“Tea, Earl Gray, Hot”: Perspectives on 3D Printing

After a long day negotiating some treaty on a distant world or a near brush with death in the form of a Romulan warbird on the neutral zone border, our favorite captain will order up a tea from the nearby replicator and it zips into existence before our eyes without a second to pause for astonishment. Many people will wonder when our 3D printers will be fixing our tea (and don’t forget the cup) and fabricating our cars and flying iron man suits. These are great dreams as “imagineered” by our greatest sci-fi screenwriters and novelists. However, the realities of modern 3D printing are amazing us in many different ways that, while not as dramatic on screen, have incredible merit and exciting socio-economic and scientific potential.

As you have probably heard,
3D printers are here, and they are awesome. But what a lot of people don’t realize is exactly what goes into the whole thing. As many advances and wonderful things you can do with these excellent modern tools, there are still a lot of things they can’t quite do yet.

I don’t want to sound blasphemous to all the Makerbot-ers out there and those who even went so far as to build a rep-rap or a cupcake cnc or any other early FDM clone, or even more advanced powder printers or ceramics printers. But i’m sure any of them who has built a lot of printers will be quick to temper their enthusiasm with the sober reality that we are far from the star trek Replicator style machines who instantly create anything we desire from any innumerable materials.

Concepts on the fringe like the recent articles about “4D printing” with materials that change shape under certain conditions like being soaked in water are pushing the boundaries. Many new materials are emerging in the metal sintering world, and also in the plastics and composites world. There are printers that can make cell structures mixed with scaffolding material. There are even conductive materials that can be printed with insulating materials and there’s printers that can achieve full color prints with various materials–even paper has been used as a 3D printing material.

The technology has been exploding in the past several years as patents long held are expiring and new startup companies find more affordable and innovative ways to make the next big thing in the field of hobby and consumer printing.

Another thing that’s just as important–if not more important– than the printers is the scanning and CAD tools. Scan based CAD design has become a fixture and is the new way engineers are designing and modeling. Instead of a blank screen and a vernier caliper, an engineer can take a scan of an object, model it, change it, and prototype it in mere hours. This potential has great world-changing power. I have found myself with new superpowers of design and the amazing ability to make anything I can conjure up.

Like any means of fabrication, the printers still do have their challenges and drawbacks. Often times the fastest point between idea and prototype still resides within the conventional machine shop. With all the wonderful adjectives associated with 3D printers, lightning fast is not one of them. I should qualify this statement by saying that these methods are faster than tool and die manufacturing but the process as compared to conventional machining and even CNC is still sometimes longer. And it takes just as long to make the second copy and the 10th and the 32nd.

Additionally, the materials can be limiting and very expensive. Although this area is evolving rapidly, the machines that use the most cutting edge in advanced materials still cost an amazing amount and occupy a lot of floor space and cost a good bit to of energy to operate. Some also require special considerations for health and safety as they emit toxic by products (mostly the metal machines). A machine shop, manual or CNC, can use virtually any material, which can even be molded and cast with rubber or fiberglass or even sand molds. These can serve also for prototypes. The cost benefit works best with 3D printing when complexity of the prototype is high and it may be difficult or even impossible to make any other way.

In order to achieve these impossible designs, engineers still have to break decades of habits in terms of how they design things. They need to unhinge from the basics of modeling primitives and traditional cad modeling ideas to more free form or design optimized shapes. Ergonomics, multi physics, and mass customization are concepts that are more center stage than ever before, and these ideas now must be a part of every engineer’s toolbox.

In order that this shift happens, more and more new engineers have to learn how to use CAD in ways we never imagined. Kids in the near future will use mobile devices to scan real objects, modify them, and send them off wirelessly to be made. They won’t have to know as readily the virtues of third angle projection or the art of drafting, although the fundamentals are still important. They will do all of these things strictly in 3D.

There’s a lot of innovation happening and a lot more coming, and the main changes in our world will show new and previously unheard of applications for all of it, but one thing is for certain: it’s going to continue to change our world in real and monumental ways, but not necessarily the ones we think it will today.


About robotorbust

Never worry about robots trying to take over the world. Worry about the people driving them ;)
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