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Beyond the hype:
What companies are really doing with 3D printing

By Kevin Lach, Vice President, Z Corporation

3D printing is attracting a lot of buzz these days, much of it based on what just might be possible in the future. Send a 3D printer to the moon, some imagine, and print out a city. Is your coffee maker dying? Just print a new one.

Local Motors (Phoenix, AZ), a super-creative company bringing mass-customization to the auto industry, is using Z Corporation technology to streamline development of its open-source custom cars. For its popular Rally Fighter, the company needed a driveshaft yoke to accommodate its off-road-ready suspension. The Local Motors team purchased the closest off-the-shelf part they could find and reverse-engineered it. Using the ZScanner 800, they captured the surface data from the off-the-shelf yoke, converted it to a SolidWorks CAD virtual model, changed several dimensions, and added connection brackets. They then used their ZPrinter to print a concept model to ensure proper fit. The physical model included fine detail such as thin splines that connected to the driveshaft. Estimated cost savings from not using a machine shop and several design iterations is three to four weeks of lead time and $2,700.

Because these futuristic visions are so fun to ponder, many don’t realize that 3D printing is real today, delivering quantifiable business benefits to a rapidly increasing number of the most aggressive and innovative engineering organizations. Companies are using 3D printing on a daily basis to boost innovation at every stage of the design and engineering process, creating more killer prototypes from concept through manufacturing. While novel applications abound, 3D printing is no longer a novelty.

Three-dimensional printers, which create real physical objects from 3D data, are paralleling the evolution of document printers. They’re getting faster. The price is falling. Multicolor printing is here. Output quality is soaring. Devices are becoming easier to use and more office friendly.

This third generation of 3D printing technology is transforming early adopters into high performers. It’s helping designers and engineers get around the business constraints that have traditionally held them back. These include limited time and budgets, the complex dynamics of working with colleagues and external partners, and the technical limitations of design tools.

With a brilliant idea today, designers can just CAD up a concept, push a button, print a model, walk it around the company, and inspire executives to produce it. Designers and engineers have never been in a better position to shine. With low-cost, high-volume, fully automated prototyping technology, they can innovate through every phase of design from concept through detail design, analysis, and manufacturing – and even influence sales and marketing. They are creating more and being more creative.

While solidifying its presence in manufacturing, 3D printing is making deep inroads into the most advanced architecture firms. It is also making an impact in fields like entertainment, education, anthropology, geographic information systems, medicine, and more.

Humanetics Innovative Solutions of Huron, Ohio, designs, develops, and manufactures anthropomorphic test devices (a.k.a. crash test dummies). The company uses 3D printing technology from Z Corporation to make products like multi-part head models for U.S. military impact testing.

Real-world applications

The Cisco Consumer Business Group (CBG) in Denmark uses 3D printing to produce some of the world’s most elegant consumer electronic equipment. CBG’s ability to produce prototype after prototype helps the company combine the time-honored tradition of Scandinavian design – functional, minimal, and affordable – with the hyper-paced world of consumer electronics.

The Timberland Company uses 3D printing to more quickly and affordably produce prototypes for new arch supports, tread patterns, heel stabilizers, and materials. By switching from hand-crafting prototypes to 3D printing, the company has experienced a more than 30-fold reduction in prototype cost, a reduction in prototype creation time from one week to 90 minutes, and a 33% reduction in design time.

Stanley Black & Decker uses 3D printing to help make its tools leap from the store shelf, feel good in the consumer’s hand, and ultimately trigger a purchase. The company is creating higher-quality prototypes overnight instead of the week or more CNC and hand-painting required.

The Denby Pottery Company, a 200-year-old U.K. manufacturer of fine tableware, has reduced prototyping time from four weeks to two hours and is launching product lines in half the time it used to.

Clarks, a world leader in footwear for men, women, and children, uses 3D printing to dramatically reduce time and cost. It now creates detailed, colorful physical shoe models in hours instead of the two weeks it used to take for manufactured samples to return.

And so on.

Why 3D printing makes sense

Recent advances in 3D printing’s speed, affordability, color capability, and office friendliness are tipping points for product companies that have traditionally outsourced their prototyping. Developing prototypes in house is now an attractive investment with a tangible, positive return.

