3D-Printing in Manufacturing:
Rewriting how things are made
The Rise of the Third Industrial Revolution is
Still Getting Started
Written by Mike Hamers, Lightspeed
Edited by Kate Hamers, Lightspeed and Kris Green, Turn Words 2 Money
After a long time of not hearing anything new about the 3D printing phenomenon I decided to investigate to see what is happening. I discovered a 3D manufacturing revolution is actively and passionately taking place in medical labs and manufacturing plants across the world — and even beyond.
The Third Industrial Revolution
3D-Printing has been billed as the Third Industrial Revolution and has already proven in some areas to be just that. To take advantage of this new revolution, you don't have to be an expert of all the different manufacturing processes as long as you can render what you want built in CAD (Computer-Aided Design). Steven Hoover of PARC/Xerox at the 3D-Techonomy Conference in Tucson, Ariz. continues “You can start solving problems that were hard to solve before. You don't need a mass market to bring these products to life. You can use 3D printing to make improbable products – products you couldn't make before."
We’re now able to 3D print in 200 different materials, from titanium to rubber, plastic, glass, ceramic, leathers and even chocolate & sugar. 3D printing will massively reduce the cost of certain products as the cost of labor is removed. Here are some of the more fascinating scenarios that I uncovered.
DENTISTRY AND MEDICINE
Dentistry and medicine are leading the growth in 3D printing technology with new breakthroughs in the printing of plastics and ceramics. Bio-printing methods now including creating replacement skin, dental implants, artificial eyes, and replacements for joints such as jaw bones and knees. And of course we’ve all heard some of the extraordinary artificial-limb stories. The first customized titanium hip replacement made from CT-scans has been surgically implanted. Before the decade is out we will see the first ever printed human heart with a capillary system to support circulation created through 3D-printing. While replacement of major organs is still years away, scientists can already build many body parts. In March, surgeons replaced 75% of a man's skull with a plastic one generated by 3D-printing.
Extreme customization to each patient
The biggest benefit of 3D-printing medical devices is the ability to perfectly tailor and scale a standard-sized piece to an individual patient. 3D-printing can shape, texture or customize some other key feature they couldn’t do with most less flexible processes.
5 million Invisalign® orthodontic braces are sold per year, customized per-patient for every 2 weeks of treatment through 3D-printing. It took a few years to perfect the production process, but now the Invisalign® assembly line is twice as efficient as that of sports apparel manufacturer Nike – and Nike's products aren't customized.
Ditto on hearing aids. It took 2 years for the hearing industry to go from 100% manual to 100% 3D-printing for the shell that sits in your ear. Before, the best hearing aid maker could make just 8 shells per day. Today, for example, a stay-at-home-mom with a 3D printer can make 500 per day. There are an estimated 10 million 3D-printed hearing aids already in use today!
In March 2014, 3D-printed windpipe splints helped a baby with Tracheomalacia to breathe again. Born with a rare disorder that causes his trachea to collapse in response to the slightest movement, he’s now getting ready to leave the hospital for the first time in his life. The innovation is yet to be FDA approved — but the agency granted an emergency waiver to this “Hail Mary” procedure. The surgery took 8 hours in which the team opened the boy’s chest, fitted the dissolvable splints around his weakened trachea, and watched as his white, oxygen-deprived lungs turned a healthy pink. He is healthy and no longer dependent on a respirator for life.
Bionic printed ear
Princeton University researchers have created a bionic 3D-printed ear, made from calf cells, a polymer gel and silver nanoparticles. This ear can pick up radio signals beyond the range of human hearing. To make the ear, the researchers printed the gel into an approximate ear shape and cultured the calf cells on that matrix to create something appropriately biological. An infusion of silver nanoparticles creates an "antenna" for picking up those radio signals, which could then be transferred to the cochlea, the part of the ear that translates sound into brain signals. This is still in the research stage and no ears have been implanted in a human yet – but soon.
Stem Cells and Growing Organs
A 3D-device exists to print/deposit uniform droplets of living embryonic stem cells, which are the cells present in early development that are capable of differentiating into any type of tissue. The printer is so gentle that it can squirt out as few as five cells at a time without damaging them. Researchers can use the dabs of cells to rapidly test drugs or to build miniature scraps of tissue. The eventual goal with this research is to grow whole organs from scratch; organs that would not get rejected because they were so close to the originals.
