LAS VEGAS – When Ford wants to try out a new transmission part, an engineer sends a digital blueprint of the component to a computer, and what happens next once seemed like the stuff of science fiction.
Inside a device about the size of a microwave oven, a plastic, three-dimensional version of the component begins to take shape before your eyes. After scanning the design blueprint, the gadget fuses together a paper-thin layer of plastic powder. It repeats, putting another layer on top, and then thousands more, before binding the material together with lasers. A few hours later, out pops the auto part, ready to be tested.
The cost of such technology: about $1,500.
At such prices, 3-D printers, once an obscure and expensive innovation, are gaining traction among businesses, with broad implications for manufacturing. Ford is putting them in the hands of every one of its engineers. NASA uses the printers to test parts that could eventually make it to space.
And pretty soon, analysts say, they will be showing up in the home office. Just a few years ago, 3-D printers were as big as industrial refrigerators and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Now anyone can order one online and put it on a desk.
That such technology can be offered so cheaply and compactly may be these gadgets true breakthrough.
You can argue this is the democratization of manufacturing, said Carl Howe, head of consumer research at Yankee Group, a tech research firm. He predicted that this will be the year when 3-D printers will become inexpensive enough to gain wider interest from small businesses, colleges and consumers.
Things that used to require tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for plastic molds, you can now do for $1,500 or less, Howe said.
This is definitely the year that 3-D printing made a splash at the International Consumer Electronics Show, the annual bazaar of geek commerce. Last year, only one 3-D printing company showed up at the CES, which aims to showcase gadgets you might buy at Best Buy or Amazon, not at industrial supply stores. Last week, four such companies were there.
One of them – MakerBot, which also supplies devices to Ford – unveiled a new 3-D printer designed to be the most advanced ever offered at a price that could make it attractive to the home hobbyist.
The online world of hackers and tech enthusiasts is buzzing about how to use such a powerful tool. Researchers and early adopters have made everything from cute figurines and jewelry to working bicycles. A lot of iPhone cases are being custom-made on 3-D printers.
Eventually, 3-D printers are expected to make even more complex parts and machines, or be used in medicine for hip replacements and spinal reconstruction.