Thursday, 21 February 2013

Mechatronics and 3D Printing

Mechatronics combines the principles of mechanical, computer, electrical, and controls engineering into a unified whole.

Mechatronics engineers design everything from smartphones, cars, robots, medical imaging devices and manufacturing tools, to the International Space Station. They also help form a bridge of communication between the different disciplines.

The fusion of the various disciplines in mechatronics breaks down the artificial barriers between the separate disciplines. Wikipedia describes it as a "synergistic integration of mechanics, electronics, control theory, and computer science within product design and manufacturing, in order to improve and/or optimize its functionality".

Mechatronics engineers are increasingly in demand. Mechatronics is a popular option and focus in engineering grad schools, with echoes of the 'Maker' movement. It used to be called computer aided automation. It is increasingly embracing computer aided engineering and manufacturing.

Elsevier offer an international journal of mechatronics, describing it as the Science of Intelligent Machines. The journal touches on consumer product design, instrumentation, manufacturing methods, computer integration and process and device control.

If you search DesignNews you will find a Mechatronics Zone. Scan the list of articles and you'll see that Robotics is a big part of this ... including the Bots that make things - industrial robots.

Its easy to forget that if 3D printing expanded 10x fold the sector would still only represent less than 1% of global manufacturing.  So where does 3D printing fit into mechatronics?
  • A 3D printer is a mechtronic system
  • 'Make' buttons and 3D design software are the front end to a mechatronic system
  • A factory toolchain that include 3D printers is a mechatronic system
Some would say that mechatronics is a far bigger deal than 3D printing. At the same time, 3D printing has the potential to evolve mechatronics practice, simplifying many existing mechatronic processes.

The future clearly contains 3D printing, but it is one of mixed-mode manufacturing, and heavily automated. (MakerBots are not yet the real Bots)

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Low cost 'Tri Trusion' 3D Printers

As everyone knows the emergence of low-cost 3D printers based on the Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) of thermoplastics grew out the RepRap and 'maker' communities. They were pursuing the development of new tools, and used an open source hardware model to pool the efforts of many.

Companies such as Makerbot grew from such open source roots to become powerful Venture Capital funded start ups. They signalled the opportunity to sell to millions of consumers.

The trend was noted by industrial players such as 3D Systems who are now commercialising very similar technology for children and their parents. The Cube and Cubify is one example.

The open source community did not fall over and die. Just as in the world of Internet and enterprise software, communities are still innovating.

While Makerbot is touting its Makerbot 2X Printer with dual-extrusion, RepRapPro have announced the Tricolor Mendel - an open source 'Mendel' design upgrade, designed to work with three colors or three different plastics at the same time.

The dice below is one example of what could be printed on a tri-trusion printer, with a little care and oversight.

Monday, 18 February 2013

3D printing - revolution or evolution?

This blog has argued that the oft-cited parallel of 3D printing with the emergence of computing in the 80s is wrong. Whereas a computer is a general purpose device, "3D printing" is not.

A digital computer is a platform. On it you can build valuable applications ranging from personal productivity tools (such Microsoft Excel) to enterprise systems (such as SAP ERP) to Google (a global amenity).

3D printing is not a platform in the sense a computer is. 3D printing is a diverse set of additive manufacturing techniques that share little in common. Each has potential in its own market, but that potential is realized largely within existing product categories.

Others are now making similar points.

If you are thinking of investing in 3D printing? take care. Citron Research, a short sell advisory, has come out and is claiming that "3D printing stocks are vastly over-valued". They, like we, believe that 3D printing is an evolution and not a revolution.

Citron are keen to point out that 3D printing has great potential. Direct digital manufacturing has a place in the new industrial landscape. It will grow incrementally as new technology enables new applications. We agree. But ...

Citron are rampant in their criticism of hyped stock activity, and mainly target their angst on 3D Systems [DDD]. This is the company that controls patents in stereolithography, chose not to bring that technology to a wider market and is now trying to block FormLabs (a venture and crowd funded company) from developing new products.

Here are some of the things Citron has been saying:

"Additive manufacturing has been around for 30 years.  The only thing that is new in recent years is availability of consumer-priced 3D printers – from many sources -- along with a frenzy of thoughtless and shallow media attention."

"3D Systems presented their 'Next Big Thing' product on Good Morning America – In 1989 – This is not a typo."

"Abe Reichental of 3D Systems has claimed that 3D printing is 'As big as the Steam Engine', 'As big as the computer' and 'As big as the Internet'". In the Citron report they use a picture of a 3D printed plastic dinosaur head and then ask "Is this really as big as the Internet?"

Citron examine 3D Systems R&D, stating:

"In order to have a revolutionary technology, one would think that R&D costs would be off the charts, as the company would be busy hiring the brightest minds that are going to change the world.  For the previous year, R&D expenses were a paltry $6.5 million….that's for multiple hardware product lines for consumers, designers and production professionals, plus software, plus materials.  ...For a $3.6 billion dollar treasure trove of company, that is less research than we have EVER seen in a bubble stock. In fact, DDD has made no significant investments and no advances to the main industrial process SLA (Stereo Lithography) or SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) which are the main production print engines, in the last five years."

