Imagine that one morning, while enjoying your daily latte, you come up with an absolutely brilliant idea for a new camera accessory. So, how do you go from concept to reality? In the past, you would have had to work with a machine shop to create a prototype, then talk to manufacturers about having an injection mold made for your first production run.
What if instead you could sit down at your computer for a few hours of design work, and have the prototype in your hands the very same day? That is the promise of what is known as 3-D printing. With a machine about the size of a 1990s-era laser printer, you can use your computer and basic 3-D modeling software to “print” out items in the same way that you would use a word processing program and a printer to create your neighborhood newsletter. Sounds too good to be true, right? But this technology has already been used to make camera mounts and even a camera.
The process of 3-D printing goes something like this: The printer takes a material, often ABS plastic filament, and melts it. Then, a tiny movable nozzle squirts out the melted plastic as though it were ink from an inkjet printer. Instead of just laying down a single layer of ink, however, the 3-D printer retraces its steps, laying down layer after layer of material on a platform, building items up one very thin layer at a time. For almost three decades, automobile and airplane manufacturers have used 3-D printing technology for prototyping parts and designs. The printers they used were giant industrial machines with a price tag of around a million dollars. While the use of these machines is still growing across a wide range of industries, the real explosion in 3-D printing has been in small-scale production and manufacturing.
For around $1,300 you can get a build-it-yourself kit online to make your own 3-D printer or spend $2,200 on a turnkey unit such as the Replicator 2 from MakerBot.com. In the past you would have had to purchase 3-D CAD (computer-aided design) software, such as AutoCAD or SolidWorks, before you could make use of your new printer. These programs are both quite expensive and rather complicated to use. With the advent of free 3-D software such as Google SketchUp, however, the cost and the learning curve have been greatly reduced.
While it is still a young technology with worlds of evolution ahead of it, 3-D printing has already started to work its way into the photography industry. Sites like Thingiverse.com provide files you can print to produce everything from basic lens adapters and GoPro mounts, to more complicated creations like a rail system for a digital SLR film rig with motorized focus-zoom ring control. Some exciting and innovative projects have been produced with 3-D printing technology as well. A French student recently designed and printed an entire film SLR camera, the OpenReflex. A pinhole camera dubbed the Flyer is another piece of photographic equipment created with 3-D printer technology. The Flyer began as a Kickstarter project, and it was so popular that it reached its goal of $1,200 in ten hours, going on to raise an additional $12,000.
The bottom line is this: 3-D printing is changing the ways in which inventors are able to design, prototype, manufacture and ultimately sell their products. It has also greatly leveled the playing field, allowing smaller companies to more effectively compete in the marketplace. So, the idea that the next great photographic accessory could come from your morning coffee daydream session may not be quite as far-fetched as it seems.
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