Two decades ago, affordable laser and ink-jet printers fuelled the desktop publishing revolution. More recently, three-dimensional "printing" has spawned another revolution that promises to create new opportunities for small businesses.
"There are just so many applications for it. We are literally just scratching the surface," said Nino Caldarola, an application specialist with the Winnipeg office of Imaginit Technologies.
Mr. Caldarola, 45, recently pushed the boundaries of 3-D printing when, in his spare time, he led a team that created the 200 exterior parts for a full-size model of a turboprop aircraft engine. That followed his creation a year earlier of a full-scale model motorcycle, also from printed parts.
How does it work? These "printers" create three-dimensional objects by adding layer upon layer of material until a certain size and shape are achieved, guided by a computer program. The process is especially helpful in creating prototypes for new products, which often have to be fashioned by hand.
While Imaginit, as a subsidiary of the multinational Rand Corp., is hardly a small business, the technologies that Mr. Caldarola is exploiting could help entrepreneurs establish job shops that would create prototypes for inventors and designers.
That sounds a lot like what 3D Prototype Design Inc. of Toronto is already doing, says Annette Kalbhenn, sales manager of the five-employee company.
"We're a rapid prototyping service bureau," Ms. Kalbhenn said, explaining that the expressions "3-D printing" and "rapid prototyping" have in recent years become interchangeable.
In essence, these prototypes are built one layer at a time without the need for tools or moulds, Ms. Kalbhenn said. Her 14-year-old company has printed such items as medical models of bones, architectural models, air vents for cars, and even a two-metre replica of a Hummer chassis.
"A lot of times we don't even know what we are building and that's okay with us. We don't need to know," Ms. Kalbhenn said.
Toy makers, including builders of World of Warcraft figurines, are also using 3-D printing. So is TV personality Jay Leno, who makes hard-to-find parts for his classic cars. Museums, jewellers and the makers of medical prostheses are among the many other users of 3-D printing.
While the technology is best-suited for making one-of-a-kind prototypes, it can also be used for short-run manufacturing. It's a boon for inventors hesitant to spend upwards of $100,000 on an injection mould before knowing how well their products will be received. Ms. Kalbhenn's company has done runs of 20 of an item for as little as $265 for the batch, or a single, complex piece for as much as $10,000.
A CAD (computer aided design) program can design an object from scratch, or it can be used to manipulate data from a laser scan before sending instructions to the printer.
The printers themselves use various technologies. One, called SLS, deposits layers of nylon powder, the thickness of two hairs, and then fuses them together with heat from a laser to build the object. Once the process is completed, the solid item is removed from the powder and any residual is blown off with a blast of air.
The parts for Mr. Caldarola's faux aircraft engine were created by Stratasys Technologies of Eden Prairie, Minn. using refrigerator-sized models of its Dimension series of printers. Those machines fuse together strands of material resembling the plastic line of a weed whacker.
"That gets fed into an element that heats it and melts it," Mr. Caldarola said. "And then as the machine moves, it deposits that plastic the entire pathway and it builds it up layer by layer."
More sophisticated 3-D printers can lay down multiple materials and colours. By using a material that later dissolves, they can even create items with moving parts.
While high-end 3-D printers cost $300,000, the prices of entry-level models are rapidly falling. For example, 3D Printers Canada, a division of Proto3000 Inc. of Vaughan, Ont., sells five models of Objet Geometries Ltd. printers. The prices start at $24,900 for the Alaris30, which is about the size of a standard office photocopier, said John Frangella, business manager of Proto3000 Inc. The Alaris30, which can fit on a desk or a dedicated stand, lays down a single white plastic photopolymer. That makes it ideal for creating simple items such as custom hearing aids.
At the other end of the spectrum, 3D Printers Canada sells Objet's Connex500 for $230,000. It can mix and match up to eight materials and print multiple designs "all in one shot."
Mr. Frangella wasn't at liberty to say how well these machines are selling. However he did point out that Alaris30s have only been available for eight months and "they are penetrating the market because they are more affordable."
The Alaris30 isn't even the cheapest 3-D printer. Cimetrix Solutions Inc. of Oshawa is advertising on its website Dimension's new uPrint personal 3-D printer for $14,900 (U.S.).
Since its introduction two years ago, 1,200 uPrint machines have been sold worldwide, about 100 in Canada, said Cimextrix president James Janeteas. The eight-employee company, founded in 1993, has about 600 clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to mom and pop operations.
"They are affordable, so more organizations are adopting it," Mr. Janeteas said. "These organizations typically would have gone out to service bureaus to produce their models for them."
A sign of how inexpensive 3-D printing might become can be found at MakerBot Industries, which sells a Thing-O-Matic kit for $1,225. Such machines don't make the accurate prototypes demanded of business. Still, Mr. Janeteas expects to see high-resolution 3-D printers selling for as little as $5,000 within three or four years.
"I wouldn't be surprised that one day you'll probably see these retailing for $500 and everyone has them in their house."
An earlier online version of this story had an incorrect reference to 3D Printers Canada.