3D Printing New Business Competition in Tohoku Japan

A few weeks ago we proposed a small batch manufacturing business to one of the struggling areas in Japan. We passed the first stage of the competition and a few days we went in to present to a panel of judges about the merits of the business plan.

The basic concept of the business plan was based on two concepts. 1) What Voodoo Manufacturing  is doing 2) The Japanese concept of giving small gifts. The small manufacturing center would be able to turn out around 5000 small plastic objects in a week. We believe this would be a valuable service to venues in Japan that could then offer these customized and branded gifts to their guests for special events. Think, a wedding hall or a sports stadium as the main clients of this business.

Doing the economic calculus of a project like this, I estimated that, on objects like these, transaction costs, on the margin, are reduced by around 300%. I don’t know if this applies to expensive products but I suspect that if it doesn’t yet, it will at some point in the future.

The other interesting thing I learned is that the sweet spot for this business is somewhere between 500-5000 parts. Oddly, doing a single object is a terrible way to make money. Which tends to indicate that a B2C business based around 3D printing has to have a radically different business model. This may also explain why a lot of B2C 3D printing businesses are performing poorly or at very least under expectations.

This whole project seems to be a baby step on a much larger path towards advanced manufacturing. Advanced manufacturing is going to look radically different than traditional economy of scale manufacturing.

Thomas Modeen and Expanding 3D Printing

Thomas Modeen recently visited Japan on a small tour. I had the chance to hear his insightful talk about 3D Printing and product design.


His product design can be seen in more detail on his site. What Thomas does that is really special is transform his fundamental understanding of 3D printing into real objects. In a way, he is certainly 5 or 10 years ahead of our time.  Even his older designs like the Snakeskin are still fresh.  One interesting point Thomas brought up is how to utilize the waste product from desalination plants, that is, salt, in a way that reminds us of the natural life cycle of buildings and cities. He showed a tower made of salt blocks with a 3D printed scaffold. The idea that it would be slowly eaten away and the blocks could be replaced.

The idea of using a waste product like salt for construction is clever and reminds me of the story of charcoal’s popularization.  But, like the story of charcoal, if we want to see change or actual impact, we have to find a way to make something that is actually useful to other people at a price they can afford. Salt is already being 3D printed into structures and further research on this could help us with being strong salt structures for in situ printing in extreme environments where salt is plentiful.

3D printing consultants, Hype and Hysterics

The article starts off with the basics concluding many people think 3D printing will disrupt 3D printing. Then the authors hits us with a growth curve chart of 3D printing. This is the basic setup of the professional amateur and ironically the same method that hypers use to persuade us in the reverse direction. Having the rhetorical style of a child or computer is not my concern so onto the main points:


Our heroes identify three hurdles

The chief constraints are economics, speed, and material science.

and just one paragraph later

it is likely to play an important role in most manufacturing operations over time. Companies that begin experimenting with the technology now will be positioned to utilize it successfully in the future. However, they should view additive manufacturing as part of a suite of advanced manufacturing tools that can improve performance, operational efficiency, quality, and the customer experience.

Which reads like a “if my first statement turns out to be wrong im not really wrong” Whatever the outcome, in 5 years these people will pat themselves on the back for their sagacity.


Economics. Additive-manufacturing materials are prohibitively expensive for most high-volume manufacturing applications, often more than offsetting any benefits that may be derived from any reduced labor that additive manufacturing confers. For example, thermoplastic materials used for traditional injection molding cost $2 to $3 per kilogram, whereas the corresponding photopolymers used in additive manufacturing cost anywhere from $100 to $300 per kilogram, according to a 2014 report by Wohlers Associates.

Industrial printers, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each, add to the economic challenge and make the up-front investment for industrial applications substantial.

This is false equivalency or extreme stupidity. Injection molded plastics and photosensitive resins are so different in price because they are totally different materials used in totally different processes and applications. Those $300/kilo resins are used as a replacement for wax in the lost wax casting process. ABS is unsuitable for this application. These ‘photopolymers’ are ‘photopolymers’ for the exact reason that they are not extruded like a ‘thermoplastic’  The equivalence for 3D printing is this $2 to $3 kilo of ABS pellets vs $10 to 20 Kilo filaments and that is to an end consumer. A company serious about integrating 3D printing methods into their workflow will inevitably not being paying retail for their inputs.

