesive from an inkjet printhead in the shape of each cross-section as directed by a CAD STL file. This technology is generally recognized as the fastest method for producing rapid prototypes, and the company most associated with this technology is Z Corporation.

3D printers can also feed liquids, such as photopolymer, through an inkjet-type printhead to form each layer of a model. These photopolymer machines have a high-intensity UV lamp mounted in the printhead to cure each layer as it is deposited. This type of technology is available in the 3D Systems MJM (multijet modeling) and Objet Polyjet printers.

3D Systems closely guards its new product information, so we'll have to speculate on some of the technology issues surrounding the V-Flash, as well as its build speed, mechanical properties of the build material and finished parts, and the cost of the consumables. As I mentioned, the V-Flash is based on what the company terms film transfer imaging technology. I'm guessing this means that the V-Flash, as a desktop unit, deals not with liquid plastic resins but rather a film deposition method accomplished via some type of dispensed tape, building a model a layer at a time using mechanical techniques to elevate the model as layers are added. The tape is contained in a module or cassette that 3D Systems calls the V-Flash cartridge, which is plugged into the machine. The company says there is very little material wasted as parts are produced. This cartridge approach, which is a lot like inkjet systems, also makes the system easier to use.

Getting There First

When the V-Flash is introduced this summer, it will have some immediate competition from the Desktop Factory 3D printer, expected to come to market at approximately the same time. The Desktop Factory 3D printer measures about 25" X 20" X 20" and weighs less than 90lb. The maximum build volume of the initial product will be 5" X 5" X 5". The company says it will retail for $5,000 to $7,000.

The Desktop Factory system uses a halogen light source and drum printing technology to build parts layer by layer from composite plastic powder. The thickness of each layer is 0.010". The company also says that the cost of the build material should be approximately 50 cents per cubic inch.

This is all well and good, but I have yet to see any parts actually being produced with the Desktop Factory system. I visited with the company at Autodesk University 2006 last November and at SolidWorks World 2007, and at neither event were parts being produced. The company insists that it will have systems ready and shipping sometime this summer.

3D Printing for the Masses

Both of these machines potentially could greatly increase demand for rapid prototyping systems, but there is certainly no guarantee for success. Each company could sell a lot of the machines, but I have to think that profit margins will be extremely thin, or even nonexistent, in the beginning. Also, having great technology is one thing, but a solid distribution channel is just as important, and with the likely razor-thin margins, both companies will be challenged to deliver their machines to the masses. I witnessed a similar situation this past year with 3D scanners that provided little or no profit margins for resellers -- and guess what? A lot of resellers abandoned that model in favor of other products that are profitable. Given this recent negative experience, resellers might not be clambering for an opportunity to sell these 3D printing desktop machines.

However, both machines have great potential and may succeed as they fight for space on the desktops of new types of customers who previously could not afford or didn't want to bother with this type of technology. If one or both of these machines proves popular in this new frontier -- the desktop -- expect to see a lot more competition from other vendors, as well as prices continuing to drop.