Citron point out that stories associating 3D Systems and the aerospace industry, in regard to 3D printed parts and the F-18 jet engine, are highly suspect. They say "The truth is that 3D Systems does not make one dime in revenue from parts on the F-18, not are their machines able to print in metal, not the materials, and not engineering or other services."

Citron ask: "With no material investment in R&D, what has 3D Systems done with their capital?

The company has  made a large number of acquisitions (32 in fact), but almost all of these are small.  They've bought a few hardware and software companies, and also numerous service bureaus, most of which were showing slow or no growth.  In fact, some of the service bureaus were on the brink of bankruptcy. Citron claim they could "write another 10 pages on our analysis of 3D's roll-up accounting engineering and sheer gimmickry to grossly exaggerate their organic growth."

And lastly, they state that it was others (RepRap, MakerBot etc.), and not 3D Systems, who created the market for the home printer. Poking fun at the time these printers take to produce objects ("12 hours to print an ugly beige Falcon") they quote a Citron reader who joked, "Why would you ever buy a 7 cent plastic falcon in China when you can print one at your home for roughly $17.50, after  amortizing the printer?"

So are we looking here not at a revolution, but rather, as Citron put it, "a reincarnation of a really old story about a mature industry with a few new high-visibility cheerleaders around it."

Pointing to industry consultants such as Todd Grimm, they quote him as saying that "Yes, 3D printing is here to stay, and yes, it will experience strong, attractive growth over the coming years. But, this bubble of excitement will pass."

Are he and Citron right?

Is the recent round of industry consolidation not a sign of growth, but of an attempt to beef up stock values in the hope of finding new revenue streams.

You be the judge.


Thursday, 14 February 2013

Thinking of Investing in the 3D Printing megatrend?

The technology story of 2012 was overwhelmingly "3D Printing". You can imagine all those finance types waking up to the potential of a set of technologies that are 20 years old, but they would never have heard of had it not been for high profile consumer stories such as MakerBot and Shapeways.

Once the media circle took off, it was inevitable that the investment community - institutions and individuals - would poke around to see if they could make easy money.

The Motley Fool announced in August 2012 that "3D Printing" was the next trillion dollar $1T industry. Then, in November, an analyst appeared to claim that AM giant (and continual acquirer) 3D Systems [DDD] had reported its financial results in a way that had "distorted its growth". DDD stock dipped, but then re-bounded.

Back in April I had noted that an industry consolidating so quickly was not necessarily an indicator of growth potential, but of a shift from products to services as the predominent source of revenue. (Stratasys and Objet Merge). This occurs in industries when tangible products become commodities and companies seek other forms of revenue, or grow through acquisition strategies. The story followed news of another industry merger between 3D Systems and ZCorp.

The rush to find gold in what people think "3D Printing" is, continues apace. Story of the month is the IPO of ExOne. Their shares went on sale to the public on February 7th at an opening price of USD$24.23. By the middle of the next day, the price had risen to USD$33.60, a gain of almost 39%.  You can almost feel the sweaty palms of everyone trying to get in on the action.

Commentary flew around the web. Typical of many was this from InvestorPlace:

"As good as it looks, investors should keep their hands off XONE for now. It’s not uncommon for hot IPOs to fizzle a bit, even if the company (and investment) itself is a good one for down the road. And XONE is such an investment. Wait for a pullback, and use XONE to play the 3D printing megatrend."

'Play' is often an investor term for something they know nothing about, but are desperately Seeking Alpha. Alpha is a measure of how much return you receive above what you would normally expect. To put it another way: easy money, real fast.

Have we learnt nothing from the financial crisis and the ephemeral wealth that is built on little but speculation.

The question every one should really be asking is whether 3D printing really is the new platform for the much heralded and much needed third industrial revolution?

Rebecca Greenfield writing in AtlanticWire following President Obama's State of the Union address does not think so.

Greenfield's observation that there is no 'Silicon Valley' equivalent for 3D Printing is significant. As we have noted before, 3D printing is not one technology, but many, with little to nothing in common. Nor is it a common technology platform in the way that the Digital Computer was, which spawned a myriad new hardware and software products. Like Greenfield, I am sceptical of the analogy often made with the emergence of the early PC industry. (Hype and Hope in 3D Printing)

So what's the real deal with 3D Printing? That's going to be the focus of this blog into 2013. Let's work it out together.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Is Direct Laser Writing also 3D Printing?

It now appears that anything 3D, built in 3D layers or 3D dots, now counts as '3D Printing'. (Hype and Hope in 3D Printing)  As in the story of molecular beam epitaxy let's try not to let this detract from yet another fascinating story.

Nanoscribe specialize in laser lithography or direct laser writing. The process is able to create sub-micrometer structures. Look this up in Wikipedia and you will find references to multi-photon polymerization, an optical effect.  A pulsed short wave laser activates a photo-resist compound causing a chemical and physical change within a small volume: the nanoscale volumetric pixel, or "voxel".

Read about the applications here

More pictures at the nano-scale here