As far as the cost of so-called industrial printers; the same can be said for any other industrial process. Industry and capital investment are bedfellows.


Material Availability and Performance. Today, 3-D objects can be printed from a wide range of polymers, paper, ceramics, composites, and alloys that include aluminum, nickel, chromium, and stainless steel. However, many specific alloys and compounds required for industrial applications are not yet available for additive manufacturing.

The durability and consistency of additively manufactured materials pose further concerns. Additively manufactured parts may not perform as well as those made with traditional methods. Titanium alloys used in additive manufacturing, for example, result in lower yields and tensile strengths than titanium alloys used in traditional methods.

This is bundling some truth with factual errors. It is true, 3D printing cannot print with all alloys and compounds. It is not true that 3D printed titanium alloys are weaker than traditional methods.

For example, one study compares the strength of a titanium alloy TiAI6V4

Ti6Al4V is a widely used biomaterial for many medical applications (Biomet, 2009), (Oshida, 2007), (Bronzino, 2006). Experimental results show that the properties of full-dense Ti64 processed on EBM fulfill the corresponding norm for medical implants (ISO, 2010), (ASTM, 2010) and are even superior to casted titanium alloys (Table 1).


Properties Norm (ISO Standards, 2010) Ti64 (EBM) Ti64 (cast) (ASTM, 2010)
Yield strength [Mpa] 760 849 825
Elongation [%] 10 15 10
Area reduction [%] 37 15-25
Young modulus [GPa] 125

So rather than 3D printed titanium alloys having lower yield and tensile strength than traditional methods such as casting, it is significantly stronger is some respects. Some 3D printed materials are weaker than their traditionally manufactured counterparts and there are many applications where you do not want to use a 3D printed part because it is too weak. None of this touches on the topic of integrating mesostructures or generative design into industrial components which would be a great boon to 3D printed parts mechanical performance in industry.


Speed. Industrial 3-D printers are much slower than the traditional high-volume manufacturing machinery. One example is plastic injection molding. According to our analysis, a traditional plastic-injection-molding system can produce nearly 26,000 parts per workday. By contrast, an additive-manufacturing laser-sintering machine can produce only 111 comparable parts per workday. In some cases, such as with aerospace engine parts, it can take two days to print a single object.

Perhaps this is the most opaque topic in consideration of 3D printing. It is interesting to note that both advocates and detractors are wholly polarized on this topic. Using the authors numbers, injection molding is 234.23 times faster than 3d printing. I won’t dispute this if we compare the time it takes to make one unit on an injection molded system and one unit on a 3D printer. But this completely misses the point of even talking about speed, the entire economic structure for the past several hundred years has been pushing towards a manufacturing scheme to leverage cheap labor combined with machine systems. But if I want to make a product and have it in my client’s hand tomorrow, 3D printing is certainly much faster since you bypass pretty much the entire supply chain and go from computer/raw data > local printer > client. The issue with speed is framing. If we talk about manufacturing a product as only the physical process of forming it, injection molding becomes really fast. If we talk about going from nothing to product, 3D printing is faster. So in many ways talking about specific numbers is a way to avoid the actual issue of speed.

Sometimes 3D printing will be faster, sometimes injection molding will be faster. Making a 1:1 comparison and ignoring all other factors is spectacularly feckless.

The rest of the article goes on to pitch their consulting business. So I suppose their attempts at a critical look at 3D printing were designed for posturing since they are so factually weak. However, if we take such middling positions we will be left watching as greater men, companies, and societies reap the first harvest of 3D printing.

One statement is great, one is pathetic

1986: The internet is going to change our lives

2016: The internet is going to change our lives


3D Printed Chess Set

I’ve never been very good at gift giving. Lacking Confucian ostentation and meticulous planning, gifts to my friends and family have always ranged from forgettable to bad. I have fond memories of playing Chess with my dad on a cheap old wooden set. When I saw the Duchamp chess set I was reminded of those times and felt a strange compunction to create something as a memorial to my time playing chess with him, and that old set.


I’m not sure if I will be able to finish it before this Christmas but that has dissuaded me from starting now.


Immediately I knew I wanted something that would be a precious work by itself. Probably using a heavy mixed polymer like those tungsten and stainless steel mixtures but from my experience these have bad layer bonding and are weak to the effects of time. Quality was actually my secondary reason for going with SLA.




