Whether you have been making signs for five years or 50 years, you must have noticed how quickly things change in our industry. There are new fonts, materials and design trends to keep up with, and it seems like a new technology arises every few years that revolutionizes the sign making world. The advent of vinyl plotters 30-odd years ago wasn’t the first such ground-shaking event, and it won’t be the last. At that time, I witnessed the decline of many a talented sign painter who refused to embrace the vinyl age.
More recently, LED lighting has largely displaced neon and fluorescent tubes, and dynamic digital is becoming more affordable and accessible, proving its place as an alternative to static backlit displays indoors and out. Once a new technology reaches an acceptable level of affordability, accessibility, and durability, it is almost guaranteed to be adopted by forward-thinking sign makers looking for new ways to save time and money while offering their clients the latest in advertising options.
I have noticed frequent references to 3D printing in the media lately, with stories of average people accessing online resources for designing and printing 3D objects in an amazing array of materials. I began to wonder if this might be the tip of a new technology about to explode and rock the sign making world once again. So I started investigating, and this is what I discovered.
Lots of Options
There are quite a few manufacturers of 3D printers vying for market share, including Stratasys, MakerBot, Rep Rap, Ultimaker, 3D Systems, ExOne, Arcam, voxeljet, Printrbot and MarkForged. They offer models ranging in price from $350 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in size from desktop models to a small building capable of printing objects like furniture and auto parts.
不少制造商都在利用3D打印机争夺市场份额，包括Stratasys、MakerBot、Rep Rap、Ultimaker、3D Systems、ExOne、Arcam、voxeljet、Printrbot和MarkForged。设备的价格从350美元到数十万美元不等，从台式机到能够打印家具或汽车零件等物体的小型尺寸的型号。
There are four basic methods of printing:
Stereolithography, or SLA, starts with a pool of liquid photosensitive resin that is cured with a UV laser. The platform lowers micron by micron into the liquid, forming the shape in layers. Down-facing surfaces must have supports printed, or the layers will peel off. The liquid is drained to be used again. It can only print materials that are designed to be instantaneously hardened with UV exposure.
Selective Laser Sintering, or SLS, spreads thin layers of powder that is melted with a laser, building the shape with the hardened material as it cools. The un-melted powder is reclaimed to be used again. Almost any material that can be powdered and melted can be formed with this method, and the model is supported by the un-sintered powder.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) or Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) applies thin layers of melted material through a nozzle, similar to a tiny glue gun. A wide range of materials can be used, including plastics, metals, edible, organic and biological media. Hollow shapes must be supported while cooling, but this method also allows for multiple colors and even multiple materials to be printed simultaneously, depending on the number of nozzles employed.
PolyJet Technology is similar to inkjet printing, but instead of jetting drops of ink onto paper, PolyJet 3D Printers jet layers of liquid photopolymer onto a build tray and instantly cures them with UV light. PolyJet 3D Printing technology offers astonishingly fine detail, smooth surfaces, multi-material and multi-color options.
I was getting pretty excited at the prospect of printing complex shapes out of plastic, wood and metal, possibly even in multiple colors and combinations of materials, with a printer similar to the inkjet printers that have become such an indispensable part of our business.I thought that it would be particularly useful for printing tactile ADA signs, considering how time-consuming it is to make even the smallest Braille sign.
Too few colors, too much time
Many of the printers are only capable of printing one color of plastic material, which has not been tested outdoors. Stratasys released the Objet500 Connex3, which can incorporate up to 46 colors and multiple materials in one print, allowing you to combine rigid, rubber-like and clear parts in one model, with colors ranging from translucent to opaque.
The online “Batch Control” service by Sculpteo promises on-demand 3D printing of individual products as well as short-run manufacturing. They will analyze and repair your print file, produce it using more than 45 materials, colors and finishes with a fast turnaround and worldwide delivery. I can’t wait to try a test print of a Braille sign with that!
Some of the more expensive printers are capable of high resolution, but most print rounded surfaces with “stepping” significant enough to be detectible in a Braille dot, so sanding and painting would be required to make it ADA compliant. However, the National Federation of the Blind uses the MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3D printers very successfully for Braille and other applications for the visually impaired.
