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3D Data for Additive Manufacturing

September 4, 2010

Filed under: additive manufacturing,CAD/CAM/CAE,entertainment,future — Terry Wohlers @ 07:34

CAD solid modeling has been the source of data for most additive manufacturing (AM) parts. I estimate that at least 95% comes from CAD, but it could be closer to 98%. Increasingly, we are seeing more data from medical scanners, primarily CT, and 3D scanning/imaging systems for reverse engineering applications.

In the future, video games could become a major source. World of Warcraft players, for example,  can have their character manufactured by FigurePrints, and about 1,000 per month are doing it. Other companies are working with Z Corp. to offer full color models from games, such as Rock Band 2 and Spore. Much smaller players, such as Karbon Kid and Maqet, have also entered the market. In the future, it might become a large and financially interesting segment.

To gain some perspective on how big it could become, one needs to compare annual CAD solid modeling shipments to video game shipments. The “Big Four” CAD companies (Autodesk, Dassault, PTC, and Siemens) shipped an estimated 116,000 solid modeling seats in 2009, according to data gathered by Randall Newton and published in Wohlers Report 2010.  Meanwhile, game makers shipped 379,000,000 units the same year, according to the NPD Group. What’s more, 778 new game titles were launched in 2009, up from 764 the year before.

Not all of these games are candidates for AM products, but many are. And, as game creators discover the advanced capabilities of AM, more will develop games that create objects consisting of closed volumes—a requirement of AM. As this transition occurs, don’t be surprised to see games gain a strong foothold in additive manufacturing. In fact, it could influence AM system development, similar to how video games displaced CAD’s influence on the development of high-end graphics for personal computers. So, brace yourself for what video games could mean to the additive manufacturing industry.

Cameron on TED

June 13, 2010

Filed under: entertainment,review — Terry Wohlers @ 08:09

I’ve been impressed by the caliber of speakers and quality of information presented at I know little about the organization, but have learned that the 15-20 minutes presentations are well worth my time.

I’ve become an admirer of James Cameron. This came after hearing him speak at SolidWorks World 2010 and later talking with him in early February. Avatar had been out for about six weeks at that point, although I had not yet seen it when I met him. Of course, I did not tell him that, but I did congratulate him on the success of the film.

Cameron gives a fascinating speech at He talks about his experiences in the deep sea, which I found interesting, given that I’m also an avid scuba diver. (He has spent 2,500 hours scuba diving and 500 hours in submersibles.) His work at great depths has become even more meaningful, now that he and a team of experts are proposing solutions to the BP oil disaster.

Cameron is also the producer of Titanic and gave some insight into his initial motivation for making the movie. He admited, “Secretly, what I wanted to do is dive to the real wreck of Titanic. And that’s the truth.” Six months after proposing the movie, he found himself in a Russian submersible 2.5 miles down in the North Atlantic looking at the real the Titanic.

If you have not viewed a speech, now may be the time. Cameron is an intriguing individual and speaker. He makes movies and documentaries, but his passion for the sea, space exploration, computer graphics, engineering, and manufacturing are what I find most captivating about him. I hope you agree that his views and experiences are engaging.

Business Stripped Bare

March 21, 2010

Filed under: entertainment,review — Terry Wohlers @ 07:30

Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur is written by British industrialist Sir Richard Branson. He is responsible for launching 360 companies under the Virgin brand over the past more than 30 years. At the time of the book’s publication (copyright 2008), the Virgin Group was valued at an estimated 12 billion British pounds. In today’s dollars, that’s more than $18 billion. Not bad for a guy who left school at age 16 and never attended college. He is the 261st richest individual worldwide, according to Forbes’ 2009 list of billionaires.

I met Branson, sort of, at SolidWorks World 2009 in Orlando, Florida. He spoke to those attending the event in a keynote session and then answered questions at a press conference that I attended. The guy comes across as being genuine and humble, both in person and in the book. That’s when I got a copy of Business Stripped Bare, compliments of Branson himself, and I finally got around to reading it.

Like a dose of Ambien, some books put me to sleep. Not this one. It is anything but dry and had my attention from start to finish. The writing is excellent, to Branson and his editor’s credit. He writes in first person and shares intriguing, often gripping, stories and anecdotes about his business dealings and some of the astonishing people he has met.

Branson talks mostly about his companies, nearly all of which are relatively small. He said he never wants to run a large corporation. Branson takes risks and often uses his natural instincts to make important business decisions. As one would expect, Branson presents most of his Virgin companies, employees, and culture in a favorable light, yet he did not come across as boastful in the book. The 330 pages convinced me that his companies offer some of the best products and services that money can buy.

