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December 05, 2012

3D Printing Comes of Age, Part 3

TechShop is "a three-story workshop in [San Francisco] city outfitted with 3-D printers, laser cutters and other sophisticated tools to develop products and prototypes." ["A Shop to Build Your Hit Product, by Deborah Gage, Wall Street Journal, 29 November 2012] Gage reports that TechShop is part of a growing "maker movement" that attracts people "who are building physical products." She continues:

"Companies including MakerBot Industries LLC, which makes 3-D printers, and software maker Autodesk Inc. sponsor hack-a-thons and maker events, where their equipment is made available for attendees to use. Autodesk is also a backer of TechShop. Several of these efforts have been inspired by Maker Faire, an event that features engineering, crafts and science projects that started in San Mateo in 2006 and is now expanding world-wide."

Obviously, continued improvements in 3D printers and the materials which are becoming available for use in them are helping spawn interest in the maker movement. Gage reports that "TechShop was founded six years ago in Menlo Park by Jim Newton, a Bay Area inventor and entrepreneur who wanted access to tools that he couldn't afford himself." Those tools allow "makers" to create prototypes of products that can then be used to pursue a path to market. I'm a believer in prototypes, straw men concepts, and pilot projects. They provide an opportunity for people to hold more fruitful discussions than meetings centered on ideas alone. In years past, making a prototype was prohibitively expensive for many ideas; but, additive manufacturing has made a difference (as have places like TechShop). Gage continues:

"People who have used the shop's tools and space have gone on to start hundreds of companies, including micro-enterprises 'where people are making a little money on the side,' says TechShop Chief Executive Mark Hatch. The prototypes for OpenROV, an open-source underwater robot, and DODOcase, a handcrafted case for iPads and other devices, were built at TechShop, Mr. Hatch says."

As Gage notes, 3D printers aren't the only resources at TechShop. "The founders of Solum Inc., a company that helps farmers test for nitrogen in their soil to improve crop yields," she reports, "built a prototype at TechShop out of spare parts that were up for grabs." According to Gage, Solum "went on to raise funding from [the] venture-capital firm Khosla Ventures" and the prototype was critical to obtaining that funding. In addition to 3D printers, spare parts, and camaraderie, TechShops, which now operate nationally at six sites, contains all sorts of other machinery as well. Just as importantly, places like TechShop inspire ideas as well as offer facilities.

If predictions about additive manufacturing come true, it won't be long before all of us will have access to some kind 3D printing capability without having to buy a 3D printer or join a group like TechShop. Staples, for example, has announced that it will start offering its "Staples Easy 3D" service in three European countries, Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, beginning in January 2013. ["Staples to start offering 3D printing services," by Sam Shead, ZDNet, 30 November 2012] According to Shead, "Staples will use the IRIS 3D printer or the Matrix 300+ from Irish company Mcor to print the designs." Mcor Technologies CEO, Dr. Conor MacCormack stated, "The goal is to be an online service with in-store capabilities."

The public can anticipate other personalized 3D products to begin showing up as well. A company Otome-3d-photo-booth-7called Omote 3D has announced that it "will soon be opening what's described as the world's first 3D printing photo booth in Harajuku, Japan. There, visitors will have their bodies scanned into a computer, a process which takes about 15 minutes. Then the company prints your statuette on their 3D color printer in one of three sizes." ["World's first 3D printing photo booth set for scan," by Jason Falconer, Gizmag, 11 November 2012] As the attached image shows, the detail that can be obtained in these little statuettes is impressive. "Of course, this 'photo' booth isn't cheap," writes Falconer, "3D printing is still a fairly expensive novelty, especially for prints of this quality. And you can forget about trying to scan fidgety children or pets, as the data would get all skewed from their movements." He reports that prices range from $264 for a small 4-inch (10 cm) statuette to $528 for one double that size. A Spanish company (3dU has been offering a similar service for a couple of years.

If students from the University of Washington's engineering department continue to pursue their dreams, the cost of printing some 3D items may become very affordable very soon. The students, Matthew Rogge, Bethany Weeks and Brandon Bowman, have developed a 3D printer that uses the shredded remains of old plastic milk bottles as feedstock. "On October 19th they won $100,000 in the 3D4D Challenge, organised by a charity called techfortrade." ["A third-world dimension," The Economist, 3 November 2012] Although the feedstock is cheap ("High-density polyethylene is as common as muck. ... 250 clean, empty milk bottles [costs] just $3.20"), the article reports:

"Some technical questions remain. High-density polyethylene shrinks when it cools. That stresses the object being printed and can sometimes tear it apart. The students are therefore working on a second prototype that prints things faster, allowing the layers of plastic to cool almost simultaneously. They are also experimenting with making things from other types of waste plastic that suffer less from shrinkage. And until a production version of the printer is ready and priced, it remains to be seen how competitive its output really will be with mass-produced items."

