The 3D printing world has seen many innovations in the past few weeks, highlighting the range of applications. Probably the most publicized piece of news is the successful flights of an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, that can be 3D printed for snap fit assembly. It reaches speeds over 100mph and is nearly silent. Not only does this signal to the amazing possibilities to the commercial aircraft industry, but military and rescue teams could easily survey an area by creating one on demand instead of waiting for supplies. Or what if a rover on another planet could print one out to map the area?
This too will soon be possible as a new company called Made in Space has successfully tested a number of printers in near zero gravity. Most likely it will be used by astronauts and the International Space Station to print out tools and replacement parts instead of waiting for the mail to come.
What I find interesting about this zero gravity test is the type of printer that they used. A partner in this project is 3D Systems, an industry giant that produces various printers and services. The BFB 3000 is their entry level machine and the one they decided to highlight of several printers on this flight. I believe they created a wrench out of plastic (no moving parts this time). The success of their most basic machine gives only a small idea of what a more powerful printer could produce. It’s easy to print a basic part of that little machine but what about more complex geometries. Portability is not everything, especially since zero gravity means everything weighs nothing.
Here on earth there are more than a handful of machines that can put the BFB 3000 to shame in areas like build time, materials supported, product rigidity, printer resolution, and so on. They only catch is they weigh probably ten times as much and cost up to twenty times as much.
My goal this week is to have a 3D print off. I will be gathering information from the websites of printer producers as well as private services to compare abilities and limitations of some machines out there. Categorizing them by size will make for fair fights and pricing is generally a function of this. I will do my best to get accurate prices but most companies do no list prices on their public websites.
Up next… the lightweights! Stay tuned.
Basically, it is a manufacturing technique that builds a physical object from 3D files created in computer programs. It turns digital information that we create into holdable, throwable, usually plastic parts.
For many years the technology has come in the form of large, very expensive machines. These are mostly used by enormous manufacturing companies to create prototypes of a potential product before they decide to create 500,000 of them.
A variety of materials, like titanium or ceramic, have been used in very expensive models. Some new companies like Ponoko and Shapeways have emerged that will take the file of what you have designed and print it in the material of your choice. But simpler models have been getting progressively less expensive, and some people use these to to print everyday things at home.
Quick run through of how it works. Let’s say I want to create a small item such as a ring. I will design it using in a 3D drawing software such as Google Sketchup. If it is for me I will make the drawing to fit my ring size. I will then format that sketchup file to be interpreted by my 3D printer.
If I have my own, I can sit back and watch it for ten minutes while it precisely layers the material (in this case plastic) into a ring I can wear. Or maybe it’s a ring to give to friends. I’ll just change the quantity to 20, spend a while planning a ring giving ceremony, and they’re done.
I know. It’s like sci-fi. First off, don’t worry because I will get into how exactly the printer itself works. Here’s a hint: It is a lot like inkjet printers and the precise movements they use to puts words on paper. I’ll explain the mechanics of it really soon, I just wanted to start with how it will impact people and economies.
But think about what it would take to buy that plastic ring from a store or the internet.
Some nice lady thinks up and designs the ring, and sells it to a company. The company sends it to their engineering and prototyping team, where they can spend months making it ready for mass production. Now if they are not already in China (1 in 5 people are), they have to send it there (in most cases).
There they analyze the ring so that they can make a complex custom machine to create 500,000 of the same ring. Once they are all finished, packaged, warehoused, shipped back to wherever, distributed to whatever store you shop at, only then can you buy that little ring.
Might be missing some steps but you get that it is an arduous process from start to finish.
My thoughts at this point are that if this industry of 3D printing becomes the industrial player that Economists say it will, isn’t that just digitizing and cheapening physical products to be distributed freely via internet? Obviously many good things will come from it, like the ability to customize to exact specs and add personal details. But what about the systems that already exist?