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3D Printing Misinformation

August 18, 2013

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 10:33

Here in our office, Janet and I were talking about articles written by reporters and editors and the number of errors that many of them include. Some are obvious, but others require knowledge of the subject matter to know what’s inaccurate. I have personally been involved in hundreds of articles written and published by the technical and mainstream media and few have been error free. And, many were published with several errors—some that make me cringe when reading them. Those being interviewed for the articles are rarely given the opportunity to preview the story to ensure accuracy.

A recent article on 3D printing was published on the web and republished or referenced (with a link to it) by at least a dozen other publishers. Thus, the number of readers of the article had to be in the tens of thousands and quite possibly more. What’s sad is the number of technical errors it included. For example, it said that laser sintering (LS) is the lowest cost 3D printing technology, which is furthest from the truth. It also stated that LS can cost tens of thousands of dollars, which is also inaccurate. The author would have stated it differently had he known that the base price of the lowest-priced LS machine is €129,000 (~$171,000). The article included a number of other errors, but I later found that corrections were made to some of them, fortunately.

The author of a more recent article stated that 3D printing is now six years old. With a little research, the writer would have found that the first systems were commercialized and sold in 1988, making it 25 years old. In another recent article, this one in a highly-respected mainstream magazine, several blatant errors were published. The one that got under my skin the most was the statement that 3D printing has difficulty with building complex objects. Huh? Building highly complex structures without difficulty is one of the technology’s many strengths. An even larger media company stated in a July 2013 story that at-home 3D printing could save consumers thousands of dollars. Really? How?

Recently, I bought a used guitar amp from a guy in Northern Colorado. He asked me what I did and I told him. His eyes lit up and said he’s heard about it. In fact, he said you can now get systems that build complete homes in two days. I grinned and explained that he was referring to an experimental technology called Contour Crafting (CC) and it was invented by Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of Southern California. The professor has taken CC to a basic proof of concept phase, but it is many years away, if ever, from becoming commercial offering, and it cannot build complete homes. It would take two days, probably longer, just to set up the equipment at the building site. He looked disappointed, but I explained that you can’t believe everything you read.

Are reporters, authors, and editors lazy and doing little fact checking? Are they under such pressure to get articles published that they don’t have, or take, the time to get it right? Or, are they intentionally doing what it takes to create what they believe is an interesting story, whether it’s accurate or not? Whatever the case, it’s disappointing to watch because millions of people read these publications and use them to form opinions and make decisions, some that are important. If most of the many articles that I have been interviewed for include errors, one can conclude that nearly all articles published on any subject contain inaccuracies. To be fair, some writers work hard to ensure accuracy and I have a great deal of respect for them. These people are rare. Therefore, my advice is to question everything you read and do not make important business decisions based on articles and news stories.

3D Printing at UPS

August 4, 2013

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 07:03

Last week, UPS announced that it would begin to offer 3D printing services. Initially, the company will test the service on a trial basis at several UPS stores in San Diego, California. The company is targeting small businesses, startup companies, and retail customers using the uPrint 3D printer from Stratasys. The machine builds strong parts, mostly models and prototypes, in ABS plastic.

UPS faces many challenges. The first is making the process efficient to the point where the parts are competitive with alternatives. The second: making it profitable. A third is dealing with customers that must provide design data or information that is suitable for 3D printing. In a story published by Forbes, Daniel Remba of UPS said the company plans to also offer design services, which is surprising and it could open a can of worms. Given the problems that customers can experience with 3D model data, I suppose it makes sense to offer this service, but only if customers are willing to pay for it. Otherwise, it’s a losing proposition from the start.

Another challenge will be the turn around time. For prototyping, businesses need concept models and early prototypes quickly. Waiting days is often not an option. To deliver within a day or two, UPS will require many uPrint machines, or other types of machines, to reduce bottlenecks. This could become expensive, especially when considering the investment necessary to develop a start-to-finish system that streamlines the pre- and postprocessing of jobs. At the front end, many jobs will arrive in a given day. Some of those jobs will be complex and require a lot of attention and interactions with customers. At the back end, parts will require clean-up and possibly hand-work, as well as packaging and delivery—which, of course, are two strengths of UPS.

Even with these and other challenges, I believe that this is one of the first retail efforts in 3D printing on a national scale that has a reasonable chance of success. UPS has partnered with a veteran company that I’m sure will do all it can to help increase the likelihood of success. Unlike many other 3D printing processes, the uPrint’s FDM technology will permit UPS to automate the removal of support material, an otherwise expensive labor component that might have killed this service from the start if the wrong 3D printing technology had been selected. Offering design services is interesting, although anything but easy. Can UPS pull it off? Only time will tell.