Not all is rosy at Branson’s companies, however. Last Thursday, I read a USA Today article about some very unhappy passengers aboard a Virgin America flight from Los Angeles to New York’s JFK. The flight circled New York for two hours due to bad weather and then was diverted to Newburgh, New York. After landing, the 126 passengers were kept on board for 4.5 hours, and then the flight was canceled. Passengers were livid and said they were treated rudely by the flight crew.

Overall, I believe Branson and the Virgin Group are top notch. His recent work on attacking HIV/Aids and climate change is noteworthy and he’s done a remarkable job creating the Virgin brand. He offers helpful words of advice to entrepreneurs and is a source of inspiration when encountering challenges and taking risks. I found the book entertaining and stimulating. Get it and read it. You’ll be glad you did.

James Cameron Uses 3D Printing

February 5, 2010

Filed under: additive manufacturing,CAD/CAM/CAE,entertainment — Terry Wohlers @ 15:15

About a year ago, entertainer Jay Leno presented the use of laser scanning and 3D printing in a video clip on the Jay Leno’s Garage website. I learned this week that it has become the most popular video on the website. Perhaps it will take celebrities, such as Leno, to help create the awareness that these technologies deserve to become more broadly adopted.

On Tuesday of this week, I listened to inspiring anecdotes from film maker James Cameron, the producer of Avatar, at SolidWorks World 2010 in Anaheim, California. SolidWorks co-founder Jon Hirschtick interviewed him in front of more than 5,000 engineers, designers, and others interested in SolidWorks. I was surprised and glad to hear him say that he uses 3D printing to help bring some of his creations to life. What’s more, he envisions a day when the technology will be used to print parts and products on Mars rather than transporting them from earth.

I was one of the lucky few to meet Cameron and have a short conversation with him. We talked about 3D printing and he agreed that there’s indeed a future market for an ultra-inexpensive version targeted at children for entertainment. I said to him, “You and I grew up with the Creepy Crawler ThingMaker, but the 21st Century “thing maker” will be an inexpensive 3D printer.” He responded by saying, “Absolutely,” with enthusiasm, although maybe he was only being kind. I gave him my business card, mildly hinting that it’s a project we could work on together, knowing clearly that the odds of it are slim, at best.

I found Cameron to be a nice guy and very down to earth. It’s no secret that he started his career as a machinist. He’s a hands-on guy that fully understands the value of getting your hands dirty and making stuff. During his interview with Hirschtick, he explained how he and his team designed and built a 12.7 kg (28 lb) stereoscopic camera used to shoot much of Avatar. Previous generation stereoscopic cameras were as large and heavy as refrigerators. Cameron surprised many by discussing everything from the use of tools for finite element analysis and computational fluid dynamics to deep sea exploration and space travel.

Avatar has received nine Academy Award nominations and broke box office records. Cameron also produced Titanic, the Terminator movies, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies, and many television documentaries. It’s good to know that people like Leno and Cameron are not only familiar with 3D printing, but they’re also using it and telling others about it.

Manufacturing a Spore Creature

May 23, 2009

Filed under: additive manufacturing,entertainment — Terry Wohlers @ 11:20

I’ve enjoyed talking about Spore and Spore Creature Creator over the past couple years. The game rolled out in September 2008. I’ve never played the game, but I have spent time with Spore Creature Creator—the software that allows you to produce creatures for the game.

Spore Creature Creator was developed to ensure that the creatures would be closed, 3D volumes—a requirement of additive manufacturing. This, coupled with its simple drag ‘n drop functionality, makes it fast and easy to produce a creature. With no experience whatsoever, I was able to create my first creature in a few minutes. What’s more, it was fun because the creature moves and makes sounds as you create it.

Three weeks ago, I spent a little extra time creating a Spore creature because I was planning to have it manufactured. After saving the creature, I went to and uploaded it. The process required only a few clicks. The cost to have one manufactured is $49, plus about $25 for FedEx shipping and $2 for handling. Six calendar days later, I had the creature in hand. You can see it here. I was happy with how it turned out.

The Help screen at states that it can 2-4 weeks to receive your Spore Sculpture. I needed it in time for a presentation, so I contacted the company, which likely expedited the order. I don’t know whether it actually takes 2-4 weeks under normal circumstances.

Electronic Arts, the makers of Spore and Spore Creature Creator, and Z Corp. (EA’s manufacturing partner) could not have made it easier. Stepping through the process shows you custom design and manufacturing at its finest.

If you’re interested in additional thoughts on Spore Creature Creator, enter “Spore” in the Search box at the right. It will display four additional commentaries that discuss the software.