The knight seemed like the obvious first piece to print since it is the most challenging. Thinking about it now though, the slender neck and the fatter head might be a issue. The printing was issue free and took roughly 5 hours. However, because this is DLP, I can fit about 2-3 pieces on one plate or if I print at 70 microns, 6-8 pieces. So roughly figure 2 hours per print at 30 microns, times the number total number of pieces, is 64 hours of printing time at 30 microns. Or around 10 hours of total printing time at 70 microns. I’ll decide after I get the first casting back.



It turned out well. I’m unsure how the lowish resolution of the model will turn out once it is casted. Looking at it in resin, it give a feeling of hand beaten copper. The larger base that you see on the bottom of the model is foundation support added during the slicing to help it stick to the plate. This might have been a stupid thing as it will require me to shave it off by hand along the transversal. For the next parts I will defiantly switch to point supports.

As for materials choice, Silver for white is a defiant as the characteristic shine matches white perfectly and platinum is too luxurious. I’m leaning towards brass for black but will have a talk with the caster and discuss some alloys that might be a better fit.

The next question will be if I print all the pieces or print one of each and create silicone molds and use wax injection for the molds then finally wax for the casting. The upside of going mold to wax to cast is less work for me. I don’t think, for this volume, that it will actually be faster because in the time it would take to make one mold I could have already printed half the total set. The upside of printing is that I control the process and it will probably be cheaper… I better fire up the printer.


Is 3D Printing Niche?

One of the more exciting fields in 3D printing is in the world of composites. Companies like MarkForged are particularly interesting because of their seemingly niche target. It is not the niche that is so interesting but the approach to their business. Paradoxically, for 3D printers to become more generally utilized there needs to be a more narrow focus among 3D printer manufacturers. This is because most 3D printers disappoint their audience. If you look at the industries who are early adopters of 3D printing, they were willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for these thousand dollar machines because they had real problems they were trying to solve. Instead we are selling thousand dollar machines that don’t solve any problem. So price competition among manufacturers becomes fierce because it is effectively the only to convince people to buy. People say it is a race to the bottom but rather is is a race to gadgetize 3D printing.

Therefore it is better for a 3D printing company to ask, “what problem does our 3D printer solve?” Only super villains and politicians can start with a solution then manufacture a problem. I expect that we will see a wave of these companies and printers within a year or two.

In the short-term, the sweet spot for all additive manufacturing will be low production volume with high geometrical complexity. Prime examples are the medical fields of orthotics, prosthetics and hearing aids, applications that work best when customized for the user. “Here is where “D printing makes sense as a manufacturing process,” MarkForged creative director Jeff Klein asserts, “allowing you to tailor each part to the individual, without a cost or time penalty. And it’s a vast improvement over where the market is today.” He adds that his company’s Markone printer can be used to reinforce orthotic shoe inserts, for example, in dynamic ways: “We might lay fiber in the arch or part of the heel or at 45° in certain areas to correct the heel strike or a gait issue.” He contrasts this to how these devices have been made for the past 40 years, where measurements are taken, then a cast is made from the body part and sent out for hand-lamination and production. He concludes, “After thousands of dollars and 3-4 weeks, the device might be ready.” In contrast, Klein claims 3D printed composites not only reduce cost, “but I can pick up my orthotic inserts in the same week that I ordered them.”

3D printing is good at prototyping, but I think everyone knows that at this point. The interesting thing is how these companies are moving their marketing towards showing how their printers can drastically effect traditional markets. Similar in price and focus on specialization, Voxel8 is trying to solve real problems for traditional industries, evidenced by the fact they are hiring an intern to do just that.

So it seems clear that shortly we will experience a wave of specialized 3D printers but rather than making 3D printing more niche it will be a boon for general 3D printing as effective 3D printers are used to overcome specific problems.

Is 3D Printing Hyped?

There is an upcoming expo where I will be giving a brief talk on 3D printing.

The impetus for this topic was a Japanese ‘expert’ in 3D printing.  Oddly this expert and many like him seem to take popular sentiment, temper it with a small amount of sophistication and think they have discovered the secrets of the universe. In this case, he was arguing that 3D printing is a hyped technology because it is slow, limited in materials, and cannot provide good surface finish.

Naturally, I disagree and give some reason why I think 3D printing is going to impact us significantly. The major problem seems to be that people are mistaking the machine with the method. You can come watch the talk on the 20th in the afternoon if you are in the area.

