Lessons from Guttenberg's Legacy

What has the RP industry taken from this German inventor and the processes that followed?

"Perspectives" is a column co-authored by Terry Wohlers. The following was published 
in the September 2001 issue of Time-Compression Technologies magazine.

In the 15th century Guttenberg printed the Bible on the first moveable type press, and the world was forever changed. What can we learn from the legacy of an invention created nearly 550 years ago? What could the RP industry possibly take from this German inventor and the processes that followed throughout the centuries?

Guttenberg's press

There is a strong similarity between printing and RP, which can lead to valuable information and insight. In a sense, the history of printing may well be the future of RP.

When Chuck Hull invented stereolithography and founded 3D Systems (Valencia, CA), he and his associates realized the parallel between these processes. This belief is easily seen in the choice of the process name. Lithography is one method of printing words and images. There are many other analogies and similarities between 2-D and 3-D printing, including:

  • Photopolymers are used to create printing plates.

  • Service bureau is a term that describes companies that provide "prepress" operations.

  • Each layer in an RP model is a 2-D print.

  • Printing is a method for copying or reproducing an original.

These parallels are anecdotal, but the path that printing followed and that RP will take is far less subjective.

History Lesson
Although Guttenberg did not create printing, he is acknowledged as the inventor of the modern process. In the 11th century, printing was born in Asia. In later years, artisans carved wooden blocks to produce printed copies. But, it was Guttenberg who devised a process that facilitated printing of documents faster, in larger quantities and at less expense. At one page every three minutes, Guttenberg's press ushered in the delivery of the printed word to the masses. Just 50 years after Guttenberg's press, there were more than 1,000 printers in 200 locations. Today the number of printers is immeasurable - likely in the tens of millions - and the number of processes and process variations is staggering.

Today, printing technology offers a vast array of options. There are processes for everything from a single bar code label to millions of color catalogs. Each process has its own distinct advantages in its area of application. This specialization also applies to printing companies that have niche applications in which they build their success. With this specialization, a single organization does not dominate the entire printing market. Instead, many companies are positioned as market leaders.

Forecasting the Future
If the parallel to printing is accepted, the future of RP becomes easier to predict. Building from the world of printing, here are 10 predictions for the future of RP.

1. Many technologies will thrive.
With more than five centuries of development and advancement, the world of printing has not boiled down to a single technology that fits every application. There are many processes and each survives because it has benefits for certain types of applications.

2. Variety of options.
With the vast array of printing processes, no company operates all of the equipment to satisfy every need. From business card to billboard, from single-color to four-color, from one page to 500,000 catalogs, there is a process and a supplier to satisfy the demand. The decision to do the printing internally or to outsource it is based on resources, capacity, time and money.

3. RP will develop and evolve.
Guttenberg's press would have been useless without the ability to produce paper and ink. These "technologies" were critical to the birth of the printing press. Through the centuries, advances in printing equipment were reliant on, or conceived from, developments in the materials that were processed. RP will advance in a similar fashion. It will be the incremental changes in materials, processes, lasers and technology that combine to deliver breakthrough developments.

4. RP will get faster.
Today's printing presses can produce hundreds of pages per minute. As RP technology develops and evolves, it will get faster. The throughput of today is simply a baseline on which to measure tomorrow's productivity gains. With this newfound speed, new applications will surface.

5. Rapid manufacturing becomes a reality.
As RP gets faster, the use of the technology in rapid manufacturing environments will grow. Certainly, Guttenberg could not foresee presses that spit out hundreds of pages per minute, but that did not stop it from happening. The result of this increased speed is that printing is not limited to a few unique pieces. It is now used for large-scale production runs for the masses.

6. Desktop units and high-end equipment will peacefully coexist.
With many PC purchases, a free color printer is included. Has this killed the commercial application of color printing? Obviously not. The $1 million commercial presses that are used to print literature, magazines and newspapers continue to be as important as the inexpensive desktop printer.

7. Service bureaus will continue to be viable.
Although printers are common within any office, service organizations abound. Kinko's, PIP Printing and Minuteman Press are just a few examples. These companies, and others like them, fill the need for printed documents that are best done outside of the organization. The similarity is even stronger when considering that most commercial printers are service providers.

8. Advanced technology demands professional guidance.
For anyone who has had to get something printed, there is an appreciation for how complex the process can be without the guidance of an expert in the field. Balancing time, quality and cost is an exercise that builds on the knowledge of paper, ink, process and color. As the number of options in processes and materials explodes, it will be unreasonable to believe that a casual user could be an expert in the art of RP.

9. It will always be hard to find a good (3-D) printing company.
Anyone that purchases printed items has experienced the exasperation of trying to find a good printer. On-time delivery of a top-notch piece within budget is often a challenge. Something as simple as a printed business card can lead to unexpected results. Once a relationship with a good printer is forged, it is one that is held closely and relied upon.

10. Digital reproductions threaten growth.
The proliferation of e-mail delivery and websites causes speculation that they may reduce the number of printed pages. The same is true with design data. As CAD systems and other forms of digital prototyping improve, there is speculation that they may impact the appetite for physical models and prototype parts.

In Guttenberg's time, literacy was a quality of the aristocracy, which limited the demand for the printed word. With his invention, he created a reason to learn to read, and during the centuries, literacy rates swelled. It is possible that the anticipated demand for RP is constrained by a similar perception. If RP creates a reason to be "literate," perhaps the potential is much greater than anyone can imagine.

Certainly, Guttenberg could not have envisioned the future of the printing press and the diverse applications that resulted. Much like Guttenberg, it is difficult to foresee the unimaginable developments and applications for the 3-D printer. Yet, through his legacy, we can understand the direction and path that we are likely to follow. Let's hope that it does not take five centuries to achieve a legacy similar to that of Guttenberg.

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