3-D printing, also called additive manufacturing, creates objects bit by bit, extruding molten plastic (and sometimes other things) onto a foundation with a 3-axis deposition head in painstaking layers that eventually build an object. To keep that molten plastic molten, the building is generally done in an oven.
And this one feature has been the limiting factor of 3-D printing. You can only make things that fit into the oven.
Now, Stratasys has changed all that by turning the 3-D printer upside down and making an oven just for the build plane. The X and Y axes have to fit into the oven, but the Z axis can leave the machine, rolling out as far as it needs to go.
Stratasys makes machines that can print out false teeth, bionic arms, prototypes for new toys and other consumer goods, medical training models, and super customized parts for military defense.
But until this new innovation, it has been very difficult to print out a car or an airplane wing. You’d have to make a 3-D printer larger than the car or the airplane wing. The new design makes all the difference.
This is probably the most practical innovation for industry, but there are other large-scale 3-D printing projects out there. The University of Southern California can print out a concrete house. With concrete, the oven isn’t a requirement. The project website points out how useful this technology could be in printing out colonies in space, or super-affordable housing on earth.
The great obstacle to additive printing’s taking a big place in large-scale manufacturing is that there is no economy of scale. Your thousandth ugly plastic object is just as expensive as your first. But your first is no more expensive than your thousandth. When we’re talking about large objects, just as when we’re talking about custom objects, this can be appealing.
Get to large custom objects and you might be talking about a big deal.