A Low-volume Production Site: Coming to a Garage Near You

By Terry Wohlers, President, Wohlers Associates

The "Wohlers" column is authored by Terry Wohlers for Time Compression.
This column was published in the July/August 2009 issue.

Service providers, also known as “service bureaus,” have long been a staple in the additive manufacturing (AM) industry. They were among the early adopters and pioneers in the application of AM technology. Some of them continue to push the limits by embracing the newest and most advanced AM machines, materials, and applications.

For nearly two decades, AM service providers have offered a range of services to companies of all types, and to the many suppliers of these companies. The offerings include the making of AM parts for fit and function testing, urethane castings from silicone rubber molds, patterns for metal castings, and short-run production. Many also provide CAD and engineering services, tooling, plastic injection molding, laser scanning, part finishing, and other services.

A new type of service provider is beginning to emerge and it’s targeting the consumer. An example is Shapeways of the Netherlands. The company launched in Q2 2008 as a part of Philips Electronics’ incubator program. Shapeways allows anyone to upload a design using a web-based interface. The company then manufactures it using AM and ships it to them. This may sound similar to working with a conventional AM service provider, but the difference is that Shapeways is focused almost entirely on the consumer market. The company offers a portfolio of “creator” tools that is said to make it easy for customers unfamiliar with conventional design tools to create custom products.

The company also allows anyone to start a “storefront” as part of the Shapeways Shops on-line market place. You provide the designs and Shapeways handles the production, shipment, payment, and customer service. This makes the launch of a new product as easy as uploading a design. Shapeways has more than 200 pages of designs, with about 10 products per page. Many are simple, while others are sophisticated and impressive. Prices range from under $5 for a ring or key chain to $100 for a semi-custom lamp. Larger pieces can cost more. Production options include fused deposition modeling, laser sintering, and PolyJet.

JuJups is another company that has entered the consumer business with AM machines as its method of production. The company does not have the support of a large Dutch electronics manufacturing company, yet it is making progress. JuJups, which is a part of Genometri of Singapore, also launched in 2008. In November of that year, the company began making semi-custom Christmas ornaments for $24.95. The customer submits an image of a person’s face and it is used to produce an angel in color using a 3D printer from Z Corp. I had one made for our daughter and it turned out well. The company also offers semi-custom coffee mugs, t-shirts, greeting cards, and other inexpensive consumer products.

In the future, we will see more of these types of companies targeting the consumer with products made with additive manufacturing. The established worldwide network of service providers will continue to provide sophisticated services to automotive, aerospace, medical, and other industries. Customers that require special finishing techniques or quality certifications will rely on them. The new consumer-oriented service provider will not eat into this established market because the mix of products that they are offering is very different. The consumer-oriented providers are beginning to expand the market with one-of-a-kind products that cannot be produced affordably any other way.

The market for custom, semi-custom, and limited-edition products will grow, especially as these new providers develop efficient ways of producing and delivering products to consumers. Software products such as Spore Creature Creator, and to a lesser extent Google SketchUp, make it easy for those without CAD experience to produce a 3D model in a short time. This growth of 3D model content, coupled with the relative ease of producing parts with an AM system, will motivate opportunistic individuals to start a business.

This new type of provider is serving as a stepping stone to a new type of manufacturer. Rather than operating from a conventional job shop or manufacturing facility, they will be found in the most unlikely places: spare rooms at home, garages, or even college dorm rooms. The only basic requirements are access to the Internet and an AM system. The machines are becoming small and clean enough to the point where they can operate just about anywhere. The customer does not care as long as they receive good value and service. In most cases, they will never know where the product was made.

Not only will the landscape of AM service providers change in the future, the fundamental nature of manufacturing will change. Conventional production methods and facilities will not disappear, but new types of products will be introduced by a new type of manufacturer at an entirely new type of manufacturing site. You or your neighbors could become manufacturers and few would ever know it, except for a visible increase in FedEx, UPS, or other courier services at your doorstep.