Factory in a Cloud; Part 2

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Factory in a Cloud; Part 2

Factory in a Cloud; Part 2

In our continuing research into rise of the maker movement, and the impact of additive manufacturing, Eric Carlson takes a project dip into the world of outsourced 3D Printing.

From hobby, to prototyping, to mass production – these technologies are set to fundamentally change how things are made. Here is a report from the front-lines of the revolution.

Editor’s Note: This is Part II of author Eric Carlson’s Additive Manufacturing post.  Part I can be found here.

In the previous post I outlined the prospect for cloud based do it yourself (DIY) digital manufacturing. I described a test of this capability using the fabrication (fabbing) service, Ponoko, to make the parts for a lamp of my design, using laser cut acrylic sheet and 3D printed polymer. My goal for the project was not to create a production ready consumer product. Instead it was to test a process of prototyping and potential manufacturing, using remote resources. This post picks up on the fabbing process, once my design files had been submitted and accepted by Ponoko.

Delivered Goods:

I received the flat laser cut pieces (purple plastic in the photos) just a week after my order. They met my expectations, with accurate shapes and nearly smooth, polished edges. However, it took almost 3 weeks to receive the 3D printed polymer housing for the LED lamp (the white finned piece in photos). When this part arrived I was reminded that my knowledge of file preparation for fabbing leaves something to be desired. In translating the computer model’s smooth twisted surfaces of the housing “blades” for printing I had over – simplified the file, resulting in faceted rather than smooth curves. This was not my original design intent but on second consideration the faceting creates an interesting texture. The durable polymer material I had chosen has a slightly rough, but not unpleasant, texture. Since I wasn’t certain of the exact attachment point of the flat lamp leaves onto the lamp housing housing I had left the attachment holes off the laser cut pieces; opting instead to measure and drill these holes in my shop. Once drilled, the 1/4 inch holes in the leaves press – fit perfectly over the “buttons” I had cast into the lamp housing. From there, the lamp was easy to assemble and wire.


I now have a lamp prototype that cost about $250 and took 3 weeks to complete, not counting computer modeling. I could not have easily created this object using conventional methods or materials. In theory I could have hand cut and finished the leaves of the lamp on a jigsaw and drill press but this would have taken hours and the accuracy would have been nowhere near perfect. Perhaps I could have carved or molded the central lamp housing out of plaster or polymer clay but this would also have been time consuming and again, the accuracy would not have been good. So, $250 for an accurate, attractive, working prototype is pretty cheap.

Had I been more knowledgeable about computer modeling and file preparation for printing I could have achieved a more finished piece for the lamp housing. Moreover, there is a range of materials available; Ponoko offers smooth, shiny finishes in a variety of colors and materials including ceramic. So, in theory, achieving a consumer ready product is not beyond reach. I should also mention that Ponoko is not the only option for outsourced fabbing; Shapeways offers similar service.


What’s to be learned from this experience, over and above surmounting the technical requirements for making finished parts that exactly match your expectations.

Not Exactly Rapid Prototyping; A three week wait for a prototype is too long. Prototyping usually depends on fast iteration. I may have been able to shop around and find a quicker service but I doubt I could have found one that could have delivered a part in less than a week under $250. By comparison, Makerbot Industry’s new Replicator promises an out of the box 3D Printer for about $2000. If the print quality is near the quality of the part I ordered then about 8 more prints from a fabbing service would be the equivalent of a purchase.

Manufacturing Is a Possibility; Even with a long delivery time certain types of custom goods could be outsourced to a manufacturing platform like Ponoko. Nike’s custom shoe program promises delivery in 3 – 4weeks. A quick scan of Ponoko’s inventory of design offerings by various makers suggests that jewelry, small housewares and home furnishings are popular areas. Can one compete with IKEA or Target on housewares and furnishings; no. However, perhaps more fair comparisons are Design Within Reach and other high end purveyors of artisanal modern home furnishings sold in fairly small quantities.

Additive Manufacturing; Unlike laser cutting or CNC routing which is basically just a faster and more accurate means of cutting or carving away something that can already be done by hand or less automated machines- and these are no small feats – 3D printing allows the making of shapes and assemblies that might be otherwise difficult if not impossible to create. Complex nested geometries that mimic biological structures are possible. Now, people offer elaborate, biomorphic jewelry pieces, printed in materials including precious metals. However, before long printing of human body parts and organs is likely. For now, beyond prototyping, jewelry and luxury furnishings, additive manufacturing favors small quantity, high value parts and assemblies in the medical and aerospace industries. What other niches cry to be filled?

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