Game changer - 3-D printing
Alistair Bone looks at the radical new technology of 3-D printingALISTAIR BONE
There are signs when a completely new thing is about to touch down. Definitely, engineering professors talking about what to officially name that thing, is one. It's commonly known as 3D printing, but that's as dumb as calling a car a horseless carriage. Associate Professor Kim Pickering has Rapid Prototyping on the table, but it can be used for other things besides prototypes. The best is Additive Fabrication.
Professor Jonathan Scott belly laughs, "So you stick it together rather than ripping off the bits you don't want!"
He helped write a book called - A Spectrally Accurate FVTD Technique for Complicated Amplification and Reconfigurable Filtering EMC Devices - and finds the term's simplicity funny. But Additive Layer Manufacturing will probably win, because it contracts to a headline-friendly ALM. In the end, it's indistinguishable from magic, whatever they end up calling it.
The name 3-D printing will probably last for a while and there are hundreds of videos online under that tag.
The best get rock-star viewing numbers. In what will be a classic clip in 20 years, a science show frontman takes his wrench to a printer lab. It's scanned in 3-D and the image fed into a computer. The inputter decides the adjusting bezel on the wrench in the picture should be pink. A machine the size of a 60s' mainframe computer whirrs for about half an hour, then stops.
The puzzled guy lifts the lid and can see only what looks like a tray of sand. He's told to dip his hand in it and comes up with something. It's a clone of his wrench, with a pink bezel. It's science fiction. He's stunned. "This changes everything," he says.
To some degree, thank the engineering professors at the University of Waikato. They're taking it seriously: a salesman will demonstrate desktop-sized machines for classroom use next week. They will spend $50,000 on a bigger machine later this year.
There are two main types some machines just squirt out bits of plastic and build a shape. At the high-end, where metals can be worked, they use a laser or apply other techniques to a tray of material. Scott has seen a machine in Australia at a place he's not allowed to name that manufactures unique medical parts. Its own parts were custom 3-D printed and could not have been made any other way.
It's clear the new technology is going to open up new possibilities everywhere, but the engineers say it has its limits.
For long product runs, the technique is a lot slower and much more expensive than conventional machining. The products made are also not strong enough for many industrial-grade jobs.
The roller bearing is a good benchmark of the promise and current limits. You can make one in a single piece without having to assemble anything. Take it out of the tray and it's good to go with the bearings already captured in a cage. That raises amazing possibilities.
But while it will do for less stressed situations, it would last about five minutes in something as demanding as a car.
Also, 3-D coding is a lot harder than it looks.
Scott says even the computer literate would struggle to scan in a useable representation of something as simple as his coffee cup.
But absolutely no-one thinks the technology will stand still.
Ben Buckland is already thinking about upgrading his first one. He's the director at Hamilton-based company PagePulse. He had to build a part for a robot. So he imported a 3-D printer-kit for $1800 and built a machine. Then it made the part.
His printer works by spraying melted plastic wire on to a build surface. The plastic in the drum is lime green, so that is the colour of the whistle he makes to demonstrate the process.
The jet stays in one place and the surface moves.
It is controlled by precise little stepper motors that collaterally produce a strange symphony - early dot matrix crossed with stock 60s' science fiction computer noises a futuristic warbling that he swears is necessary to get the job done. The whistle grows on its side, layer by layer in half an hour, the pea made in place inside it. It's like watching melting backwards.
The machine drops a stitch or two on the top, where it's bridging a gap. But it's not noticeable in the final device. Buckland shucks off a few extra pieces and hands it around. It works as expected. It's a toy - junk, really. But it was a roll of plastic half an hour ago and it was made on an office desk, not a factory.
Buckland says the next version printer will have dual print heads and use plastic that is water soluble. This means it can print support stands for a piece of ordinary plastic, lay the plastic across it and then dissolve the support. This means no more dropped stitches. It has a bigger build surface and better definition. It will cost about the same.
"The next version, you build it to a base level and then print some parts on it to finish it."
The technology has been around for a while. That's the point, he says. The product used to be super delicate and the machines very expensive. Now he has one and can make durable parts with it.
"This has a long, long way to go. They are getting better and better every day."
He uses some open source designs that can be downloaded. But even original 3-D design and copying is getting easier. There are companies around that will take a scan of an item done on over-the-counter hobbyist software, turn it into the printer's sophisticated instruction set and send it back, ready to go.
The legal issues are obvious. His lawyer came for a visit the other day and asked what the printer was. He told her. He says she put her head in her hands. Copyright has been an issue already for Wellington-based outfit Ponoko. Among other things, the company will turn your designs into 3-D products or sell (or give) you a design for your printer. Ponoko director Derek Elley says the firm had its first warning back in 2008.
"And we simply played nice. Over and done with. And there's been a few since. No big deal."
He says that, compared with music and movies, the volume of product copying with downloadable products is insignificant. But he thinks and hopes, with the current momentum, that won't always be true. He also hopes the copyright industry has learnt from the movie and audio recording debacles.
