The machine, no larger than a coffee maker and encased in black like Darth Vader’s helmet, hums at a whisper.
Swinging open the shell’s door reveals a slim metal nozzle moving smoothly over a platform, putting down melted black filament in thin layers that form a set of simple chess pieces.
The plastic figures might not look like much, but to Zach Kaplan, the 3-D printing technology creating them represents the early promise of digital manufacturing, powered by desktop machines, user-friendly design software and creative people tinkering away in basements and garages.
As CEO of Chicago-based Inventables, an online retailer of materials for product designers and artists, Kaplan is finding new customers among small businesses and budget-strapped hardware startups. He and other proponents of digital fabrication say the technology’s increasing accessibility is emboldening a new generation of participants in the manufacturing sector, reinvigorating the industry as the creation of a single item or a small batch of products becomes as affordable as mass production.
The 3-D printer making the chess set at Inventables costs $899 on the company’s website, and one spool of filament, enough to make 360 pieces, is $39. The accompanying design software can be run on a basic computer connected to the printer with a USB cord.
“Inventables used to only be able to service the most well-funded R&D groups,” said Kaplan, who launched his business in 2002 to cater to big corporations. “Now we’re servicing R&D labs in garages all over the world.”
Unlike previous generations of 3-D printers, milling machines and laser cutters, many of today’s models fit on a desktop and are designed for micromanufacturing. That means a custom job or small run, from one to 1,000 units, can be as inexpensive as outsourcing production but without the fear of giving up quality control to an overseas manufacturer. Inventables has a U.S. customer, for example, that uses a digital milling machine for a skateboard business, cutting three longboards from a $30 sheet of Baltic birch in 40 minutes.