New technologies, like most trends, tend to come in waves. First, there’s the initial excitement that comes from anticipating all the new possibilities the tech will open up, quickly followed by a wave of disillusionment as everyone realizes that a lot of those “new possibilities” either aren’t new or aren’t possible. After that comes the wave of cautious optimism; the realization that even if this tech isn’t going to be the most disruptive invention since the steam engine, it can still make a big difference, provided it’s used for the right applications.
A decade or two after that, and it’s business as usual.
In the context of this article, the technology we’re talking about is 3D printing, but this description could just as easily be applied to atomic energy or the helicopter. What makes 3D printing different is that we’re still in the midst of its penultimate stage. We all know it’s not a magic bullet that works for every problem, but where does 3D printing work best?
(Image courtesy of Aleph Objects.)
A Middle Ground Between Desktop and Industrial 3D Printers
It’s practically conventional wisdom at this point that 3D printing is best for prototyping and short-run production, particularly for expensive parts or assemblies with complex features. However, this only scratches the surface of an answer. The market for 3D printing as a whole represents an enormous range of products, from desktop units that can be purchased for a few hundred dollars to industrial-grade machines that are easily in the six-figure range.
Between these two extremes lies a middle market of “prosumer” 3D printers, machines that can meet the standards of professionals working in education and manufacturing without the hefty price tag of their industrial counterparts. CONTEXT defines this middle market as sitting in the price range of $2,000-$10,000—well above the personal/desktop segment, but significantly below the industrial/professional one. This is the fastest growing segment of the 3D printer market, according to CONTEXT. In 2017, prosumer unit volumes increased 31 percent over 2016, compared to desktop units, which were up 17 percent, and industrial/professional 3D printers, which were down 8 percent.
“As desktop machines continuously achieve higher levels of performance more professionals are turning to more affordable options capable of handing their additive manufacturing needs” said Eric Beardslee, Business Development Manager at Aleph Objects. In addition to distributing Open Source Software, Aleph makes the award-winning line of LulzBot 3D Printers LulzBot, two Open Source 3D printers that fit comfortably in this middle market segment.
Open Source Additive Manufacturing
The concept of an open source 3D printer might seem like an anathema to manufacturing, where intellectual property and proprietary processes are carefully guarded secrets, but Aleph sees it as a way to lower the barriers to entry into the additive manufacturing market. “The founder of the company, Jeff Moe, was active in Free Software and Open Source Hardware communities. A movement called RepRap emerged that was all about making self-replicating, affordable and Open Source Hardware desktop 3D printers. The company was founded in 2011 as a part of the RepRap project and proudly stays true to those roots today.”
LulzBot printers exemplify the open source philosophy, with members of the community modifying the machines for bioprinting and 3D printing unconventional materials, such as silicone. The LulzBot community has also contributed to the designs for subsequent generations of printers. “Parts of our machines are from community contributions,” Beardslee said. “They looked at our designs, saw a better way, and fed that back to us. And, because we’re making these parts with our 3D printers, it’s pretty easy to roll changes into the process.”
(Image courtesy of Aleph Objects.)
Aleph currently uses upwards of 155 LulzBot 3D Printers to manufacture 3D printer parts and accessories and, as Beardslee noted, that’s not just the company drinking its own champagne. “If there are issues with a new design, we’re the first ones to spot it because we’re running our machines 24/7. There’s a misconception that open source printers are for hobbyists and not professionals, but we find it gives more opportunities for materials and new applications,” he added. “NASA’s modified a LulzBot to print PEEK and ULTEM, which could lead to those materials being 3D printed in space. This really is a platform for innovation.”
Middle Market 3D Printers – Applications and Materials
Aleph has witnessed the 3D printing industry change, with the market shifting its focus from consumers to schools, businesses and research organizations. The result has been a much more discerning customer base, as Beardslee noted. “Three years ago, it was enough for us to be able to say, ‘We make a 3D printer that works,’ because there were a lot out there that didn’t,” he said. “Now people want to know more about the specifics in terms of applications and materials.”
(Image courtesy of Aleph Objects.)
Materials are often a sticking point for additive manufacturing, especially when it comes to proprietary filaments, resins and powders. Industrial machines often require proprietary materials at several hundred dollars a reel which are often available for under $50 for desktop machines like LulzBot 3D Printers.
In addition, the choice to be material-agnostic as paved the way for Aleph to collaborate with materials companies that might otherwise have been uninterested in the additive market.
“Aleph Objects was the first desktop OEM to support 3D printing with copolyester. We worked with side-by-side with Eastman Chemical Company and Taulman 3D, introducing Amphora copolyester to the market at RAPID in May 2015.” Beardslee noted. “They reached out to us specifically because they knew their new materials are going to be easier to use with LulzBot compared to cartridge-type systems where they have to use a proprietary material.”
Incidentally, materials can also be open source—Aleph collaborated with IC3D to develop the first open source filament and become the first filament company to receive Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA) Certification.
As with the range of materials, the applications for 3D printing have grown as well. “We have people making everything from spaceship components to movie animatronics to video game hardware,” Beardslee said. “Jigs and fixturing is another big one. We’ve seen a lot of use from the military because of the reliability of our machines—they drop our printers out of planes and they’re using them to print replacement parts for things like car doors.”
In addition to NASA and “other marquee aerospace companies”, Aleph’s customers run the gamut of industries. “If you throw a dart at the Fortune 500, you’ll probably hit one of our customers,” Beardslee said. This demonstrates not only that open source 3D printers have just as much a place on the factory floor as they do on the home workbench, but also that the middle market for additive manufacturing isn’t going anywhere.
For more information, visit the Aleph Objects website.