一些价值更高的打印机还能在打印的同时提供高分辨率的图像，国家盲人联合会使用了这款MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3D打印机，为视力障碍者制作出了触摸标识，产生了极好的效果。
The most significant drawback to 3D printing, however, is the time required to complete a successful print. Some of these printers are likely to clog or delaminate, so even if you clean it religiously, there is no guarantee that it will make it all the way through the print. Especially when you consider that printing a single 12”x12”x 1/4” one-color Braille sign will take about six hours.
It is possible to print several signs in one session by laying them out side by side or standing them on edge like slices of bread, but this doesn’t save much time overall. The laser or nozzle moves slowly as it builds up a few microns of material on each pass, so the more surface area it must cover, the longer it will take. Six signs would take as much as 35 hours to print, and if the print fails, you have to throw them away and start over. The best way to shorten print time would be to print a thin background layer with the raised letters and Braille, then glue that to a piece of 1/8” acrylic.
Most sign makers are familiar with 2D design programs such as Adobe Illustrator, FlexiSign or CorelDraw, but when you move beyond the XY axis into the Z, you enter a whole new world. The latest version of Adobe PhotoShop offers 3D printing capabilities, and there are quite a few other programs available, such as Autodesk, SolidWorks, SketchUp, Inventor, 3Dtin, Blender, OpenSCAD, Tinkercad, Rhino, Maya, 3DCrafter, Anim8or, BRL-CAD, Creo Elements/Direct, DrawPlus, FreeCAD, GLC Player, LeoCAD, Netfabb Studio, K-3D, and Wings 3D. They range in price from free to thousands of dollars, and they each approach three dimensional design slightly differently. I downloaded a few of the free programs and attempted to build what I thought was a simple shape, without much success. Even with 20 plus years working with a variety of design software packages, it is clear to me that moving into the third dimension will require some training.
大多数标识制造商只熟悉2D设计程序，如Adobe Illustrator、FlexiSign或CorelDraw，但是，当在已有的XY轴上再增加一个Z轴，那最初的概念将完全不一样了。现在能提供3D打印功能的应用程序非常多，如Autodesk、SolidWorks、SketchUp、Inventor、3Dtin、Blender、OpenSCAD、Tinkercad、Rhino、Maya、3DCrafter、Anim8or、BRL-CAD 、Creo Elements / Direct、DrawPlus、FreeCAD、GLC Player、LeoCAD、Netfabb Studio、K-3D和Wings 3D。它们的价格不等，对三维的设计也有很大区别。
Making it real
Fortunately, there is help out there for the dimensionally challenged. There are several service bureaus that offer printing of your customized design and help with turning your idea into a usable file. Anything from a photograph to a .pdf file to a sketch on a napkin can be converted into a solid object—for a price, of course. Most of these services will print prototypes or short runs of small objects like jewelry, toys or novelties, and the price would prohibit using them to produce a large quantity of signs. But if you want to compare the cost of having a few dimensional logos printed versus the labor of fabricating them in-house, send your file to one of these online print services and test the 3D waters.
Service bureaus: Shapeways, RedEye on Demand, Sculpteo, A&J Product Solutions, 3D ProParts, MetalTec Innovations, getitmade, GXSC, Moddler, Offload Studios, PartSnap, PrintTo3D, Ponoko, Cubify, Thingiverse, Materialise NV, 3D Printing Marketplace.
我们帮你列举了一些服务机构的清单：Shapeways、RedEye On Demand、Sculpteo、A＆J产品解决方案、3D ProParts、MetalTec Innovations、getitmade、GXSC、Moddler、Offload Studios、PartSnap、PrintTo3D，Ponoko、Cubify、Thingiverse、Materialize NV、3D打印市场。
The Makers movement has also adopted 3D printing in a big way, and they make the equipment available to anyone who is willing to attend some classes and pay a membership fee. There are several Makers Workshops around the San Francisco Bay Area, hundreds throughout the US and Germany, with more popping up all over the world.
For those sign makers who are willing to invest the time and money, with a little dedication and training, you can be 3D printing in no time. In-house production may not be extremely profitable initially, but being one of the few in the industry to own a 3D printer when the technology takes off could be a very good move. With so many innovative minds involved, it is sure to become more affordable, versatile and applicable to the sign industry, and I will continue to report on the advances as they arrive. Get ready to take your printing to the third dimension!