My Event Report from the 3D Printing Opportunity 17-Mar-11
Andy Gelme – President, Connected Community Hackerspace
Travis Hardy – Market Development Manager, Formero
Milan Brandt – Professor of Advanced Manufacturing at RMIT University
Anthony Lele – Leaderof the Structured Ideation Process, Invetech
What is it all about?
At its simplest 3D printing could be described as using a printer to squirt plastic or metal in layers, building up an object in 3D. In reality though, Its one of a variety of accretive (adding stuff, rather than grinding it away etc) manufacturing techniques that first started to appear in the 70’s, but has gained recent attention due to reductions in cost and improvements in performance.
3D Printing means → You don’t need to spend $20-$30K on manufacturing a tool if you only want to do a short run or prototype. If you wanted 1 Million plastic cases, it is much cheaper and quicker to use an injection molding machine with appropriate tools. If you only wanted 200 though, 3D printing is the better option.
3D Printing is one of the rapid manufacturing technologies (which means no tooling is required in the manufacturing path). Rapid Manufacturing is generally suited to low quantity, high value manufacturing. There are competitors to 3D printing such as Selective Laser molding that meld powder layers to create complex, high quality objects that would be impossible to build any other way, such as a sphere within a void, within a sphere.
3D printing works with Metals and Polymers. Build time for small objects can be as little as two hours in a commercial environment, 25 minutes in a hobbyist envirnment.
There are a number of steps in turning a product idea into a 3d model, most of which are about digital manipulation:
- Create a 3D Model (Using proprietary software – or cheap/free software such as Blender Google Sketchup or Solidworks, or even use a 3D scanner to create a model).
- Convert your digital model into an STL file (built up from little triangles, without other attributes).
- Convert the STL file into 2D layers for printing (using a proprietary programme or software like Skeinforge).
- Your design is then passed as instructions to the firmware in the printer.
- The printer builds your object.
- The object is finished off.
What’s happening at the commercial end of the market
3D printing is no longer just a niche business in the manufacturing world, although it can drop the cost of a prototype from $30,0000 to a couple of $1,000
It is sensational for market testing. For instance Microsoft can create 20 different designs for its next Xbox and market test them before tooling up for a large scale production run.
- Architects are using 3D Printing to create visual aids.
- Dentists are creating bespoke dentures quickly
- The medical implants community are now heavy users – there was around 12,000 different parts being manufactured in 2005, by 2009 there was 25,000 different parts being produced due to 3D printing.
- Mechanics can use 3D printers to make rare spare parts.
Resolutions are improving all the time. Formero sells a machine that will do 16 microns, and in the Lab they are creating 4 micron machines. Current prices in the commercial world are:
- A Selective Laser Melting Machine is currently worth around $1M
- A Connex Digital Printer is around $300K
- A Digital Scanner is around $500K
What’s happening at the consumer end of market?
Organisations such as Hackerspace are complimentary to the commercial end of the market. Its not full of hobbyists so much, but technologists running their own businesses who are exploring, learning and sharing in a non-competitive and normally open source environment. They tend to be first on the block to build machines such as the:
- Reprap – the concept is an opensource printer that can build itself and costing around $1,000. RepRap was founded in 2005 by Dr Adrian Bowyer, a Senior Lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath.
- fab@Home is another example of home 3d printers – it is currently being used to print food by one groups of experimenter.
- Makerbot – a $1,000 3D printer that with sales of 3,500 is estimated to represent 10% of all 3D printers in existence.
These consumer level printers are allowing artists and inventors to explore what they can be used for.
Pairing a Makerbot with a $200 Microsoft Kinect (3D scanner) means that artists can experiment and do things such as creating ice cube trays of friends faces.
To create a working whistle on a Makerbot takes roughly 26mins with a printing resolution of 0.3mm
So what about the Medical industry?
We are getting older and more expensive to maintain. The demand for replacement organs has doubled, but supply hasn’t increased. We can’t regrow broken bits yet (note a first trimester fetus can regrow a finger, and infants can regrow a finger tip) So the concept of creating replacement body parts came into being (first talked about it 1937).
3D printers were originally though of as being useful to build structures to grow tissue on such as a bespoke cage to grow breast tissue on. However it was soon realised that they were an enabling technology for actually printing organic material. Printing arteries can happen right now (Invetech created this) and printing kidneys has been demo’d in the USA.
- Growing cells outside the body and putting them back inside is hard.
- Some cells are a lot harder to grow than others, eg liver and brains.
- Tissue needs to grow with you – especially if implanted into a child.
A big question is – can we print in situ – ie directly into the area where bio materials are missing?
- We need to do this very quickly then.
- We need multidisciplinary teams to make this happen – eg mechatronics, cellular biology
The rapid prototyping or manufacturing business model has been around for some time and is simply getting better, cheaper and quicker – but new models are appearing and being forecasted.
- Individual World of Warcraft figures being transformed from digital creations to 3D creations, when purchased by the owner – 3D printing then mounted inside a glass jar.
- Customising prosthesis and implants is accelerating the medical take-up.
- Shapeways – An online 3D printing service (subsidised by Philips Electronics Incubator) is doing great business, if albeit unprofitable at this stage.
- There is a need to create hybrid connectors – connecting common objects to rare objects such as mounting a common phone onto an old dashboard.
- For businesses such as Zazzle that do bespoke printing on items such as T-Shirts, iPhone holders and Mugs, its the natural next step.
- The SNAP printing model will appear with 3D printing and other “maker” solutions.
- Businesses such as Fab@Home and Makerbot are profitable selling 3D printers and kits.
- Glasses frames being printed, but not the actual lenses as yet.
Where is it going?
At the top end of the market – the price half life is now two years. Eg Eg $200K machine two years ago is now $100K.
At the bottom end of the market – innovations are doubling every two years. Eg Printer resolution goes from 1mm to 0.5mm.
There are organisations that are now effectively printing concrete and a group in britain that is working on printing houses.
Will there be a 3d printer in every house? Maybe not but certainly in poor communities in third world countries there will be enormous value in having a “maker” with a printer that can print out spare parts to conduct repairs.
Ceramics are on the path, although not being printed effectively as yet.
Plastic for printers is cheap = roughly $30 for 10kg.
Is it important to Australia?
HP obviously thinks so, as they have just invested in a number of 3D printing companies. The atom might not be the new bit yet, but its exciting.
In Australia there are 1M people employed in manufacturing, a sector that accounts for $37B in exports a year. Melbourne was historically the advanced manufacturing centre of Australia – Fishermens Bend was the place, and it even had its own airfield.
Thrre is a future in manufacturing but its about knowledge rich practice – creating textiles and products out of composites that exhibit new attributes. Not simply doing the 3D printing as the machine now contains the smarts so it can be located anywhere, even China.
RMIT has created an Advanced Manufacturing Precinct, focusing on Medical, Dental, Aerospace and Automotive.
From 7th June to 11June – The Pacific Additive Manufacturing Forum is on in Melbourne www.pamf.org.au
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