Inkjet-based 3D printers, for example, can now print a typical part in less than two hours. Material costs are as low as $2 per cubic inch. Organizations can not only bring prototyping in house, they can have more models earlier in the design process.

3D printed parts are increasingly versatile. You can build them to be strong and economical, and many can be drilled, tapped, sanded, and painted or electroplated to replicate the look and feel of the final product.

Other 3D printers, which use light to solidify a liquid photopolymer, build durable plastic parts that rival injection molding’s accuracy, material properties, detail, and surface finish. They enable engineers to verify designs for form, fit, and function prior to full-scale production, eliminating costly modifications to production tooling and shortening time to market.

3D printers used to be complicated and make a mess. Not anymore. You can find machines that automate most of their operations – including recycling the composite powder left over from a build – making them fit right into the professional office. If not for the 3D output, you might think they’re document printers.

One of the biggest advances in 3D printing is the ability of some devices to print a single object in any combination or pattern of hundreds of thousands of colors. This is as momentous as the emergence of multicolor document printing. It permits not only multicolored objects, but the application of complex texture designs – even photographs – on parts. This flexibility enhances communication, improves designs, and provides a better understanding of what a final product will look like before expensive production steps begin.

The Central Identification Laboratory of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) is printing 3D models of skulls from the CT scans of living people to refine forensics techniques for identifying remains from the Korean War and other conflicts. The POW/MIA identification procedure involves superimposing images of unidentified skulls onto photographs of known soldiers to gauge potential matches. It is especially helpful in cases where DNA is not available. The bottom image shows a real skull (left) and one printed on a ZPrinter from Z Corporation.

Concept models

Since many products, especially consumer products, have sophisticated color patterns, labels, and eye-catching packaging, it’s vital to help others envision these elements early in the design cycle. Historically, companies have resorted to the time-consuming and tedious process of painting their models. To evaluate packaging and labels, companies have typically relied on computer renderings alone. True multicolor 3D printers can now handle all of this.

(Beware, some devices billed as color 3D printers are essentially monochrome printers that enable printing in any of seven colored materials – one at a time. The colored materials are impossible to blend during printing. To get a multicolor assembly, users of these devices need to print parts separately, gather the colored parts, and assemble them. The finished assembly will have no more than seven colors. Textures, photographs, and labels are out of the question. Not surprisingly, this is an extremely laborious prospect with sometimes disappointing results.)

Thermal analysis, stress/strain analysis, and more can now be applied to a 3D model in multiple colors like in this truck cab B pillar with FEA results from Hydroforming Design Light AB. A bright red splotch on the part design indicates high stress or potential weakness. A blue patch indicates low stress or part strength.


Multicolor 3D printers enable a wide range of new applications not possible without the color capability.

For one, these printers enable you to print text and engineering labels on parts. The reason is that a monochrome 3D printer only enables you to print in the color of the build material, usually white, whereas a monochrome document printer actually gives you both black and white (the white being the paper). Obtaining the same contrast and revealing printed text on a prototype requires a multicolor 3D printer.

Labels matter. No one would consider producing a CAD drawing without some form of engineering label to provide information about the drawing. The same goes for a 3D part. Without any label on the part, a lot of information is lost. With an engineering label, one can quickly see what the part name is, what scale it has, when it was printed, who designed it, etc.

Multicolor 3D printing capability also makes it quick and simple to mark up parts. Arrows and other highlighting techniques can spotlight what has changed in the latest iteration of the part. Different colors or patterns can convey instructions when a complete design is ready to be transferred to manufacturing (or a supplier). By using multiple colors, it is easy to highlight part surfaces that need to be machined (e.g., holes that need to be drilled), or the assembly order (e.g., blue first, red second, and yellow last). Designers can get creative and start adding visual effects like shadows onto a part to enhance communication. The possibilities are limited only by the designer’s imagination.

Data analysis is another area where multiple colors can offer tremendous value. Sometimes it’s impossible to properly visualize the output of a finite element analysis (FEA) if you’re only looking at the colorful data on the flat computer screen. It can be difficult to share analysis information in a meeting if there are no parts to pass around. Thermal analysis, stress/strain analysis, geological analysis, and more can now be applied to a physical 3D model in multiple colors, vividly representing data for better understanding.

