The Promise and Peril of 3D Printing

The Promise and Peril of 3D Printing

There are things we can do, right now, to accelerate this trend. Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.

–  President Obama, State of the Union Address, Feb. 12, 2013

3D printing – the promise and peril of a machine that can make (almost) anything

I am enjoying a moment of convergence between my two parallel worlds — university technology commercialization and 3D printing. By now, you’ve probably heard about 3D printing. 3D printing technology isn’t new — it’s actually been around for a few decades. What’s new is the fact that in the past few years, a “perfect storm” of converging technologies are rapidly opening up a lot of potential new applications.

Recently several leading Chinese universities and the government invested $80 million to form a Industry Alliance 3D printing innovation center in Beijing.  And, did you know that one of the most widely used 3D printing techniques was invented and brought to market by a University of Texas student and professor in the 1980s? Demonstrating the value of federally funded university research, the project was federally funded by DARPA.

It seems that everything really is bigger in Texas, including ideas. According to the U Texas’s engineering newsletter,

“Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) started with a concept for a manufacturing process by a UT mechanical engineering undergraduate named Carl Deckard .”

The story continues:

“Several important patents for the technology were issued to the university in the later years, beginning in 1988. Soon Deckard and Beaman were involved in a start up company called DTM to design and build the machines, and make parts for clients. By 1989, they had sold the first machines, and in 1990 BFGoodrich bought a controlling interest in the company.”

Besides SLS (the printing technique invented at the University of Texas) there are several different 3D printing methods out there.  3D printers range in price from six-figure mega-scale industrial printers capable of making titanium or ceramic parts, to today’s emerging consumer-scale printers that print in plastic and cost one or two thousand dollars.

Machines classified as 3D printers have a few core characteristics in common:

1) a 3D printer makes three-dimensional objects by following instructions from a computer, not a human operator or hard-coded machine instructions.  A 3D printer doesn’t work if it doesn’t have a design file to tell it what to do.

2) Printers “print” raw material into layers (it depends on the raw material used). One type of 3D printer extrudes thin layers or tiny droplets of soft raw material through a nozzle or syringe. A second major category of printer technologies (developed by Chuck Hull who later founded 3D Systems) solidifies powder using a laser.

3) After each new layer is precisely deposited (or firmed up — depending on the type of printer) in a print bed on top of the previous layer, the gradual build-up of layers eventually forms into a solid three-dimensional object.

To learn more about the basics of 3D printing, 3ders is a good source. So is Fabbaloo and Open3DP (out of the University of Washington). If you’d really like to take a deep dive (shameless plug here), you can read a book I co-authored called Fabricated: the new world of 3D printing.

With that basic explanation out of the way, I want to jump ahead to the big question:  how will 3D printing and related technologies — better design software, cheap computing power, biotech and tiny electronic components — change our lives?

3D printing today

As computing power increases and hardware costs plummet, 3D printers have emerged an output device for the digital world. 3D printing enables us to enjoy a small taste of the freedom and convenience of the digital world, but in the design and fabrication of physical objects. For example, if you use an optical scanner (or a modified Microsoft Kinect) you can scan the shape of your body and tweak the scan data into a design file.  Next, you feed the design file to a 3D printer to print out custom molds to make a … Gummi Me. Or a Gummi You.

More seriously, industrial designers and artists use optical scanning technologies and 3D printers to re-create exact copies of machine parts or sculpture.  Someday as scanners and printer technology improve, we’ll become quite blase about making copies and “re-mixes” of physical things.  Regular people will be able to design and fabricate physical objects as easily as they edit, update and re-arrange their Facebook page.

A disruptive aspect of the 3D printing process is its precision.  The fact that a 3D printer makes three-dimensional objects layer by painstaking layer means you can put raw material precisely into the right place.  If you can place droplets of plastic — or tiny particles of metal — in exactly the place you want it, you gain the ability to fabricate weird and wonderful new shapes.  Artists and designers are just beginning to scratch the surface of this new design space.

3D printers form complex shapes that were once physically impossible to make. Traditional manufacturing machines mold plastic or metal or carve away (or grind down) chunks of raw material. These crude techniques used in mass production aren’t capable of forming objects with hollow insides or interlocked parts. For example, have you ever seen one of those wooden chains in a craft shop in which the chain links are pre-interlaced since they’re carved from a single block of wood? A 3D printer could print such a chain.

True, maybe there’s not a gigantic market for pre-intertwined 3D printed chain links. However, if you think about the bigger picture, 3D printing is the only manufacturing technique that is capable of creating interlocking parts in a single “print job,” no downstream assembly needed. A machine that can make assembly-free, interlocked parts opens up new design possibilities and could someday shorten assembly lines. For example, you can 3D print a door hinge in a single, ready-made piece.  If you made a door hinge the old fashioned way from separately molded metal parts, you’d have to later put them together.

Speaking of precision manufacturing, how about 3D printing replacement body parts and new skin? Today, medical researchers have successfully 3D printed living stem cells inside a protective hydrogel, where the cells are able to thrive and continue to grow on their own.  As this technique improves, we may be able to print usable living tissue inside a petri dish.  Or artificial meat.

To repair torn cartilage or insert a new artificial heart valve, human surgeons wield a scalpel. Cutting and stitching injured tissue seems horribly crude compared to more elegant renewal mechanisms that could be made possible by a computer-guided, tiny 3D printing device that could deposit precisely living tissue inside the patient’s body. There may be a major psychological barrier to the notion of a surgical computer-guided robot that’s paired with a tiny, in-body 3D printer. I am increasingly convinced, however, that computer-guided medical techniques could be an attractive alternative to human experts.  After all, during several months of driving around on public roads and highways, Google’s self-driving cars had significantly fewer car accidents, on average, than human drivers.

A 3D printer’s accuracy is increased by its high degree of fluency as it “listens” and “speaks” with software.  The precise digital information of a design file can be precisely enacted as a 3D printed physical object.  The ability to transform digital information in a close physical approximation has tremendous potential for medical applications.

For example, if a surgeon needed to create a custom hip implant for a car accident victim, she could take a high resolution  X-ray of the patient’s “good” hip.  This X-ray image, in essence, is just digital information.  The surgeon could adjust the X-ray of the good hip into a design file, then “flip” the initial design file to create a mirror model of the intact hip.  The patient’s shattered hip could be replaced by a 3D printed implant made from titanium or ceramic.

Finally, on a practical and logistical level, a 3D printer makes what a computer tells it to make, not what a human operator (or hard coded machine settings) tell it to do. Design-file instructions mean that a single 3D printer can make lots of differently shaped things without a whole lot of custom configuration (called “tooling.”)  In a sense, unlike old-school factory machines, 3D printers require less “commitment,” making it cheaper to create custom objects.

Low-cost production of unique “one-offs” will introduce new business models.For example, you could run a new sort of business that’s free from the significant investment needed to set up a large-scale manufacturing operation. Imagine you sold custom machine parts. You could digitally store 500 different design files for a suite of machine parts, each part distinguished by a subtle difference in its shape. Upon customer demand, you could 3D print just a few differently shaped parts as cheaply and easily as you could print just a few identical parts.

True, 3D printing 1,000,000 identical objects is magnitudes slower than mass producing the same 1,000,000 identical objects in a traditional factory — no doubt about that. However, slow, small-batch production of custom 3D printed jewelry, tissue, foodstuffs or other high-value goods begins to make economic sense if profitability does not rely on high sales volumes and thin profit margins. In other words, 3D printed production is not idea for products whose business value is based on economies of scale.

Today we’re in the primitive stages of this rapidly advancing manufacturing technology. What lies ahead?

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