Talking 3D

Desktop Factories??

It's sometimes been predicted that today's computer and information-era marks the beginning of the end of ye olde industrial-age, but perhaps it is more a case of an age living through re-definition. For example, the concept of industrial mass-production is often said to be moving towards concepts of macro-production and mass-customization.

Amongst key enablers here have certainly been the information-retrieval/delivery systems and other digital devices under development and/or already in use around the world (such as the good old MicroScribe above), which make all sorts of interactive and non-interactive relationships possible between designers, producers and consumers across global distance barriers.

In a virtual sense, 3D objects have been bouncing around the world for quite some time now in a somewhat similar manner, but for the fact that these have till now not been tangibly reproducible in the "average" household, office or factory.

H o w e v e r, cutting-edge technology developers now predict that within a few years, using similar technology, you will be printing out not just words and pictures, but also entire 3D objects! In fact, current expectations are that within about five years, you should be able to buy a "3D fax-machine & printer" for less than the equivalent of about 1,500 dollars at your local tech-hardware store!!

To begin with, such machines would probably be limited to producing plastic objects in any shape, but the obvious ultimate goal is a machine that can produce 3D "prints" from materials such as metals or ceramics ~ individually or in combination. 3D metal "printers" are currently being perfected in the laboratory, and if the technology can be refined and made cheap, we should soon see the day when objects would emerge from such machines in homes and offices, as smoothly as text and images already do from fax-machines and printers today.

Essentially, the technology behind 3D printing (originally called stereolithography) was actually developed more than a decade ago, working on the principle that ultraviolet light can "cure'' (or harden) certain liquid polymers. This led to the first generation of rapid-prototyping machines, which completely transformed the way industrial designers have been working for several years now. At the cutting-edge, it's been quite a while since 3D designs on a computer screen could first be sent anywhere in the world and turned into an actual model in a matter of hours or days.

For that matter, simple relief-milling machines have been available quite cheaply for some years (see right), based on sort of extrapolating contemporary printer technology into three dimensions with cutting-tools. Of course however, these left much to be desired in terms of producing truly complete products ~ e.g. with internal facets and detail.

On the other hand, an outfit called 3D Systems (in the USA) is reportedly pretty close to producing a domestic 3D printer based on a sort of reversed logic of this approach, using modified inkjet technology to incrementally lay down layers of molten plastic. Prototypes and beta-models are presently the size of a photocopier, cost about $ 50,000, and can build objects about half the size of a shoe-box. A "domestic" model should hit the high-street within two years at about $ 1,000 and produce objects twice that size!!

Applying principles pretty similar to this, a lab in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is using 20kW lasers to heat powdered superalloys to more than 3,000F to form 3D-metal objects.

Doctors at the cutting-edge have been using such stuff for years already, scanning patients' skulls for prototyping in plastic to rehearse complex surgeries against backdrops of peer-inputs and advice based on sharing the original 3D digital-scans.

Today's brave new world is almost defined by the strong organic shapes that have taken over the old stern angles and lines of early mechanization and industry, but the very near future is looking to yeild a more unique revolution ~ with all sorts of folks all over the place scanning all sorts of original 3D objects, to buy, sell and share as printready 3D-wireframes all over cyberspace!

Ultimately, what we can all look forward to being able to do is materialize all sorts of 3D-facsimiles in our own environment just as readily as we can retrieve 2D paper-facimilies today,.. but no one's betting just yet on when you'll be able to get your own 3D-printer that way.


Creating high resolution 3D models of the entire human body was never so easy! Based on a proprietary 3D digitizing technology, wth a special lens designed to capture over a half million points of 3D geometry in the blink of an eye, InSpeck's various hardware/software combinations allow 3D artists and others to import form and colour texture of real human bodies into the virtual world.

3D models are created by first individually digitizing surfaces corresponding to single views of an object's shape, using a camera-like color or B/W optical 3D digitizer. The complete 360° models are then generated by combining a number of such views (partial models), correctly aligned, one with the other, independent of their vews of acquisition, in digital formats that can be imported into most popular 3D modeling and animation software packages.

The equipment is easy to use and set-up, with the portable carrying case even doubling up as a stand for the digitizer.

Economical Options

Roland's series of digital 3D scanners and milling-machines have been around for quite awhile now providing economical solutoins for direct input/output of three dimensional design in-house. Focussed essentially upon activity segments from Prototyping and Jewelry casting-molds to 2D engraving, the machines have also been extensively used by educational institutions for R & D, as also for practical training and NC Code programming, etc. Hallmarks are economy, ease of operation, and robust safety features that make them perfect for a learning environment.

A new offering in the series also prints photos, logos, pictures and text directly onto flat surfaces of aluminum, brass, copper, stainless steel, gold, silver and platinum, using a dot impact technology to permanently emboss images without applying ink or removing material.

3D scanners in the series are mainly based on active piezo sensor probes that can even scan soft objects with scan pitch down to 50 microns. Reverse-engineering can therefore easily be reduced to product-design using Clay and Wax etc. which can be scanned and converted into CAD models ready for finishing and final milling.

Die making for jewelry in India is one of the segments that has enthusiastically embraced the Roland systems, using CAD software's for product designing and CNC machines to produce tool-steel dies and also wax models for investment casting.

For more information on these and other economical CAD/CAM machines,
E-mail Apsom Infotex Ltd. in New Delhi, India.