It’s less than two months before his company’s initial product launch, and CEO Ric Fulop is excitedly showing off rows of stripped-down 3-D printers, several bulky microwave furnaces, and assorted small metal objects on a table for display. Behind a closed door, a team of industrial designers sit around a shared work desk, each facing a large screen. The wall behind them is papered with various possible looks for the startup’s ambitious products: 3-D printers that can fabricate metal parts cheaply and quickly enough to make the technology practical for widespread use in product design and manufacturing.
Hobbyists and self-proclaimed makers can use relatively inexpensive 3-D printers to make wonderfully complex and ingenious shapes out of plastics. And some designers and engineers have found those machines useful in mocking up potential products, but printing polymer parts has found little use on the production floor in anything but a few specialized products, such as customized hearing aids and dental implants.
Though it is possible to 3-D-print metals, doing so is difficult and pricey. Advanced manufacturing companies such as GE are using very expensive machines with specialized high-power lasers to make a few high-value parts (see “Additive Manufacturing” in our 10 Breakthrough Technologies list of 2013). But printing metals is limited to companies with millions to spend on the equipment, facilities to power the lasers, and highly trained technicians to run it all. And there is still no readily available option for those who want to print various iterations of a metal part during the process of product design and development.
This is a huge milestone. Being able to design and print metal parts or components will revolutionize industry on every level.
Where is your gun control now? And where will it be after ten years of refinement and market development? Sure, right now, you’d have to sell your kids, a leg, and several internal organs to get your hands on one. But in the not too distant future? Maybe not in every workshop, but odds are that if you don’t own one yourself, you’ll know someone who does.
If these guys are successful, this will likely mark the transition between proto-fabbers and early fabber technology.