3-D printing technology is maturing to the point where rapid prototyping machines are becoming affordable to small business owners - and even for high-end home use. Dimension's uPrint 3D printer has just been released at a retail price of US$14,900, giving anyone with CAD skills the ability to prototype and even manufacture pretty much any small shape they want in hard ABSplus plastic - including pre-assembled objects with moving parts. What would you create if you could have any plastic shape you wanted?

3-D printing machines started out as an incredibly efficient means of design prototyping to test parts for fit, form and function. Before this type of rapid prototyping was available, manufacturing tooling had to be set up and an initial run of a prduct had to be made - and if there were any design errors, the tooling would have to be changed and another design iteration manufactured before it could be tested.

The process is easy to understand - the CAD model is broken down into slices between seven and ten thousandths of an inch thick. The first slice is printed using an ABS plastic extrusion head, then each remaining slice is layered on top of it. You can design empty spaces and gaps between parts into your CAD setup, and use a dissolvable supporting material to hold everything in place while the model is under construction. Once this fused deposition modelling process is finished, you throw the final model into a gently agitating solvent tank for an hour or so and the supporting materials disappear, leaving your plastic model fully operational.

In this way, it's possible to make prototypes of products that are later to be conventionally manufactured, but you can also make shapes that are very difficult to build in any other way - things with moving parts which are completely encased within other parts. You don't have to design in an installation path or think about how the things are going to be assembled down the line.

The uPrint machine is conceived as a desktop device, and as such it has about the same desktop footprint as an office laser printer - 63.5 x 66cm. It's a fair bit taller than most printers, and you can make it taller again using an optional extra material bay for a larger printing capacity.

It has a reasonably small build area, reflecting the finding that an 80% majority of pieces that were being built in the company's larger machines would fit within this smaller 8x6x6 inch box. The uPrint dispenses soluble support materials as well as white ABSplus plastic, which Dimension's parent company Stratasys clains is 40% harder and stronger than regular ABS plastic. The uPrint doesn't offer the ability to print plastic in multiple colours like some of Dimension's higher-end models can.

Couple the uPrint with a 3-D scanner, and you're able to produce precise plastic replicas of whatever you can scan effectively. Couple it with a CAD design program and a creative design mind, and what you can produce is limited only by size and imagination. Get this technology down closer to US$1-2000, and you're looking at something that most aspiring designers would save up the cash for.

Check out a couple of videos on the technology:

Here's a Dimension rep explaining the uPrint to EngineeringTV.com:

This video shows a range of printed plastic parts made by a similar 3-D printer: