3D printing: reshaping manufacturing

5 July 2012

Written by: Steinar Ellingsen

To create something from nothing in the comfort of your own home sounds like something from the world of science fiction. But additive layer technology is beginning to reshape the way society thinks about manufacturing, taking what was once only possible on the factory floor to the home office.

Additive layer manufacturing works like an inkjet printer, applying layer upon layer of specially designed ‘inks’, normally plastic resins or metals, to create objects from computer design files. Biomedical scientists at Cornell University in the US have even created ‘living ink’, enabling them to print live cartilage to the exact dimension of patient’s ears.

The technology behind additive layer manufacturing has been around for about 20 years, but recent years have seen digital fabrication ideas and designs develop rapidly through online groups and forums. The advantage of additive layer manufacturing is that designers can transform computer designs into physical objects quickly and cheaply.

Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques where materials are usually cut away to achieve the desired object, additive layer manufacturing creates objects using only the materials required. This means the process becomes more sustainable, saving on material costs and the costs associated with disposing of offcuts.

Bernard Meade is a researcher at the University of Melbourne in its Information Technology Services department. From his busy hideaway office he is currently working on raising awareness of the possibilities of digital fabrication within the university.

‘It’s amazing the number of people that are stunned by the fact that they can just see this thing happening,’ Meade says.

For Mr. Meade, having people understand the capabilities of digital fabrication is the biggest limitation to its application.

He uses an example from the chemistry department to illustrate the point.

‘They had an Imperial to Metric conversion problem,’ he says. ‘They didn’t have the right part to mount a laser in the right position so they had to get it manufactured.’

First, the chemistry lab tried the Engineering department where the labs on campus go to have parts made. They were told it would take three weeks and cost around $700 to produce. A cheaper alternative had to be found, and after coming across Mr Meade’s university blog, the chemistry lab came to him looking for a solution.

‘[The man from the chemistry lab] had never done any 3D design himself so I told him about Google SketchUp software,’ Mr Meade says.

‘He emailed me the design the next day and said it took him a few hours to learn the software and design the part he needed. He eventually emailed me back to say it fit like a glove and he wanted another one.’

The whole process had taken a little over a day and in the end it only cost a few dollars to produce.

The development of online communities is another reason additive layer manufacturing is proliferating at such a rapid rate. Websites like Thingiverse are allowing home users to share designs and ideas online. Sites like this even host design files for 3D printers which means users can literally have their printers procreate.

This sharing of ideas has led to piracy and licensing problems. Torrent hosting websites such as The Pirate Bay are constantly in court for copyright infringements that now even contain sections for sharing 3D printing files.

Mr Meade suggests that intellectual property is a big issue for digital fabrication but has the feeling it will be handled easily; in a similar way to how the iTunes store has combatted music piracy. Although, he concedes it could also raise a few new concerns.

‘There are sites now where you can upload a couple of photos of yourself and it will send you back a 3D model of your head,’ Mr Meade says.

‘If you think about how many celebrities out there have photos of themselves on the web, all of them do. That’s how we know they’re celebrities. So it would be trivial to take the software used to make those 3D models, produce a 3D model of a celebrity yourself, and then produce the action figure equivalent yourself.’

Rob Eales, a Masters student in Industrial Design at Monash University, believes this sharing of ideas and design will encourage a state of mass customisation. He envisages consumers’ tastes becoming more individual as they become exposed to more ideas and designs.

Mr Eales’ research project aims to close the loop between 3D printing and recycling, by creating a system where items previously printed can be recycled in the same system.

‘The plan is to relocalise manufacturing,’ he says.

Despite his understated modesty in his results so far, it is easy to see where he is headed, ultimately creating the plastic cable required for the printer from his previously printed items.

Hypothetically, the fact that the home user will be able to print only the products they require will mean less wastage or overproduction of particular items. The number of downloads of particular items at this point in time can also give guidelines of popularity to manufacturers before digital fabrication even becomes commonplace in the home.

Mr Eales suggests that the technology will provide a great advance in recyclability in the future.

‘You could download something and think, ‘well, this is crap’ or ‘I didn’t think it was this’ or ‘it’s not fashionable anymore,’ Mr Eales says. ‘You just chuck it back in and make something else.’

RepRap, one of the online open source communities furthering this technology had a similar idea. It envisages development where, if a child outgrows a pair of shoes, you could theoretically throw the shoes back into the printer with a couple of plastic bottles to add more ‘material’ and print a bigger pair of shoes.

The future of digital fabrication is here. It’s now up to us to see how far we can take it.

Xenon Ellis is doing a Bachelor of Arts (Media & Communication) at Deakin University. You can follow him on Twitter: @xenonellis.