CARS, PLANES AND ROCKETS
Your Next Airplane Might be 3D-Printed!
Car manufacturers have benefitted early on from 3D printing – from easier prototyping, to cheaper fabrication of trim and detailed parts, and even to the very tools that make the other parts.
GE Aviation plans to bring high-volume additive manufacturing (3D Printing) to its Auburn facility to mass-produce parts for the jet propulsion industry. GE will invest $125M and will begin production in 2015. The plant plans to start with 10 printers and include the potential to grow to more than 50 printers at the same facility. GE will continue to manufacture precision, non-3D printed super-alloy machined parts for jet engines at the same location.
NASA TAKES 3D PRINTING INTO SPACE
NASA created and tested the most complex rocket engine parts they ever designed, on a test stand at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. Those complex parts were created with additive manufacturing, or 3D printing.
The 3D-printing process allowed rocket designers to create an injector with 40 individual spray elements, all printed as a single component rather than manufactured individually. The part was similar in size to injectors that power small rocket engines and similar in design to injectors for large engines, such as the RS-25 engine that will power NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the heavy-lift, exploration-class rocket under development to take humans beyond Earth orbit and to Mars.
"The parts performed exceptionally well during the tests." said Chris Singer, director of Marshall's Engineering Directorate. “Using traditional manufacturing methods, 163 individual parts would be made and then assembled. But with 3-D printing technology, only two parts were required, saving time and money and allowing engineers to build parts that enhance rocket engine performance and are less prone to failure.”
MARS HOMESTEAD PROJECT
A team of scientists is developing a plan to use 3D-printing to build locally-made houses and food on Mars. These resources would support the lives of pioneers living on the Red Planet. Once settlers put industrial cutters and 3D-printers in place, subsequent visitors could start making a variety of objects needed for shelters, greenhouses and even parts for new 3D-printers, said Bruce Mackenzie, founder of the Mars Foundation, an organization that aims to build and operate the first permanent settlement on Mars.
The Martian building venture, the Mars Homestead Project, is already underway. Engineers working with the Mars Foundation are examining plans, including those that explore how to manufacture oxygen and methane, the gases and fuels needed to craft plastics like polyethylene, polyester and epoxy. "From the raw material already found on Mars, we can make plastics," Mackenzie said, adding that the ability to manufacture plastic would make it possible to start building a low-cost base. The different types of plastic could then serve various purposes. They could be made into pipes for irrigating a greenhouse or used to 3D-print gears that would then go into another 3D-printer, Mackenzie said.
The researchers have plans to make other materials, too. Martian sand could be used to print fiberglass and cement, while greenhouse-grown corn and potato starch could go into lighter objects like spoons, saltshakers and virtually any household item that a settler might need in his or her new mars colony home.
HOW 3D-PRINTING ACTUALLY WORKS
3D printing is characterized as "additive" manufacturing, which means that a solid, three-dimensional object is constructed by adding material in layers. This is in contrast to regular "subtractive" manufacturing, through which an object is constructed by cutting (or "machining") raw material into a desired shape.
Preparing the Modeling File
3D-objects are initially created with computer-aided design ( CAD) programs. A broad range of readily-available CAD and animation software can be used for 3D-printing file prep including:
Beginner (TinkerCad, Honeycomb),
Intermediate (Blender, Sketchup) and
Professional industry standard software (Maya, SolidWorks, Autocad, and Z-Brush).
You can also use a hand-held scanner laser to "read" or scan an object to create a 3D file. The scanner typically creates a point cloud of geometric samples on the surface of the subject. These points are usually defined by X, Y, and Z coordinates and can be used to extrapolate the shape of the subject (a process called reconstruction). This process allows reverse-engineering of practically anything!
Selecting Your “Printable” Material
After the finished design file is sent to the 3D printer, you choose a specific material. This, depending on the printer, can be rubber, plastics, paper, polyurethane-like materials, metals and more. More printable materials are coming on the market every day. The startup company, re:3D® in Austin, TX, is at the forefront of material science, developing novel printer feedstock including cost-efficient recyclables and enriched composites—hopefully turning waste into raw material through innovation.
