By Chuck Alexander, additive manufacturing product and design, Solid Concepts
3D Printing has been getting a lot of press lately and naturally we all want to know if this is something that warrants our attention or if it’s just another passing fad. Most of what we see written about 3D Printing falls into one of two general categories.
The first category is the story about how you can have a 3D Printer in your own home: Print a replacement knob for your washing machine; Bring your video game avatar into the real world; Convert your child’s drawing of a robot into one that they can hold in their hand—the list goes on and on.
The second category are stories of research and development projects: 3D Print a replacement organ from your own stem cells; the 3D Nano-Printer builds Formula 1 racecar on the head of a pin in minutes; 3D Printing technology to be used to build habitats on the moon using lunar regolith as raw material.
Overall this is pretty exciting stuff.
While both categories are very real, the promised benefits may be a bit further in the future than people may think. Disillusion may follow, but that doesn’t mean that the Additive Manufacturing technologies that underlie the current 3D Printing “craze” are not being used to revolutionize the way products are produced. Since the first StereoLithography (SLA) Apparatus was delivered in the mid 1980’s a paradigm shift in product design and manufacturing has been growing.
Design complexity used to cost something. The more shapes or curves you needed in a design, or the more organic or hyper-realistic you wanted your product, the higher the cost for manufacturing in attempting to achieve those forms. With additive manufacturing, design complexity is free. There’s no minimum part count, no price for wanting a shape that requires stopping a machine and changing set-ups for production to continue. The freedom of design complexity is a paramount shift for designers.
With additive manufacturing, design has fewer constraints imposed by the manufacturing process. This means design can more closely follow function; thus additive manufacturing allows for far better products.
An example of this was in a presentation I saw about a Formula 1 racecar design. The cars have massive ducts in place at the front of the car to move air out of the way from impeding the progress of the car. The way this challenge is usually addressed is to force the air through a duct to move it from the front of the car off to the side. But what if designers could analyze where the air wants to go and then encapsulate it with a duct in order to move it more efficiently with less turbulence and drag? That’s the type of approach that additive manufacturing allows to the process of design. Now designers can approach problem solving for functional and aesthetic reasons instead of manufacturing driven reasons. That’s a real revolution, and it’s happening in the minds of artists and designers.
We’re seeing a new generation of artists and designers rising who are appreciating these technologies and thinking, “I can create anything.”
Additive manufacturing has building blocks that form the complex and the organic, which is why it’s popping up so frequently in the medical industry; it really suits the medical industry. You need a product that works the way the body works, adopts the curves and movements of the body—and not just any body but the specific body of the patient. Solid Concepts has proven this by manufacturing thousands of patient specific patterns for knee replacement surgery. Additive manufacturing is perfectly suited to mass custom manufacturing. One part can be just one part, for just one person, and can be manufactured alongside another unique part for another person.
This ability to produce geometry custom to individuals also highlights a challenge to realizing this shift in design approach. To put it another way, Mass Custom Manufacturing requires Mass Custom Design.
Because of scanning technology in the medical field (CAT, MRI, etc.) it is almost routine to capture a three-dimensional model of the patient as part of the diagnostic process. In addition to routine diagnostic tasks, this computer information can also be used by orthopedic surgeons to design a custom fit prosthetic implant. Without this “template” of the patient’s current condition, it would be nearly impossible to generate a computer model that is used by additive manufacturing processes to produce implants that are perfectly matched to each patient.
Not all products have this advantage of a 3D computer model template. Most new products being realized are designed by highly skilled personnel using expensive Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. So, the idea of a 3D Printer in every home is limited by the computer designs that are available to be printed. In fact, when I worked for 3D Systems, one of the factors we used to estimate the size of the market was the number of CAD licenses available in the marketplace. At the time (early 1990’s) we calculated that it would take four designers with CAD stations to keep a single Stereolithography machine busy building parts.
Fortunately this challenge of computer design is already being addressed. In fact there are at least three different forces moving forward to meet this opportunity.
First, CAD software is becoming more prolific and affordable. Software is available free of charge that is very capable for basic design tasks. This software is also becoming easier to use by providing interfaces that fit with an individual’s education, experience and design approach. Programs like SolidWorks, AutoCAD, Rhino, CREO and 123D Sculpt offer mechanical and industrial designers, sculptors, and children a number of programs from which to choose.
As mentioned previously, 3D digitizing (or 3D scanning) is also becoming more prevalent with the goal of creating computer models of the physical world. For many years the ability to use a coordinate measuring machine (CMM) with a probe to interrogate features of a part and create a computer model has existed. The technology required experienced operators, time and expensive equipment. Now with the advent of Laser, white & blue light and even ambient light scanning techniques more applications capturing physical data are being explored. Ease of use and affordability has even reached the point of downloading an app to your phone or tablet computer to use everyday cameras to scan everyday objects.
An even newer software approach has been evolving from Within Labs. The new software allows you to design by entering in product performance constraints and then automatically evolving the computer model to conform. After providing basic forms, product performance constraints, and parameters of specific additive manufacturing processes, designs “evolve” to provide optimum form.
In addition to these 3 forces, Internet design and maker communities are contributing designs and facilitating a growing library of computer models. Web portals like Thingiverse, GrabCAD and Instructables are providing a thriving ecosystem of idea and file sharing that is contagious.
Even after 24 years I still get jazzed talking to people about the reality of this technology, and the potential of its future. And it’s slowly shifting the way we think and understand the way our everyday products are made. Yes, I have this product I’ve used for years, but what if I had a 3D printer? What or how would I make this different? How would I make this better suit my individual needs? It’s not just going to change the way we manufacture and build, but the way we think about designing, the way we build objects to perform and function around us, and that’s the paradigm shift we’re slowly seeing take hold from within the industry to the broader scale.
Solid Concepts Inc.