NASA 3D Printed Habitat Challenge

NASA/America Makes launched a 3D printing challenge to come up with the best design for a 3D printed habitat on Mars. There seems to be growing interest in this sector because of the major economic advantages of 3D printing in remote locations.

The winners were can be found here and below I have reproduced my entry.


America Makes/NASA

3D – Printed Habitat Challenge


About Team Ulmo has background in 3D printing technologies, founder of 3D printing company that helps businesses integrate new 3D printing technology. Designer of new carbon fiber manufacturing method via 3D printing. B.A. in economics from University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.


Summary A self contained 3D printer that can be easily landed, can autonomously construct a habitable structure, aide in habitation and research and provides an innovative architectural method using existing technology.


Machine The machine called, “Ulmo” is dome-like with a flat removable bottom. The top of the dome is threaded and circular to support the body of a 9 meter screw column with a 50 cm diameter. A robotic arm is supported at the base of the screw column. The base of the screw column is drill shaped for the purpose of embedding itself into the terrain. The screw column is partly hollow to accommodate the storage of the robotic arm. The robotic arm has a triangular shaped extruder head that is used to extrude and form the construction material.


Structure The structure is hexagonal with triangular features, the purpose of which is to provide a strong bond between foundation and walls. The foundation is 10 cm thick. the bottom portion of the Ulmo detaches upon landing and is therefore not carried upward with Z movement. It is intended to create a solid circular core around the screw column and provide foundation anchoring. The building terminates in the dome of the Ulmo. As the building is constructed from the bottom up, the Ulmo turns along the screw column which moves the dome of the Ulmo up (or down) as required. Arches built from native material provide support for the dome and add structural strength to the building. The shell or walls of the building are 10 cm thick, the building has two shells or two exterior lines on both the exterior wall and the interior wall. The internal structure of the wall is a honeycomb with a hollow central channel that is used at a later stage for filling the walls with a water mixture. The purpose of the water mixture is to provide radiation shield for the inhabitants. The diameter of the structure measured from interior wall to interior wall is 12 meters. The walls are 110 cm thick.


Innovative approach Recognizing that certain critical components will need to be imported from earth and that size and weight of the object being sent from earth to mars are limits of our economics and technology. The design makes the building the 3D printer. Gathering of material is done by drilling down rather than by collecting surface materials for three major reasons: 1)It requires a much simpler and therefore more robust mechanism. (pump vs movable harvesting robot) 2) Drilling down can provide a source of water, useful for both habitation and the proposed radiation shielding. 3) The chance of finding something scientifically interesting is much higher.

Testing is also easy on earth because of the variety of materials the Ulmo is designed to process.  


The 3D printing mechanism Colloquially called fused filament fabrication or FFF is a deceptively simple mechanism for 3D printing an object. I assume the reader is familiar with the method so I will just highlight why this is the preferred method for building a habitat on Mars. The method is extremely robust. Almost any material can be used. We are already building FFF machines that print in concrete. The critical components are limited to the extruder. The extruder governs the pressure of the material, allowing 0G and low atmosphere printing and applies force to the material it is spreading which enables it to bond to the previous layers. In the case of the Ulmo, the robotic arm is fed via pump from the end of the screw column. Although immobile, it provides stability and robustness. The other major advantage of this design is that it can be ‘planted’ via orbital insertion.


Interior The central shaft will have four low walls that radiate out from the center to form rooms for the four astronauts, providing a modicum of personal space. Kitchen space, gym, workspace showers, toilet are placed on the exterior walls. The central ring in between the living quarters and various rooms provides access everywhere and doubles as a track for running. The overhead arches provide a warm human feeling to the inhabitants while the dome they support provides a point for storing sensitive, hard to move and install, equipment such as the ECLSS, radio or sensor.   


Building Site Lobate Debris Aprons in the Mid-Northern Latitudes is a suitable location because of its interesting scientific value and and access to ice.


Inspiration The building was inspired by a study available materials. The Martian “soil” shares similarities to types of volcanic ash. Some of the masters of this building material were the Romans who combined it with quicklime to produce a type of concrete that while being weaker than modern concrete has shown to be more durable in harsh conditions. It was often combined with incongruous materials like loose stones, recycled bricks or even other parts of buildings. It is natural to adopt the building features of this time such as domes and high arches as they provided the needed strength with the available materials.