Elley says open source (free) designs of printers and their products - combined with machines that are 10 times cheaper than five years ago are helping drive the industry. Ponoko itself sprung from a thing called the "maker movement" - a growing DIY subculture with an emphasis on things technological and a strong tilt towards collaborative effort and the open source model. The 3D printer could have been custom made for it.
Elley sees the ultimate future as a combination of the printers and other tech such as laser cutters and CNC routers and perhaps smart materials. In the short term, he sees 3D printer use developing along the lines of conventional printers: small desktop machines for everyday things and large centralised machines for quality jobs.It's at that top end where James Dowle of Waka New Zealand wants to make sales. Based in Koromatua, he's the rep for Objet printers. They start at $50,000 and move on up to half a million dollars. He has some things made by his product. There is a toy car, its wheels feel like rubber, but you can't print that yet.
"It's not rubber off a tree. It is a polymer resin developed specifically for those properties. From about 14 base materials, Objet can get 60 or 70 different material properties."
There is what the company calls the "brain gear" - a set of 16 little wheels on a frame that all fit well enough so if you turn one, they all turn. It's a silly toy, except when you consider the thing was made whole in one part. He says the industry is in the middle of a shake-out.
"In terms of the competing machine types, there is only 5 or 10 per cent overlap between the brands. They have different emphasis and strength."
Objet puts its R and D effort into developing materials and licence builds things like the printer jet heads.
"There were some big international acquisitions last year. And they've just announced another one involving Objet. We're not sure of the implications out here yet."
He got into it because it fitted with other things he's selling and because the gear fascinates him.
"We think we are very clever with our gadgets and software, but what we are often doing is just reproducing what people used to do by hand. But these things merge and blend and complement each other."
Dowle doesn't think there will be one in every house. But he's a little bit cautious there.
"Because of the guy who pooh-poohed that when it was suggested about computers. Now there's one in every pocket. You don't want to be the flat earth society."
The consensus is that not everyone will have one. For the general consumer, 3D printers will probably be available in print shops for custom goods or convenience if you're willing to pay. The pick is they will not have as huge an effect on life as the computer. For designers making prototypes, it's a revolution and every hospital will have at least one to make custom-fitted medical parts. However, for the public, the engineers at the University of Waikato believe it's comparable to the early days of the car replacing the horse it will do the same thing, but faster. And faster, cheaper and better still as time goes on.
Pickering's brain comes up with an innovative use for the tech. She realises that the dyes on conventional presses may also be made in a 3D printer. Making it faster and easier for the existing process to do one-offs or limited runs itself. It's an aha moment, the sort of geometric progression science is famous for.
The whole concept thing is already making waves.
"It will influence us all. Perhaps it won't be in every house like the computer," she says, "though I think people said that about computers."
A couple of buildings over from the engineering department, Dr David Neilson is a senior lecturer in sociology and convenor of labour studies. It's early days for the technology and it is a hard question to answer but he has a stab at what the technology means.
"I'm not an engineer, but thinking about its potential within production as a new mode of manufacturing - and if it's going to develop and become more sophisticated. That's going to be a fundamental shift in the way production occurs."
He cites a recent Economist article that held out the tantalising promise the printers could one day eliminate the centrality of the economies of scale. "It potentially creates a technology where it is just as cheap to make one as it is to make a million. There are massive consequences. Assuming its continued development, you could relocalise production. You have a global internet that instantaneously provides designs around the world. And in each place, you can diffuse these replicators to make the thing."
That's one side of the coin. The other side isn't too pretty. Short term, the developing world could take a hit.
"If you can develop 3D printers so it would be cheaper just to simply use the 3D technology on site, then a significant part of the competitive advantage developing economies have is eliminated. Potentially, it's a disaster for them."
With a billion people in slums and another billion on the way within a decade, he is worried about the consequences.
"The history of modern production is one where we are able to produce more stuff with fewer people. This is another quite significant example of this process."
People may end up with new jobs because of the new things we can make, but he says they tend not to at the moment. In sociology, the extra people we have above the number needed to make all the stuff we need are given the chilling name "surplus humanity".
Neilson believes a reorganisation of the way we run things is needed and this helps highlight the need for that. Whether it's good or bad depends on the decisions we make.
"You can see it as part of the technology that is abolishing work. But you could also see it as a very progressive technology for us all to produce locally for our local needs."
FAQS on 3-D printing
Three questions seem to be the most commonly asked.
Can I make another 3-D printer?
Most bits, yes. Some assembly required. This is fairly common. You can even use your little printer to make a bigger printer. This scares some people, as it's shades of machines making machines and a regular science fiction apocalypse scenario.
Can I make a phone?
Not in one go, at least for a couple of decades. You can make an absolutely custom phone case and a lot of what's in it, but you'd still need to assemble it.
Can I make Rhianna/Kylie/Clooney, etc?
Not in your lifetime. Molecular printing is needed for this type of toy and it's nowhere near developed enough. Not to mention the legal and ethical problems.
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