Entrepreneur Henry Thorne has been developing products for decades. However, his job got a lot easier a few years ago when his small manufacturing company bought its first 3D printer.
Thorne is the co-founder and CTO of 4moms, a US-based company which makes baby products by "taking advantage of the lower cost of electronics and mechatronics," which refers to motors and sensors.
The company makes things such as a baby seat with five unique motions, an easy-to-fold play yard and a stroller with an LCD screen and running lights that also self-charges through the rear - both the stroller itself and your phone.
4moms can quickly prototype products, such as the origami stroller shown below, thanks to advances in 3D printing.
Established in 2006, the Pittsburgh-based company today has 110 employees. The firm bought its first 3D printer four years ago, as soon as machines started falling below US$20,000 price point. Today 4moms has seven units, a mix of uPrints and Fortus machines.
A uPrint SE starts at US$15,900, with the company's desktop 3-D printer, the uPrint Mojo, retailing for less than $10,000. Meanwhile, the Fortus 250mc, which prints much larger parts, costs about US$45,000.
3D printing not actually a 'recent phenomenon'
Now a US$2 billion industry, 3D printing was first commercialised and used on an industrial level in 1980s, says Cindy Shaw, managing director and research analyst at investment research firm DISCERN.
"This isn't a recent phenomenon," she says. "The difference today is that the printers have come down in price and the technology has vastly improved."
Shaw says she sees similarities between 3D printing and ink-jet printing. When those devices first came out in the 1980s, they cost well over US$1,000. "Now you can get something far more capable for US$100," she says.
Another tipping point came when patents for fused deposition modeling (FDM) expired in 2007 and 2008. This popular 3D printing technology, which Shaw says is "similar to a high-tech glue gun with 3-D spatial controls," opened the door for other companies to make more machines and bring down the prices through competition.
For less industrial purposes, 3D printers can now be had for about the cost of a high end laptop. Makerbot's Replicator 2X, for example, is now US$2,500, while the DaVinci 1.0, which is about the size of your office's Keurig coffee maker, is under US$500.
Prototyping, development faster with 3D printing
Thorne has been a robotics developer for 30 years and says his goal is to use robotics to solve real-world problems. He contrasts this with what he calls "R2-D2 robots," which may accomplish tasks such as fetching the morning paper but don't really solve a problem.
In comparison, there's Tug, a delivery system for hospitals developed by Thorne's previous startup, Atheon. Tug transports medication and other supplies around a hospital, allowing staff to focus more attention on patient care.
Thorne says 3D printers make the development process for Tug, 4moms' car seats and other products both faster and cheaper. There's no more need to send a prototype out for production, and flaws can be found as soon as the printed prototype is finished.
"You have an idea. It can be as big an idea as a stroller or as small as a switch from a gear to a belt in a drive train," Thorne says. "At 4moms, ideas are happening all the time - and the people developing the products, including myself, are constantly bombarded with a new, better idea with how to make something. We live for that."
3D printing can quickly put 'brilliant idea' into your hands
Shaw warns that 3D printing could represent the next tech bubble - not in its use but, rather, in the printers stock prices. Despite some proclamations that 3D printing will change the manufacturing industry entirely, she says it's just not feasible. "If you want to make BIC pens, which are plastic injection molded, it's not cost-effective."
But for companies such as 4moms that thrive on rapid prototype development, 3D printing is a perfect fit.
Before 3D printers, Thorne says, an idea had to be conceived, designed and put right into production. If something was wrong with one part of the device, it ruined the entire batch - and that happened often.
"Never once in my development of hundreds of ideas have I had it work when you leave the honeymoon phase where it's just an idea in your mind," Thorne says. "Nothing that you create in your mind works the same way in reality as it did in your head or in your [computer-assisted design] system."
With 3D printers, Thorne can come up with an idea in the morning, perfect the design throughout the day, hit the "Print" button at night and have a prototype in the morning. "I get to find out everything that's wrong with this brilliant idea, because I have a physical unit that I can assemble and operate and find out its flaws," he says.
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