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 user 2005-02-03 at 10:15:00 am Views: 129
  • #10034

    Fax It Up, Scotty

    3D printing turns the humble inkjet printer into a foundry for everything from rocket nozzles to hip bones. Before long, you’ll be doing it at the office.

    Space is no place for a helpful hardware store. So an astronaut is in a pretty tight spot when the doohickey on the manifold breaks and the nearest replacement is 220 miles away-straight down. Roger Spielman thinks he has an answer. Spielman is quite literally a rocket scientist for Boeing Canoga Park-formerly Rocketdyne-and he and his brethren are on the brink of a solution so simple you’d expect to find it in a cartoon.

    Fax it. That’s right, fax the part, then print it. Send a 3D computer-assisted design file to the International Space Station, where Interplanet Janet feeds the data into a machine that assembles the part from a bucket of powder in about a half-hour.

    If this machine sounds amazing that’s because it is. But what’s more amazing is that these techniques, and these machines, already exist. The space station, and the space shuttles that ferry supplies to it, sport hundreds of plastic parts that were made this way at Spielman’s plant in Southern California.

    The emergence of a range of 3D printing and prototyping technologies can revolutionize the way things are made on and off the planet. Industrial grade parts made from plastics, ceramics, and metals can

    be made to order from machines that sometimes are simply elaborate inkjet printers; exactly what you need, exactly when you need it. And because there are no molds or forms involved, retooling is as easy as changing the data.

    It’s the dawning of mass customization in manufacturing.

    “It’s actually happening,” Spielman says. “You’re going to hear a lot about this in the near future. There are hundreds of uses. You can build a part in a part. You can build a ship in a bottle. We can make real things out of dust.”

    Watching paint dry

    This revolutionary process has been 15 years in the making, and it all started with something called rapid prototyping. In 1985 Chuck Hull was a chemist doing research and development for a maker of house paints, and management wanted the outdoor enamels to dry faster. His group developed a paint that was sensitive to sunlight and that went from liquid to solid in a hurry. While working on the project, Hull had a once-in-a-career flash of insight: He realized that with enough layers of paint hardening quickly, he might be able to produce three-dimensional objects.

    Hull quit his job and within a few years invented stereolithography, a quick but expensive way to grow solid forms in an elaborate fish tank. Stereolithography machines consist of a vat of liquid resin, and inside of that vat is a platform on a long post. The process starts with the platform just below the surface of the liquid. Lasers trace a pattern on the top of the resin and cause it to harden into that pattern (like funnel cakes at the state fair). Then the platform is lowered just enough to submerge the thin solid layer, and the laser traces another solid layer on top of it. Layer by thin layer, a three-dimensional item is eventually formed in the vat.

    Fifteen years later, Hull is CTO of 3D Systems, the 400-employee Valencia, Calif., company he founded that is a market leader in prototyping machines.

    Similar processes have emerged from other companies that use a variety of materials and output in unique ways, some of them in full color. Almost every rapid prototyping technology, no matter what the material, has used this same basic layering idea, the very epiphany that Hull had in 1985. More recently 3D Systems developed a cheaper process that borrows from the way inkjet printers work. The 3D Systems ThermoJet printer uses 352 tiny ink jets to spray a molten thermoplastic onto a surface. As the plastic hardens, other layers are sprayed over the top.

    ThermoJet is far less expensive than other 3D printing processes offered by 3D Systems, a fact that gives it a shot at mainstream adoption. Mervyn Rudgley, senior director of business development for 3D Systems, compares the market to the early days of printing on paper. As the number of machines increases, prices will come down. “ThermoJet might go into Kinko’s first, but someday you will be able to make 3D objects in the home,” he says. “We’ve all heard of mass customization. Well, here’s the possibility to do it.”

    Hip bones to sneakers

    NASA has a room full of 3D printers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Ken Cooper, a structural materials engineer in the Rapid Prototyping Lab, says researchers there are looking beyond parts for space vehicles and toward deployment of the machines in space. “The unique application is for remote processing capability,” he says, “the capability to build parts in space, on a space station, a space shuttle, en route to the moon or Mars.”

    Prototyping is one thing, but manufacturing is quite another. There already have been instances in which 3D printing has evolved into custom manufacturing. At Boeing Canoga Park, engineers use a machine called a Sinterstation made by DTM of Austin, Texas, to convert a polymer powder into hundreds of parts for the space shuttle’s engines and new space station’s power systems. “It’s not going to be long before we build real replacement parts for people and engines and everything else,” says Spielman. “Why can’t we make a whole new back, complete with vertebras and discs?”

    Printing new organs is probably a stretch. But at Javelin 3D in Salt Lake City, co-founder Alair Emory builds everything from sensitive government projects for the Air Force to 20-foot foam Buddhas, and she takes special pride in her company’s medical work. Javelin uses phosphate-based ceramics to build medical models of bones or organs for transplant cases. “Right now if your face is crushed on the right side, I can mirror the left side of your face and totally duplicate your

    features in ceramics,” she says.

    At Medical Modeling in Golden, Colo., President Andy Christensen can convert three-dimensional CAT-scan data into models of bones or organs. The models are built from an acrylic-based resin called Stereocol that can be sterilized so doctors can take the models into the operating room. They can’t be implanted in the body, because the body would likely reject them, but the model is a huge aid to surgeons. “The model in our use is the final product,” Christensen explains. “The people that we deal with really only need one copy.”

    Not every 3D printing process is deadly serious, however. ToyBuilders.com allows Web surfers to order custom-designed toys, which are made using any number of service bureaus around the country or on a 3D Systems ThermoJet in their office. Rudgley at 3D Systems says his company

    is talking to amusement parks about installing ThermoJet printers that would make models of

    children’s smiling faces.

    Price cuts

    One of the things holding back 3D printing from wider use is the price. A top-of-the-line stereolithography machine from 3D Systems, or from Stratasys of Eden Prairie, Minn., can run from $150,000 to more than $800,000, so manufacturers sell only a few hundred every year. But volume

    production has a way of bringing prices down. Terry Wohlers, who has tracked the technology for more than a decade for Wohlers Associates in Fort Collins, Colo., says the price of basic 3D printers such as the 3D Systems ThermoJet could fall to less than $25,000 within the next two or three years.

    The involvement of a big hardware maker such as Canon, Hewlett-Packard, or Xerox would make a big difference. Those companies ought to be familiar enough with the business model. Like the mainstream printer industry, prices barely cover the cost of the unit. Manufacturers make their money selling the consumables, and their cost is falling. “What I spent $80 a pound for in 1996, now the price has come down to $26 a pound,” Spielman says. “There’s going to be a very competitive market in supplying this type of material.”

    There is a lot about 3D printing that even captures the imagination of those of us who weren’t Star Trek fans. It may well capture the attention of industry because there could well be a fortune in mass customization. After all, Rule No. 1 remains: Give the customers what they want