If you think that the primary uses of additive manufacturing are producing prototypes and creating novelties, you might be surprised. David Szondy reports that NASA, for example, is using "3D laser printing system to produce intricate metal parts such as rocket engine components for its next-generation Space Launch System (SLS)." ["NASA using 3D laser printing to create complex rocket parts," Gizmag, 9 November 2012] He states, "The method called 'selective laser melting' (SLM) promises to streamline fabrication and significantly reduce production costs." Szondy continues:

"For the SLS, NASA is using an M2 Cusing Machine built by Concept Laser, which is a division of Hoffman Innovation Group of Lichtenfels, Germany. The M2 is similar in principle to other 3D printers, but instead of causing polymers to set, the M2 works in stainless steel, hot-worked steel, aluminum, titanium and nickel alloy by means of a 200 W fiber laser. 'Basically, this machine takes metal powder and uses a high-energy laser to melt it in a designed pattern,' says Ken Cooper, advanced manufacturing team lead at the Marshall Center. 'The laser will layer the melted dust to fuse whatever part we need from the ground up, creating intricate designs. The process produces parts with complex geometries and precise mechanical properties from a three-dimensional computer-aided design.' This method allows parts that once had to be built in simple sub-stages and then stuck together to be made in one go, which eliminates many fabrication problems and can reduce costs by as much as half."

In another article, Szondy writes that 3D printing isn't only being used to create parts for big things like rockets. He reports that "scientists at the Vienna University of Technology are going for the microscopic." ["3-D printing on the micrometer scale," Gizmag, 2 September 2012] He continues:

"Earlier this year, the university built a 3D printer that uses lasers to operate on a tiny small scale. Now they're refining the technique to enable precise placement a selected molecule in a three-dimensional material. This process, called '3D-photografting,' can potentially be used to create a 'lab on a chip' or artificially grow living tissue. Developed by material sciences specialist Prof. J├╝rgen Stampfl macromolecular chemist Prof. Robert Liska, the 3D-photografting technique is based on a sort of super sponge called hydrogel. This is a network of polymer chains that trap water much in the way that proteins in cooked egg whites do. Hydrogels are over 99 percent water and some varieties look like little transparent blobs. Hydrogels not only trap water, but any other molecules that scientists wish to introduce. If the polymers that make up the hydrogel can be made to coagulate under precise control, they can form a scaffolding for molecules and even living cells. In the Vienna University of Technology 3D-photografting technique, molecules are placed in inside the hydrogel. Then, at the points where the scientists wish to fix a molecule, a laser is focused using a special four-micron lens. Only at that point of focus will the laser be strong enough to break the polymer's bonds photochemically. This leaves a very reactive spot where the molecule can bond. As the laser moves along, it forms a matrix out of the hydrogel to which can be attached chemical signals, cells or fluorescent molecules. ... In this way, complicated structures such as capillaries can be 'printed.' The Vienna University scientists see the process as having wide applications from biology to microengineering chemical sensors, but there may come a day when a surgeon in search of a kidney for transplantation may need go no further than pressing the print button."

In addition to all of the beneficial things that can be done with additive manufacturing, there is a darker as well. A recent segment of the television show "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" featured a story-line in which a "printed" gun figured prominently. Lest you think that is far-fetched, Andy Greenberg reports that gunsmiths at a group known as Defense Distributed has announced its intention "to create a working, lethal gun anyone can download and 3D-print at home." ["Here's What It Looks Like To Fire A (Partly) 3D-Printed Gun," Forbes, 3 December 2012] It doesn't take much imagination to figure out how such unregistered and untraceable weapons could be used to commit crimes. Greenberg concludes, "Regulatory issues, however, may be the least controversial element of a project that aims to let anyone create deadly weapons in their garage with the push of a button." Szondy writes, "Three-dimensional printers are popping up everywhere these days"; but, as I noted in Part 1 of this series, there are a number of legal issues that need to be worked out if additive manufacturing is to achieve its full potential and secure its place in the business landscape.

The following video by Christopher Barnatt provides a good overview of both the state-of-the-art of 3D printing and its potential impact.

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