Manufacturing at Home

A fascinating opportunity in home-based business is quickly emerging: manufacturing small items in moderate quantities at home, using robotics. So far, this has been a phenomenon mostly restricted to geeky hobbyists (a device called the MakerBot leads  the market), but changes are happening that I believe will transform this into a viable home-based business opportunity.

The small robotic machines which are currently popular with hobbyists melt a plastic filament and deposit it in a precise location, one tiny drop at a time, building something from a 3-D computer (software) image. A coffee cup, a specially shaped tubular connector for a home aquarium, a small decorative figurine… these are the sorts of things now being made. The process is efficient. Building an item one tiny drop at a time eliminates the rough bits and only uses as much plastic as is needed for that item. It is also quite crude, and has been described as using a “robot hot glue gun.”

These current robotic machines use a technology called Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM). Early machines were very expensive, costing around $14,000 each just five years ago, in part because the FDM process was covered by patents. When those patents expired, open source FDM printers quickly emerged and prices plummeted. The cheapest FDM 3-D printer prices plummeted, to around US$300. Factories in China are now mass-producing FDM printers.

Quality

While the price drop for FDM printers has attracted a large audience of hobbyists, the reality is that FDM technology is crude, and not good enough for manufacturing items on a commercial basis.

The next step up the quality ladder are 3-D printers using stereolithography, which exposes a photo-sensitive liquid resin to light, curing it into a solid plastic shape one layer at a time. It is more precise than FDM, and can produce a product suitable for sale. Just like FDM printers a few years ago, stereolithography 3-D printers are expensive. The cheapest desktop units ones are priced well north of $3,000.

Even more precise, and more expensive, are laser-sintering 3-D printers. These get really interesting. They use a laser beam to precisely heat and melt a bed of metal powder, fusing tiny bits of the powder together, one layer at a time. After each layer is fused, a fresh layer of powder is deposited evenly over the machine bed and the next layer is sintered. Formula 1 race cars builders use this technology to produce precise metal parts. A variety of metals can be used, including stainless steel and gold.

Too expensive?

Yes, right now both laser sintering and stereolithography 3-D printers are very expensive and mostly confined to use in industrial settings. But this is about to change. As I mentioned earlier, when the key patents on the FDM 3-D printing technology expired, the prices of the machines plummeted. In February, 2014, most of the key patents in laser sintering and stereolithography 3-D printing, held by a company called 3D Systems, will expire. When that happens, look for a lot of new makers of low-cost 3-D printers to enter the market, and for prices to drop rapidly.

Within the new year or two, it should become possible to set up a small, custom 3-D printing service from your home, and make real money from the business. Depending on your interests, and the market you identify, you could be producing plastic items, or items in a variety of base and precious metals. They could be original designs, or they could be hard-to-find replacement parts.

This emerging technology has the potential to change manufacturing dramatically, creating innumerable small business opportunities.

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