Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Everything is a 3D printer these days

Our theory is that there is "No such thing as 3D Printing", but it appears that the media believe otherwise. To them, everything is a 3D Printer! This stance is fueling unrealistic expectations for Additive Manufacturing.

The hype works like this: The more objects that are presented as able to be "3D Printed", the more a "3D Printer" sounds to the uninformed observer like a current day (not futuristic) magical technology.

The latest examples include a circuit board/PCB "3D Printer", a "3D Printer" that prints disposable panties and a "3D Printer" that knits jumpers.  In all three cases the media described these innovations as "3D Printers". Not only are utterly different from each other, but they share little to nothing in common with mainstream Additive Manufacturing technologies.

Here are the latest "3D Printers":

The EX1 PCB Printer layers silver particles onto paper (or any suitable surface) to rapidly create an electronic circuit board. Components can then be soldered in place. It uses two ink jet cartridges to dispense two different chemicals which mix to produce a silver image.

Tamicare Cosyflex layers natural rubber polymers and cotton fibers to create a stretchy, biodegradable fabric. It feels like a woven cloth. It sprays the raw materials moving along an automated production line. It certainly looks like no "3D Printer" I have ever seen.  Its inventors claim the same approach can be used to create textiles from materials such as silicon, teflon, viscose and polyamide, and do so with combinations of patterns, embossing and perforations. The process is quick and can produce a pair of pants in under three seconds (which equates to up to 10 million units a year).

The Stoll knitting machine is also now dubbed a 3D printer. According to some reports it "3D prints" clothes. In fact, it reads measurements from a software application and then automatically knits them with minimal waste. The final garment still needs to be stitched together. A company called Applatch is running a campaign on KickStarter to fund their own Stoll machine so as to better serve their customers with custom fit sweaters that meet the company's sustainability and ethical goals, i.e. using the minimum naturally sourced materials.

What do these three stories of "3D Printing" tell us? What exactly is "3D Printing"? Watch this space for our definition coming soon.

There is no such thing as "3D Printing"

We've said it before, and we'll say it again. There is no such thing as "3D Printing". What there is instead are over thirty different additive manufacturing (layer by layer) processes (the majority of which oriented in the field of rapid prototyping). They share little in common.

We listed some of these in our article "Hype and Hope in 3D Printing". We also talked about the 3D Printing industry as being a set of "Niches within a Niche".

These realities have significant implications. 

Without a standard 3D Printing platform there won't be an exponential growth curve as occurred with the PC revolution leading to today's cloud computing giants. Yet such is the hype generated by the 3D Printing providers and the media (primarily) that even our most respected AM industry analysts are somewhat embarrassed. As a result, they are finding themselves in the unenviable position of having to 'play down' expectations when they are invited to speak on-stage at industry events.

If you have not already done so, I do recommend watching three informative presentations from TCT Show + Personalize '13 in a track called 'Mythbusting 3D Printing'. The presentations are both funny and revealing.

Firstly, Joris Peels compares the hype around 3D printing to claims for a 'new' but very very old technology called Rotary Desktop Fabrication (RDF):

Todd Grimm lists a raft of new product announcements, but also sets a tone of caution for their incremental impact:

And finally, Phil Groves explains why "3D printing is NOT going to be as big as the Internet", despite claims to the contrary from industry leader 3D Systems.

There is hype and hope for 3D Printing. Next up, our view on what could be happening. Watch this space.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Randomized porosity grown into 3D Printed Object

Since our original post about Within Technologies the use of their software which models 3D Printable objects in ways that mimic nature (complex internal and external optimized structures) has expanded.

In this video, EOS explain how they are working with Within Technologies to 3D Print parts with extreme degrees of structural complexity. Here, a heat ex-changer is shown designed for Formula 1 racing cars. The strength/weight ratio is significantly increased.

A hip 'cup' for human implant is also shown. It was grown in titanium by the Within Medical team. It's structure includes zones of randomized porosity. This allows for bone and tissue growth into the artificial joint.

Such geometries are impossible to achieve using any other manufacturing process.

