19 November 2017

Where New-Wave Manufacturing Is Headed

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Many people have now heard about 3-D printing. Carl Bass has been tracking it for 25 years.

As chief executive of Autodesk Inc., a maker of design software for companies in manufacturing, construction, and media and entertainment, Mr. Bass pays close attention to manufacturing technology. So he waited eagerly during the long gestation of 3-D printing, which builds objects by depositing layers of plastic or other materials.

His company operates a workshop on San Francisco's waterfront where 150 engineers and artists experiment with 3-D printers, milling machines and other tools. In May, Mr. Bass announced plans for Autodesk to sell its own printer—its first-ever hardware product—and related software.

The Wall Street Journal recently spoke with Mr. Bass about 3-D printing and other trends in manufacturing, including the emergence of new companies and ad hoc gatherings called meetups that entrepreneurs and hardware hobbyists organize on the site Meetup.com to trade ideas. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.

The Role of 3-D 

WSJ: How do you view 3-D printing?

MR. BASS: I think there's been a huge amount of press—and probably an excessive amount of press—around the idea of consumer home 3-D printers.

I think equally true is people have underappreciated the value of industrial 3-D printing. Over time, it's going to become a much more substantial tool for production manufacturing.

WSJ: In what ways?

MR. BASS: Right now, 3-D printing is widely used for prototyping: I'm making a valve. I'm making a new phone. I drew it up in the computer, and now I just want to hold one in my hands.

Next is where you start seeing things move into low-volume, high-value applications. Things like a hearing aid. It's important that it fits my ear.

WSJ: Something customizable.

MR. BASS: Right. The third one is more mainstream, things like braces [for teeth].

Those are 3-D printed products that are just starting to cross into more of a mass market. But I don't think there's been any breakout 3-D printed product yet.

Part of it is, if it's not customizable, when you reach a certain threshold in terms of the number of units you're going to sell, there are more efficient ways to make it today. If I'm going to make 10 plastic parts, printing is a great idea. If I'm going to make a million, I'm going to build a mold and injection-mold it.

One place where people are doing really interesting new work is they are doing the 3-D printing of metal along with CNC [computer numerical control] milling. They print a quarter of an inch and then they mill it [remove material as needed to meet the product specifications], and then they do that repeatedly.

WSJ: It's one machine that's designed to do both?

MR. BASS: Yes. What you get is the efficiency of only putting down as much material as you want, while adding the precision of subtractive technology, which has been perfected over decades.

I've also seen companies that are doing printing of carbon-fiber parts. So you can get incredibly strong and lightweight parts.

WSJ: Things like heart valves seem likely.

MR. BASS: Hip replacements, knee replacements. When you talk about mass customization of medical things, it makes a huge amount of sense.

Click here for the full interview in the Wall Street Journal.

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