Before you know it, we’ll be building circuit boards with 3D printers.
In other words, 3D printers will help us manufacture PCs. Or even, other 3D printers.
“Printing actual circuit boards is very close,” says David ten Have, CEO of 3D printing outfit Ponoko. “Most of the assembly tools are completely automated anyway. I’m guessing 18 to 24 months.”
ten Have is discussing a 3D printing technique known as “additive printing.” Whereas a standard printer jets ink onto paper, a 3D printer builds three dimensional objects by layering materials — plastic, metals, rubbers — on top of each other. Each layer is about 1/3000th of an inch thick. Some 3D printing techniques have been around for over twenty years, but they’re finally getting to the point they can be used by the average company — not just the massive corporation.
To build real world circuit boards, ten Have explains, we need only two things. The first is file standardization. We need a common protocol that describes each design. Microsoft has made inroads here with its .NET Gadgeteer platform, but it’s far from standard. The second is a substrate material that works well with 3D printers. With these two things in place, he says, a 3D printer could select existing resistors, capacitors, and even microprocessors, and place them onto the substrate.
No, we’re not talking about printing the actual microprocessor. Asked when this will happen, ten Have laughs. “I don’t really know about that one,” he says. But he notes that some microprocessors are built with graphene, a typical 3D printing substrate.
ten Have was speaking at the San Francisco offices of Autodesk, the venerable 3D design software maker. Ponoko partners with Autodesk. Engineers use Autodesk’s software to design an object before printing it with Ponoko hardware. Typically, these objects are printed with laser cut industrial cardboard or additively with various plastics, rubbers, and metals. Autodesk’s director of strategic research, Gonzalo Martinez, showed us a plastic motorcycle prototype built completely with a 3D printer, down to the prototype disc brakes and shock absorbers.
The auto, nautical, and aerospace industries — along with the military — already use 3D printers in various testing facilities. When a part breaks, they needn’t order a new one. They can print it out.
According to Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, the technology will reinvent more than just maintenance and supply chain practices. It will reinvent work-place collaboration. Nike, Bass said, could use 3D printing technology to send prototypes of new sneakers between offices. The west coast team could print the new design sent over the wires from the east coast team, mark up their changes, and then send back a modified file, complete with design feedback — all in an afternoon.
At the event, Autodesk flaunted a new software design package Autodesk 123D. To demonstrate the suite, Autodesk took 40 photographs of a standing Buddha, circling and capturing the statue from every angle. Those images were then uploaded to the company’s Autodesk 123D Catch servers, and about ten minutes later, it spat out a model suitable for 3D printing. Using a local application, 123D Make, the Autodesk team could then edit the model — and print it out.
“Just think of the implications,” Bass said, not only about his company’s new release — but of the industry in general.
Many have. Everything from custom guitars to custom chocolates to custom bones can be printed today. Companies like Shapeways will do the printing for you — and host a virtual store for your printed goods. You carry no inventory because objects aren’t created until the moment a customer clicks “Buy”.