Within Technologies is a UK engineering consultancy and software development firm who have dramatically advanced 3D design software in ways that enable the modelling of latticed micro-structures and variable density surface skins combined with "Bio-inspired" shapes.

At the core of the software lies an optimization engine which takes input parameters such as desired weight requirements, maximum displacement and stiffness. It is then able to create an optimized component design with a variable density lattice structure and surface skin which meets your exact specification. The optimized component can then be manufactured using one of many additive manufacturing machines (plastics or metals) to create products.

SolidConcepts 3D Prints Metal Gun using DLMS

Demonstration proves that 3D Printed metal parts are ready for 'end use' contexts

Read the whole story on the SolidConcepts blog and see a demonstration and explanation of DLMS (Direct Laser Metal Sintering)

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

3D Printed Titanium Glasses

They may be pricey, but that may not last for long. Melotte, a 3D printing company in Belgium which specializes in metals, has teamed up with a Belgium designer Patrick Hoet, to develop the first 3D Printed eyewear in titanium.

Customized versions can be delivered in a week from order. 3D scanning of the customer determines size. Orders can be placed through up market opticians.

3D Printing will level the playing field for all such optics in the future, with custom designs approaching the price of today's off the shelf specs. After all, if you can 3D print one design, why not any customization. As many have observed "With 3D Printing, complexity and variety comes for free."

Specialized software for use by opticians will need to be developed to manage the 3D model customization process. Perhaps Digital Forming can help.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

3D Social Networks help find 3D Printers, Designers, Customers

The reality of 3D printing, in any material or process, is that you need skills in both 3D modeling and access to a suitable 3D printer. That means having skills in the 3D printing process, or outsourcing to a bureau service like Shapeways, iMaterialize or Sculpteo. As those companies have demonstrated, producing great prints of high quality in different materials and finishes is not so easy, demanding specialised skills and access to expensive equipment and maintenance services. Any 3D print bureau will confirm this. There is a gulf between what is achievable at home and that which is available via a reliable 3D service.

A new kind of social 3D network is appearing which fixes part of this problem: the gulf between those who can and cannot design 3D models using software tools, and those who own or do not own a suitable 3D printer. Bringing such community members together is the mission of new Web services such as MakeXYZ and 3DHubs.

These sites are more than repositories of objects. They contain the details of people, the printers they have access to, and the 3D design skills they claim, in effect creating a 3D Printing social network.

3DHubs claims to be the "Worlds largest network of 3D Printers allowing anyone to 3D print around the corner." And MakeXYZ has just one goal "To help people make stuff by linking people who need something made with 3D printers and CAD designers in their neighborhoods."

Cool indeed.

Amazingly, both sites, while of US origin, allowed me, from my home office in the UK, to find several 3D Printers local to where I live. Literally, just around the corner! That's impressive. My local office supplies, art supplies, hobby or light machine shop may not yet have a 3D Printer, but I now know where I can go to get access to one.

Even if I could find a retail outlet near me offering access to 3D Printers would they be of the right kind? Could I print in the material of my choice? Would the staff have the skills to complete my job to my satisfaction? And would they be able to connect me to qualified 3D designers to help with my project? In short, what value would they add?

As a maker or small business looking to inject additive manufacturing into my workflow, my options are 1) To invest in a printer 2) To find suitable local partners 3) To find a shop or outlet offering access to a printer or 4) Use a 3D print bureau. My choices are expanding every day. The choice I will make will depend on a cocktail of considerations ranging over process, material, control, cost, finishing and access to support and design skills. Moreover, my choice will depend on whether I am printing one off jobs where each part is unique, or related jobs with degrees of mass-customization.

For all these reasons it is not yet clear who is going to own the 3D Print experience for makers and small businesses who don't want to invest in 3D printers of their own (plus everything that entails in terms of training and maintenance.) As a first step therefore, why not try MakeXYZ and 3DHubs yourself. Type in your zip or post code.

You may be surprised by who and what you find.

Dad 3D Prints a prosthetic hand for his son

Sometimes a story is so good it's worth just passing it on and adding nothing:

Also see Medics are printing in 3D today