The future of 3D printing

Digital meets the visible world

By Gabriela Ehrlich

e-tech attended a presentation by Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk during CES. Carl Bass has been a pioneer of 3D printing. Below is a summary of his talk.

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Intimately linked

Bass started by explaining that 3D printing is older than one thinks. It started roughly 25 years ago but its success is directly linked to the progression of the Internet and of the overall digital environment; 3D printing lies at the cross path of the digital and the visible world.

New technologies require new thinking

He defended the idea that new technologies such as 3D printing need to be used to do things that we couldn’t even conceive of before. In his view taking a new technology to do the same old thing a tiny bit differently is simply not that interesting.

Some challenges to overcome

Bass then gave a quick overview of what has been happing in 3D printing over the past few years and some of the shortcomings that need to be addressed if we want to move to the next level. In his words these include:

  1. Reliability. Failure rates for 3D printing are insanely high. For those who 3D print all the time there is a certain level of anxiety when they walk over to the printer in the morning to check whether a project successfully printed, often finding that it hasn’t.
  2. 3D printing quality is low. The resolution is simply not high enough; the quality of parts is not good enough.
  3. Speed. 3D printers are simply too slow. If a cube of 10 cm3 takes 1 hour to print, then a cube of double that size (20 cm3) will take 8 hours and one of four times the initial size (40 cm3) will take 64 hours. This is a difficult barrier to remove.
  4. Materials. Most of the materials available today are not good enough for the products that are being printed.

A 3D printer in every home?

Bass feels that the 3D hype is at its peak. Many people who go out and buy a 3D printer actually end up being disappointed. They get home, print three things and then they don’t know what to print next. The workflow and handling of the tools is still too complex.

But Bass also sees this as a business opportunity to do better. He strongly feels that the idea that every home will own a 3D printer is farfetched. “3D printers are noisy; they are not a home device”. Instead businesses will develop around the idea of giving the consumer access to the 3D experience without the need for ownership. What Bass thinks will happen is that everybody will have access to 3D printers via a 3D printing service model, either online or locally. It is much more likely that consumers will own scanners, because at the basic level you need a 3D model to 3D print.

Bass also feels that until now consumer 3D printing was overvalued while industrial 3D printing has been underestimated: “3D printing will have the biggest value in industrial added manufacturing”.

Small investment, huge flexibility

With increasing computing power, design tools, simulation tools and 3D printing, relatively little skill is needed to produce something. In the past industrial production required massive capital investment and a lot of skill. In 3D printing shape flexibility is absolute and all that is needed is a little bit of digital craftsmanship. It’s all about moving files from here to there… and in Bass’s view in the future even that will need to be simplified.

The next industrial revolution

Twenty-five years ago 3D printing was labelled as rapid prototyping. This is still the most widespread use for industrial applications and incredibly useful. Bass feels that one of the places where 3D printing will be applied most is in industrial tooling and fixtures where it will replace injection moulding.

Here a combination of additive and substractive printing will offer a novel way to enable previously impossible designs. This technique allows for example to print metal that will then be melted. The result is a material efficiency and performance that comes from 3D printing and the precision that comes from substractive approaches like machining. 

Part of a much bigger set of tools

The industrial revolution enabled mass production of high-quality and low-cost products. 3D printing and the whole new world of digital fabrication enables the same level of quality at the same cost but for very low quantities. Tools are built into a workflow that from the start includes 3D printing. But 3D printing is only a part of a much bigger set of technologies which include software, design, and materials…and in Bass’s view this is where the real industrial revolution will lie.

Revolutionizing computer aided design

Bass went on to explain the problems of today’s design process. He feels that computer aided design software doesn’t really allow the computer to do much in terms of aiding the design. What the computer mostly does is record a design that is already in the head of the designer. “People have an idea, design it by giving precise instructions and then test it digitally and then visually.” In Bass’s words: “Design reminds me a bit of the game of battle ship: the engineer says B3 and the analyst says miss…the engineer then says G5 and the analyst says miss. Today, design is still very much ‘trial and error’ and eventually you run out of time or patience or money or you just accept ‘good enough’.”

Thousands of possible design solutions

Now, according to Bass there is a complete rethinking of how the computer can support the design effort. With advances in computer processing and bandwidth, the price of computing has fallen so low and is so easily available that there is near infinite computing power.

Now, instead of explicitly drawing geometry or describing a curve or shape, it is possible to explain a problem to a computer at a high level in terms of size, weight, aero- or thermodynamic properties, etc. And, rather than treating design as a serial process, it is possible to run multiple design simulations in parallel. “The computer is really good at this brute force technique, exploring a multi-variant space. It will come back with thousands of possible designs that all satisfy the outlined specifications”. Bass explained that the specifications that are needed to solve the engineering problem remain in the hands of the engineer but the geometry and topology is entirely done by the computer. According to him, experience has shown that as a result the final product is generally lighter, stronger and often cheaper. Designs that would be difficult or impossible to achieve via ordinary methods are now possible. 

Building totally new materials

The air transport industry always strives for lighter, stronger materials that lead to increased fuel efficiency. Novel 3D techniques that mix different types of metals, plastics, glass, ceramic, fibres or even bio materials enable the development of totally new types of materials that exactly address a given problem at hand.

Better, more innovative products

Bass then went on to present some concrete examples where 3D printing is already making a real impact:

  • A metallic foam-like structure that is part of a hip implant. With its random pore-size it mimics the inside of the bone and has proven to be better accepted by the body than anything that was used previously.
  • Electronics. The first 3D electronics printer called Wire is able to print electrical components using conductive materials. In Bass’s view this is the beginning of an era of much more complete projects that go way beyond geometry.
  • Big structures. Architectural size structures that include buildings, sculptures or bridges that are autonomously built with the help of industrial robots using metals, carbon fibre or other materials
  • Outerwear. The custom printing of shoes and clothing.
  • DNA. Through a combination of mechanical engineering, image processing and micro-fluidics it is possible to reliably produce relatively long strands of DNA. We’re getting closer to a time when it will be possible to mail-order DNA.

The next frontier: generative design

According to Bass we are now entering a world where software, hardware and materials work together with 3D printing to result in what he calls generative design. In this context Bass introduced the Spark programme which is a combination of open hardware, open software and open materials. Spark offers a foundational level of open software to anybody in industry who is interested in using it. Spark, together with Ember, an open source 3D printer that is able to print down to the nano-scale, are compatible with many types of machines and the tools that feed them. All plans and specifications will be published and are available to anyone who wants to build their own.

As a final word, Bass expressed the feeling that the 3D industry was held back by its short-sightedness and small-mindedness and that growing the pie is better than intellectual property retention.

IEC sets Standards for quality, safety

A number of IEC TCs (Technical Committees) and SCs (Subcommittees) work on identifying, developing and coordinating International Standards for the electric and electronic components that are installed in the 3D printers being used in additive and substractive manufacturing processes.

Amongst many other relevant parts and components are switches and relays (TC 17: Switchgear and controlgear, TC 121: Switchgear and controlgear and their assemblies for low voltage, and their SCs), servo and stepper motors used to move the extrusion head or the sintering laser (TC 2: Rotating machinery) and power supplies (TC 96: Transformers, reactors, power supply units, and combinations thereof). Most important are the different types of lasers used for sintering metals and polymers.

TC 76: Optical radiation safety and laser equipment, is the leading body on laser standardization, including the high-power lasers used in industrial and research applications. Its work is essential to 3D printing.

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