A Peek Inside Microsoft’s 3D Printing Model Shop

In this video, Microsoft user experience designer Karsten Aagaard gives tech writer Joshua Topolsky a guided tour of Microsoft’s amazing 3D print shop. Using a variety of state-of-the-art 3D printers, the shop allows user-experience designers to make real-time models to aid Microsoft’s research and development engineers. According to Aagaard, if the engineers can have their design specifications to him by 5:00 PM one day, he can have the model they need in their hands by 8:00 AM the next morning.

The 3D printers Microsoft’s designers use have four print heads which dispense two different materials each. The printers combine these materials in different proportions, rather like mixing different colors of paint, to produce dozens of materials with differing physical qualities. This way, models can be built all in one piece but with different properties – a phone, for example, with a hard, plastic-like shell and soft, compressible buttons. Depending on the size of the model, printing can take anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours.

3D printing techniques are now so refined that the machines can also produce linked and movable parts. Aagaard explains – showing Topolsky a bicycle chain as an example – that the parts are hardened in the 3D printing process but with support material left untouched between them. When the excess material is removed, the linked parts are freed.

While the main purpose of the print shop is to provide physical prototypes for the Microsoft engineers who are designing new products, there are other uses as well. Aagaard shows Topolsky an over-sized computer mouse scroll wheel as an example. Produced by one of the 3D printers at four times its original size, it allowed design engineers to more easily troubleshoot an existing product. A clear plastic Windows cell phone was also produced at the print shop. It was used during the early marketing phase of the phone’s production. The clear plastic allowed Microsoft’s marketing department to showcase the phone’s interface without the electronics attached.

While the printers cannot produce working electronics – yet! – they can aid in the early testing of electronic devices. Shells made by the 3D printers can be loaded with actual electronics, turning them into working models. According to Aagaard, test hands can also be produced for performing actual-use tests. The fake hands can be used for button life testing.

This is fascinating stuff! Watching this video, one has to wonder, how long will it be before 3D technology is no longer simply part of Microsoft’s research and development but actually becomes part of its production phase, instead?