Printing Processes Vary
Researchers use a variety of techniques to get the job done. Some printers use lasers, others spray heated plastic through print heads. One system uses a vat of "goo" to hold the object in place as it creates the object layer-by-minuscule-layer. One massive printer uses a carbon dioxide laser to precisely melt powder. As one layer solidifies, the platform drops a little, a fresh layer of powder is spread and the laser goes to work on the next layer. The platform progressively moves down synchronized to print the next layer with the printed object encapsulated in powder. When completed you pull it out, shake off the excess powder and then you have a finished part.
Other printers are similar to desktop ink-jet printers. Instead of depositing ink, the print head deposits a photo-polymer onto the platform. A photo polymer is liquid until it's exposed to ultraviolet light and then it polymerizes, or solidifies, into a plastic. And just like your ink-jet printer can mix colors together to get a different color, photo-polymer printers can mix materials together. So you can make a rigid plastic or adjust the shore value and make the plastic any stiffness you want. You can also make parts that have two different materials embedded in each other. Or create parts inside other parts, like round ball bearings inside a mostly sealed housing.
Throughout the process, the different layers are automatically fused to create a single three-dimensional object in a dots-per-inch (DPI) resolution.
PRICING OF A PRINTER
These innovations could have a profound effect on the world, but the 3D printing industry does have at least two drawbacks — price and patents. Smaller printers, designed for printing toys and other small gadgets, can be as little as $1,000, but the larger, more professional models can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $60,000. And the really advanced, heavy-duty models are around $600,000.
PATENTS EXPIRING – PRICES LOWERING
Patents have hindered this technology from revolutionizing the world more quickly. At the moment six companies control the technology. But in February 2014, key patents that currently prevent competition in the market for the most advanced and functional 3D printers expired. In addition, patents cover a technology known as “laser sintering,” the lowest-cost 3D printing technology. Laser sintering has such high-resolution in all three dimentions so can produce goods that can be sold as finished products. Once the key patents on 3D-printing via laser sintering expire, huge drop in the price of these devices is expected. This isn’t just idle speculation; when the key patents expired on a more primitive form of 3D printing, known as fused-deposition modeling (FDM), the result was an explosion of cheap open-sourced FDM printers that eventually led to iconic home and hobbyist 3D-printer manufacturer Makerbot®.
If that isn’t exciting enough for you, consider that in China last month, a company called WinSun Decoration Design Engineering 3D printed 10 full-sized houses in a single day.
They used a quick drying concrete mixture composed mostly of recycled construction and waste material and pulled it off at a cost of less than $5,000 per house. Instead of using, say, bricks and mortar, the system extrudes a mix of high-grade cement and glass fiber material and prints it, layer by layer. The printers are 105 feet by 33 feet each and can print almost any digital design that the clients request. The process is environmentally friendly, fast and nearly labor-free.
So what does that mean?
Today the manufacturing business is $10 trillion globally with a massive shipping and storage infrastructure.
Interestingly, 3D printing is not just about replacing the technique of how we make and get a product – it’s about creating brand new products, with entirely new properties, that were not possible with the old techniques. For example, an entrepreneur with a $500 printer and some CAD experience can custom design, print and sell everyday household items from an online store and potentially make a good living.
At Lightspeed, working with Autocad's Maya software, we have helped several of our biomedical device clients with 3D-printing of prototypes of handheld device designs. We are also working towards including other manufacturer-type clients to genreate small-scale models to help win contracts for large-scale high-dollar designs as part of the proposal process.
Give us a call to see if we can help you with your new 3D printing project.
That's all the news for now.
“Computer…. Tea…. Hot… Earl Grey!” – MH
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ABOUT MIKE HAMERS
Mike Hamers is an award-winning graphic designer, illustrator and author who lives and works in Niwot (Boulder), CO. He has been the owner of Lightspeed Design for 23 years. During that time he has won over 20 national and international awards for this logo design, stationery, packaging and font designs.
Mike has had his illustrations in Wired magazine and brochure design work in "The Little Book of Layouts: Good Design and Why It Works". Mike enjoys working with all size companies – from solopreneur's startups to large national companies. His broad experience crosses most industries including bio- and nano-science, biomedical devices, technology and manufacturing, software, foodservice, and more. Mike's comprehensive design and illustration portfolio is viewable at http://www.Lightspeedca.net.
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