3D Printing

Posted by in Intriguing, Musings

Almost two years ago, a friend sent me an incredible video that captured the real beauty of manufacturing machines. It featured the Daishin Seki 5-axis mill carving a full size motorcycle helmet out of a single block of aluminum, and if you haven’t seen the video I definitely recommend checking it out.  The complexity and detailing was incredible, and at the time I was blown away by what a robot could create with a little bit of programming. However, past the glitz and glam, one fact remains: the helmet was carved. When you think about the fact that  things have been carved from stone for thousands of years, carving a helmet out of a block of aluminum doesn’t seem seem to hold the awe it once did. The fact that we have figured out a way to automate such a process is impressive, but it definitely leaves a great anticipation for the next big thing in creating 3D structures.

Enter the 3D printer. The technology itself has been around for years, but only recently has it established itself as a viable process in many industries.  In general, the process involves laying down layers one at a time, over and over, to build up to a final 3D shape.   The term 3D printing can sometimes refer to a specific method of producing a part, but for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to use it in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing all the different methods of ending with a 3D product.

For those of you that are less familiar, here is a brief rundown of the basic technologies used for various 3D printing:

The first is fairly intuitive and involves familiar inkjet technology in which layers of either plaster or resin are alternated with printed layers of binder. The cool thing about this method is that the binding glue used can be pigmented, so a prototype of full color can be created.  Layers can also be created by fused deposition modeling, a technique commonly used for prototyping, where a polymer is heated and extruded onto a support structure.

Another method of 3D printing uses a beam of light over a photosensitive liquid, effectively curing the material.  The benefit of this method (in addition to the dramatic way it makes its exit out of the pool of liquid) is that the surface finish is much better, requiring less processing after the printing. The last method I’ll mention here is laser sintering, which uses a laser to fuse a powdered base.  It goes without saying that anything with lasers is super cool, but using one for 3D printing allows unbelievably intricate patterns and a variety of model materials to be used including even metal and glass.

Ok, so now to the reason 3D printing has become the topic of my rambling thoughts: there have been a few recent developments in 3D printing that are possible game changers and worth sharing. The first is an announcement made by Science Daily a couple weeks ago that the world’s first ‘printed’ aircraft had been flown. Named after the university that developed it, the SULSA (Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft) is an unmanned, electric motor aircraft that can reach nearly 100 miles per hour!  With an impressive wingspan of 2 meters, the entire plane was constructed with laser-sintered parts that were then snapped together without the use of any tools. Although there are plenty of examples of wondrous things being 3D printed, my personal opinion is that this particular one marks the beginning of true, landmark function in 3D printed parts. (See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110728082326.htm for the full article)

The second bit of information (that is probably much more relevant to you and me) is the announcement two weeks ago that a venture capital firm invested $10 million dollars in MakerBot, a developer of low-cost commercial 3D printers. Their main product, the Thing-O-Matic, is an extrusion system that can be purchased as a kit or fully assembled.  Custom, fully assembled Thing-O-Matics can be connected with a standard USB cable, and start at only $2,500.  The venture firm believes… or I guess is hoping… that it will only be a few years before printers become commonplace.

Given everything that has happened recently in 3D printing, I’d have to say I agree that it is only a matter of time before the average consumer purchases a 3D printer.  Even if purchasers have no great purpose for it’s use, we have to remember that Americans love to screw around with cool technology.  Just ask Colbert. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53C-43XiuXM