3D Design Derby

April 11, 2009

Filed under: education,entertainment,event — Terry Wohlers @ 10:09

I was a Cub Scout many years ago, along with millions of other elementary-age boys. The Cub Scouts is a part of Boy Scouts of America, one of the nation’s largest and most prominent values-based youth development organizations. My fondest memory of the Cub Scouts was the pinewood derby, a race of hand-crafted cars, usually from a kit. The cars measure up to 178 mm (7 inches) in length and are raced on a wood or aluminum track. The pinewood derby has been a part of the Cub Scouts program for more than 50 years and is still active.

A 21st century version of the pinewood derby is the 3D Design Derby at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah. In May 2008, 137 high school students raced cars created with Autodesk Inventor or SolidWorks and a Dimension 3D printer. Next month, in conjunction with the Utah Valley University Technology Expo, 150-200 students from 20 high schools are expected to participate in the third annual 3D Design Derby. Any CAD software is allowed, as long as it can export an STL file.

Winners are determined by judging detail drawings, marketing illustrations, and the cars themselves. Some of the categories are the most creative, the fastest, and best in show. Prizes include gift certificates and electronic products such as iPods and flash drives. Trophies, which are also manufactured on a Dimension system, are presented to the top four places.

The 3D Design Derby is organized by the university’s Engineering Graphics & Design Technology Department. It hopes the event will gain radio and television coverage this year and I hope it does too. It is events like this that get kids jazzed about engineering and manufacturing.

Click here to see images of some of the cars from past races. For additional information on the 3D Design Derby, contact professor David Manning of Utah Valley University at

3D Design for Everyday Consumers

October 25, 2008

Filed under: CAD/CAM/CAE,education,entertainment,future — Terry Wohlers @ 08:39

In The Boston Globe article “Next software for the masses? How about three-dimensional design,” author Scott Kirsner explained that computers were once used only by PhDs and videocassette recorders were designed for television broadcasters. He went on to say that the mobile phone, GPS, photo editing software, and Internet were intended originally for professionals and academic types.

Kirsner suggested that 3D design software may someday become common among non-professionals and I agree. When playing with Google SketchUp, it doesn’t take much time to see what is possible. However, before 3D design truly makes it to the mainstream, it will need to become even easier than SketchUp, and it will. Take, for example, Spore Creature Creator from Electronic Arts. I was able to create elaborate 3D creatures in the first few minutes after installing the software. What’s more, these models are fully closed, water-tight solid volumes that can be manufactured.

The key will be for software, running on your computer or web server, to help you along so that it becomes effortless. I don’t expect for design software such as SolidWorks or even SketchUp to achieve this level of ease. I envision, for example, software designed for a very specific purpose, such as designing bicycles. The process might start by allowing you to select a style from a library of frames. After selecting one, you could change its shape, but within limits, making it impossible to produce designs that would not accommodate wheels, a seat, handlebars, sprockets, crank, and so on. It knows that you are designing a bicycle and not an electronic device, football stadium, or something else, so everything is built around bicycle design with libraries of parts that you can change. 

We are at the early phase of having access to software that allows almost anyone to create 3D content with little effort and no design experience. The models may not be as sophisticated as those produced by users of Catia, Inventor, Pro/E, or SolidWorks, but that may not matter. The majority of these models would be used in educational or entertaining ways, such as adding them to a document, video clip, or computer game, or manufacturing them on a 3D printer.

Riding Rockets

July 7, 2008

Filed under: entertainment,life,review — Terry Wohlers @ 11:41

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Mike Mullane chronicles much of his life leading up to his three shuttle missions into space. An engineer friend, Boris Fritz of Northrop Grumman, highly recommended the book. He said, “I picked it up and couldn’t put it down.” Boris and I heard Mullane speak at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ RAPID conference in Chicago, Illinois in May 2003. Mullane has appeared on major television shows and is an outstanding motivational speaker, but he is an even better writer.

Nearly every paragraph gripped my attention with fascinating insight and vivid detail. Mullane recounted countless stories from decades ago as if they happened yesterday. He must have kept a log or journal over the years, thinking that he may someday write about his days as an astronaut. Late in the book, he mentioned that he looked forward to writing assignments in school, suggesting that he had aspirations of writing. Most people would not be able to recall enough detail to fill 360 pages. Mullane did it and made it incredibly interesting.