Improved printing resolution means better application of colors than ever. A company selling soft drinks can now design and print various versions of can labels directly onto a can model with enough detail to read the ingredient list and scan the bar code.

A 3D printer capable of printing high-resolution parts in multiple colors can now be had for as low as $24,900.

3D scan+3D CAD+3D print = powerful product development

A few visionary companies are beginning to combine 3D CAD and 3D printing with high-resolution 3D data capture. One global Tier 1 automotive supplier uses a 3D mobile scanner to capture the precise contours of a standard auto interior with components removed, thus creating a digital foundation on which to design a new, more technically advanced cockpit. Engineers import the data into their 3D CAD tools and create sleek new designs, then 3D print the parts and install them in a real automobile to create a powerful, persuasive prototype.


3D printers are proliferating in schools, helping design and engineering students – the innovators of tomorrow – gain experience with advanced technologies they’ll use in their careers. 3D printing at the Royal College of Art, for example, has “enabled students to quickly obtain 3D physical models at a fraction of the previous price so they could receive more feedback earlier in the design process,” says Martin Watmough, manager of the institution’s Rapidform digital manufacturing facility. “As a result, there was suddenly every opportunity for multiple iterations. Communication improved dramatically, resulting in significantly improved designs. The transformation was remarkable.”

3D printers help ensure that large classes can successfully handle all the prototypes to cap off final projects. Other disciplines, like art and medicine, are also finding value in 3D printing sculpture and biology models from CT scans. This multidisciplinary use magnifies the benefits to a campus while reducing per capita cost.

Beyond manufacturing

These applications just scratch the surface of what a 3D printer can actually do today. There’s a big world of 3D printing beyond the engineering workstation and the manufacturing company.

Architecture firms like Foster + Partners create beautiful, accurate building models in a fraction of the time of handcrafting them. The firm behind such masterpieces as Wembley Stadium and the Millennium Bridge can now create architectural models that would otherwise be too geometrically complex to handcraft. And they can do this overnight, expediting reviews and accelerating innovation.

Entertainers like Pixar use 3D printing to develop characters for its beloved animated films. In fact, Pixar also featured ZPrints on its dazzling zoetrope [note: this link has a very cool video] at the studio’s celebrated Museum of Modern Art exhibit.

Shapeways is pioneering mass-customization through its community for buying, personalizing, making, and selling new designs. For those who prefer personalized products that are not a dull monochrome, the only cost-effective option is a multicolor 3D printer. generates 3D maps on demand, transforming satellite imagery into physical 3D landscapes, relying on the speed, affordable materials, and multicolor capability of its 3D printing technology.

Hospitals like The Walter Reed Army Medical Center are using 3D printing to save lives. Doctors are improving the success of delicate surgeries by using 3D printed models as a roadmap for treatment. Surgeons spend less time investigating the anatomical structures of the patient after the incision is made, reducing blood loss and the likelihood of infection. Some surgeons say they feel like they’ve “been there before.”

Gamers who play World of Warcraft are bringing their imagination into the real world through 3D printouts of their personalized avatars.

Scholars like those at Cornell University are preserving ancient artifacts. Researchers study Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform tablets as 3D printed models, learning more than they would from photographs, preserving the originals from damage, and enabling more students to examine them.

Anthropologists like those at the University of Western Ontario are identifying the human remains of missing soldiers, providing comfort for families. Researchers recently used 3D printed models of a soldier’s skull as a basis for photo matching, a key step in confirming the identity of a missing First World War soldier.

As you can see, 3D printing has become a signature capability for the world’s highest-performing engineering organizations. It’s putting their designers and engineers in a better position to align their goals – great design – with those of their organizations. They can now explore more ideas while saving money. They can present iterations in a way that encourages group development. They can inspire prospective customers. They can get the green light to make their designs real. They can create more, and see their creations succeed in the marketplace.

Meanwhile, architects are seizing these same benefits, and 3D printing is finding an increasingly important role in a rapidly expanding range of exciting new markets.

Although printing a city is still a fantasy, and that coffee maker is still slightly out of reach, the next time you hear about the wonders of 3D printing in the future, know that in many industries, the future is now.

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Z Corporation

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