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3D Printing Progress at UPS

September 29, 2014

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 08:25

In July 2013, UPS announced that it would offer product design and 3D printing services at six of its 4,400 UPS Store locations across the U.S. The new service would be a part of a pilot program to determine whether the company could offer this service—an area in which it had no previous experience. Last week, the company announced that it is expanding the program to 100 stores nationwide. Already, the service is available at 45 locations. The company plans to expand the program into 2015 until it reaches the 100 or so locations. UPS has chosen to use the uPrint 3D printer from Stratasys for the program.

I was skeptical when I first heard about the idea. Offering 3D printing is one thing, but providing design services is far more involved. To me, it sounded like UPS was opening a can of worms. I envisioned home inventors, do-it-yourselfers, and others walking into stores with half-baked napkin sketches of new product ideas and expecting someone to magically convert them into printable files. When starting with underdeveloped ideas, the big cost is in the design and CAD solid modeling work, not the 3D printing of scaled plastic models. The big question I had was: Who is going to pay for this relatively expensive service? The average consumer would probably not fully understand and appreciate the effort and cost, and would go away disillusioned.


It turns out the UPS is selling the service mostly to people that are bringing in already-developed 3D solid models, in STL form, to the stores. Most are practicing professionals, although a number of amateurs using Tinkercad and other low-cost CAD products are also using the service. The target market and “sweet spot” for The UPS Store network are businesses that employ 10 people or less. UPS is serving as a small business resource center and helping customers with a wide range of services. Among them are page design, signage, marketing collateral, accounting, payroll, websites, and even employee background checks.

From what I can tell, the first year of 3D printing at UPS has been mostly successful. Franchise owners or managers of The UPS Stores offering this service have been trained to manage the 3D printing operation. Daniel Remba, UPS small business technology leader, said that he expected more demand for design services, which are being outsourced to contractors. I asked him how many of the stores would have product development and 3D printing services in the future. He did not know, but stated that it could grow to 1,000 or more, although it’s much too early to know where it will go.

Video clips one, two, and three from UPS are interesting and worthwhile.


America Makes Two Years Later

September 15, 2014

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,future,manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 10:28

America Makes is the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute that was launched in August 2012. It is the first in a series of institutes in the U.S. and is a part of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) that the White House and many government agencies are supporting. Each institute seeks to expand specific areas of underdeveloped manufacturing technology from private-public partnerships on a national scale.

The underlying goal of the innovation institutes is to transition promising developments in manufacturing from a technology readiness level (TRL) 4 to TRL 7. The TRL measure is a way of gauging the current state of a particular technology. TRL 1 is usually a concept at the basic research level, whereas TRL 9 is a fully-qualified production process suitable for commercialization. Historically, much of what is developed in the U.S. progresses to about a TRL 3, and does not bridge the “valley of death” to TRL 7. The NNMI was largely created to solve this problem.

To achieve success, a national innovation institute must have stakeholders. America Makes recently completed its second year in operation and can claim nearly 110 member organizations. America Makes director Ed Morris, founding director Ralph Resnick, and their team have done an outstanding job in attracting some of the most important organizations to America Makes. We are optimistic that many more will join in the coming months and look forward to much more growth. Wohlers Associates is proud to be one of eight Platinum Members, which is the top-tier membership level.


Much of the work in the first two years has been in creating a solid foundation with staffing, systems, and strategies for the years to follow. America Makes has been successful in awarding projects to many organizations. In January 2014, it awarded a second round of 15 projects to 75 individual partner organizations. Combined with the first round of projects, America Makes has invested nearly $30 million in public and private funds toward advancing additive manufacturing and 3D printing in the U.S.

Is America Makes meeting its objectives? In some ways, it is exceeding them, given that only two years have passed. No one knew how this first (pilot) institute would take shape and whether corporations, universities, and others would embrace it. Sponsorship of more than 100 organizations, as well as the support and involvement of many government entities (Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and others), is impressive. The bigger question that we cannot yet answer is whether the NNMI institutes will make a difference in the long term. We are optimistic that they will, but it’s much too early to know for sure.

25 Years of SFF

September 1, 2014

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,event — Terry Wohlers @ 13:53

I had the pleasure of attending the 25th Solid Freeform Fabrication Symposium last month. It was organized by and held at the University of Texas at Austin—the birthplace of selective laser sintering (SLS). The conference is the longest-running event worldwide on additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing.

The beginning of the program was dedicated to the first five years of AM. The first speaker, Harris Marcus, previously of UT and now at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, discussed the founding of the SFF Symposium. After 15 minutes of interesting history, it was my turn to provide a perspective of the early years. We did not have data projectors and computer-based presentations back then, so it was decided to go back in more than one way to the 1980s. Fortunately, my hundreds of 35 mm slides were in a state that made it possible to organize a 30-minute presentation that I hoped would capture many of the most important developments.

It was a little tricky for SFF organizer Dave Bourell of UT to secure a 35 mm projector, but he did. I discovered that morning how dull the projected images were in the old days, compared to today’s high-end data projectors. I asked for an audience show of hands and found that it was the first time for many in the room to experience the projection of 35 mm slides. I was relieved when all 78 slides dropped down from the 80-capacity carrousel without a hitch. More than 17 years had passed since I had given a 35 mm slide presentation.

From left to right: Terry Wohlers, Chuck Hull, Carl Deckard, Lisa Crump, and Dave Bourell

Chuck Hull, founder of 3D Systems, followed my presentation. He said the original idea of stereolithography came to him in 1982, and he built the first part in March 1983. He gave the part to his wife, who has as it to this day. I remember seeing 3D Systems’ SLA-1 beta system at SME’s Autofact in November 1987 in Detroit, Michigan. The company introduced the first commercially available product, the SLA-250, the following year.

Chuck, 75, looks great and hasn’t changed much in recent years. I enjoyed having lunch with him at the symposium and discussing his work. He told me that he has an R&D team of 15-20 people, including interns, and is hoping to one day transition from managing R&D projects to serving in more of a strategic capacity. We discussed travel and Hawaii, finding and keeping good employees, and the challenges of keeping foreign students in the U.S. after they have graduated from American universities.

Lisa Crump, co-founder of Stratasys, also gave an excellent presentation. She revealed details of how difficult it was in the early days to secure investment dollars and to keep from running out of money as they developed and commercialized the first fused deposition modeling (FDM) machine. Mike Cima of MIT gave an interesting view of the early days of binder jetting technology that is used today at many companies. Ely Sachs, then of MIT, and Cima were co-developers of what was then referred to as 3DP (short for 3D printing) technology. Carl Deckard of Structured Polymers and the inventor of SLS, and Joe Beaman of UT, gave intriguing presentations focused on the invention and what followed. Deckard was a student at UT when he conceived SLS with the help of Beaman, an advisor and supporter.

It was a lot of fun to reflect on the past and observe how far we’ve come in 25 years. Congratulations to the inventors of AM and the founders of the companies that played such an important role in shaping what followed. And, congrats to Dave Bourell and the UT team for keeping the SFF symposium alive for so many years.