A number of increasingly affordable production technologies are fueling the make-for-me movement. Computing power was once costly, complicated, and available to only a chosen few. Now it’s nearly ubiquitous. Similarly, these machines of industrial production are increasing in power, decreasing in price, and entering the mass market. Here are five of the most important tools for custom manufacturing:
This technology gets the most press these days. Employed by manufacturers for years to cheaply produce prototypes, a 3D printer creates a three-dimensional object from a digital model by building up layering material (known as laser sintering). Most often the layers are made of plastic, but they can also be made of ceramic, stainless steel, bronze, sandstone, and sterling silver. In 2014, key patents on the most advanced laser-sintering 3D printers will expire, further fueling competitive pricing in the market. The cheapest 3D printers cost as little as US$1,000.
Computer numerical control (CNC) machines
3D printers may get the most attention, but CNC machines are the workhorses of make-for-me production. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, bankrolled by the U.S. Department of Defense, developed the first 3D, numerically controlled machine more than 50 years ago. The high cost of computing power, however, meant that CNC machines were no less expensive than human labor. But as processing power has become cheaper, CNC machines have been deployed in lieu of human-operated alternatives such as mills, routers, and lathes. Customization has become easier because making alterations is a matter of reprogramming the software.
Laser cutting machines use computer-controlled lasers to cut through different materials, including wood, acrylic, plastic, marble, and fabric, leaving a high-quality finish. Once limited to large-scale manufacturing operations, they are now being used increasingly by individual makers and start-ups. Laser engraving machines use the same approach to engrave, etch, or mark materials such as wood, acrylic, plastic, glass, leather, fabric, coated metals, anodized aluminum, ceramics, Mylar, Corian, and pressboard.
These scanners use multiple lasers to capture objects in three dimensions in order to digitize models for production, often on a 3D printer. The popular NextEngine 3D scanner retails for US$2,995. MakerBot’s portable Digitizer scanner hit the market in October 2013 at US$1,400 (since then the price has dropped to US$799).
Single-ply cutting machines
Capable of cutting a wide array of materials, single-ply cutting machines are an efficient option for smaller job lots, such as prototyping, make-to-order, and supplemental production.
Clearly, although 3D printers may be getting all the press these days, makers have many other valuable tools at their disposal to disrupt an industry.
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