The emergence of low-cost 3D printing lowers the bar for some types of manufacturing. "Companies and individuals with design talent and business savvy can start a business and start manufacturing products," Wohlers says.
After seeing what a 3D printer could do, Ed Fries, the former vice president of Microsoft Game Studios, started up FigurePrints, which uses Z Corp.'s ZPrinter machines to create one-of-a kind models of personal avatars for World of Warcraft and Xbox Live game enthusiasts.
FigurePrints downloads the characters directly from each game site, and lets users pose them before placing an order. An artist then cleans up the object, smoothing away the series of polygons that describe the figure and adding a third dimension to some 2D elements of the image, such as a cape and hair.
Fries chose Z Corp.'s ZPrinter because it is the only 3D printer on the market that supports full-color printing. That is, it can print an object using multiple colors.
He considered more traditional manufacturing techniques, such as a resin-cast process designed for low-volume production. "But you can't hand paint to the resolution we get, which is 600 dpi," he says, and it cost more.
That's a key advantage of the full-color ink-jet printing approach, says Z Corp. CEO John Kawola. "Because we use ink jet heads you can print a bottle with all of the label graphics and text on it."
While plastic jet printers heat and extrude ABS plastic through an "extrusion head" that looks like a syringe or glue gun, Z Corp.'s ZPrinter builds a 3D object by spreading a thin layer of a powder and then using an ink-jet print head to selectively deposit a liquid that hardens it.
As the layers build up, the unused powder that surrounds the object serves as a support. Once the item is finished, it goes to a cleaning station where a technician uses compressed air to remove the powder residue. The composite material, which has a polymer component, isn't as strong as ABS plastic, so FigurePrints dips each in a glue solution that hardens the material.
Even using the hardener solution, the final product isn't nearly as strong as injection-molded ABS plastic. Initially some characters, which tended to have overdeveloped upper torsos but thin ankles, snapped off the base during shipment. So artists take some license with images, in some cases thickening ankles or extending a cape or weapon to the base to add support.
"The texture and appearance of the finished product is OK, but isn't to the standard of a plastic injection-molded action figure you would buy at the store," Fries admits.
The colors aren't as bright, and the finished product has a texture that Fries describes as somewhat "chalky." But it works fine for models that ship in a glass display case, and the price is right: It costs about $5 per cubic inch to print a figure, not including pre- and post-processing time.
FigurePrints sells the characters for about $15 per cubic inch -- and users seem willing to pay. "A common request is for wedding cake toppers," Fries says. "Couples meet in the games and want their characters on top of the wedding cake."
Smith also likes the idea of using 3D printers for one-off or limited run manufacturing. "We can do small-scale production -- tens of units -- without spending the money on expensive injection-molding tools," he says. But the printer works slowly, producing up to about four runs a day. FigurePrints gets about two products per day from each of its printers.