Mullane didn’t hold back much in the book and he had me laughing out loud several times. His story about getting sized for a urine collection device was hilarious. He talked a lot about an astronaut’s life that included enormous highs and lows, saying good bye to his wife, the misery of waiting for a launch, and seemingly endless delays, as well as parties, pranks, and encounters with celebrities. He was brutally candid and not afraid to tell it like was, even if his words offended others. Mullane’s comments emphasized how much astronauts live on the edge and often flirted with death. His remarks on the female astronauts were intriguing. Through much of the book, he criticized NASA management for sharing so little information, deliberately keeping him and other astronauts in the dark for years.

If you’re looking for some very good, entertaining summer reading, get this book. I promise, you won’t want to put it down. And, you don’t need to be an engineer, scientist, or “techie” to enjoy it. I give Riding Rockets five stars.

Favorite Products of 2007

January 19, 2008

Filed under: entertainment,life,review — Terry Wohlers @ 08:33

I’ve listed my favorite products and services in the past and it’s time to do it again. Some companies provide good quality, but many do not. The following, listed at random, are a few of those that have met or exceeded my expectations over the past year or so.

1) PdaNet. This is an excellent application that runs on Palm Treo handheld devices. A one-time cost of $34 turns your Treo into a broadband modem for your laptop or desktop computer. Read about it in an April 2007 Wohlers Talk blog commentary.

2) tryda. This free “directory assistant” operates on a Treo running the Palm OS. (A Windows Mobile version is coming soon.) The application permits you to quickly search for names, addresses, and phone numbers of companies and individuals nationwide. Looking for a pizza restaurant? Just enter “pizza” and a zip code or city and tryda will list pizza restaurants in the area. What’s more, it links to Google Maps and displays locations and directions. Did I say that it’s free?

3) OnlyMyEmail. I’ve tried many spam filtering programs and services and this one is the best, especially for small companies and individuals. At $4 per month, it’s a bargain.

4) Shure Sound Isolating Earphones. This $150 product (Model SE210) is worth every penny, if you’re looking for compact, in-the-ear quality sound. The product dramatically reduces the ambient noise when on a plane or in other noisy environments. It’s easy to fit the earphones to your ear canals because they come with many types and sizes of rubber and foam sleeves. I prefer earbuds over bulky headsets, but most do not stay securely in my ears. These do and they are comfortable.

5) Panasonic Plasma Television. In high definition (HD), this 50-inch screen (Model TH-50PX75U) is the next best thing to being there. You will see detail that you’ve never seen before on a television. The price continues to drop, making it affordable to a broader range of customers.

6) Philips Home Theater System. This $200 product (Model HTS3544/37) is near the low-end of the home theater system-in-a-box price range, but you wouldn’t know it when hearing its 1,000 watts of power.  In fact, I would bet that most blindfolded listeners would guess that it’s priced 3-5x higher. A DVD player with HDMI upconversion is built in.

These products and services from six companies stood out from the pack. Check back at this time next year to see what makes the list.

3D Printing of Game Characters

December 21, 2007

Filed under: additive manufacturing,entertainment — Terry Wohlers @ 11:35

The idea has been discussed in the past and now it’s a reality. Ed Fries, former vice president of Microsoft’s video games business, rolled out FigurePrints last week. The 9.3 million subscribers of World of Warcraft (WoW) can now order a 100 mm (4-inch) tall model of their personalized character from the online game. The models are manufactured on a 3D color printer from Z Corp. Fries was inspired by an Electronic Arts’ exhibit at the E3 show last year. The exhibit included 3D printed figures from EA’s new Spore game.
Fries has partnered with Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of WoW. Blizzard is expected to promote the FigurePrints service inside the game. The cost for a model of a character: $100 plus $15 for shipping.

Due to demand and other factors, the service is not rapid. Delivery takes 1-2 months from the time an order is placed. Even so, this exciting new application of additive fabrication (AF) will introduce 3D printing to millions of people. Until now, the estimated 2.3 million commercial CAD installations worldwide have been the source of data for 99 percent of the parts produced by AF technology.

FigurePrints is facing technical challenges that could adversely impact a high volume, low margin business, such as this. For example, the polygonal mesh resolution of a game character is typically not good and the mesh is often not a closed, “water tight” volume, a requirement of AF. Normally, these problems require a trained individual to review and revise the data to make it suitable for fabrication. FigurePrints will need to streamline and automate as much of it as possible and I’m sure that Ed Fries and his staff are working diligently on it.

Will the manufacturing of video game characters become a sizeable business? Yes. How quickly will it take off? FigurePrints/Blizzard and Electronic Arts (likely next year) will motivate Microsoft, Sony, LucasArts, Ubisoft, Activision, Nintendo, and others to follow. In the short term, the challenge will be to fine-tune the file processing and part finishing steps, and then build capacity. And, FigurePrints will need to turn the jobs more quickly. I suspect that many customers will not wait 30-60 days.

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