Changes on the Additive Manufacturing Horizon
Patent Expirations and You
For those in the know, 3D printing is nothing new. Even back in the 80’s, stereolithography was around adding an extra dimension to traditional printing, but it wasn’t until fused deposition modeling (FDM) saw its patents expire that we witnessed an explosion in open-source 3D printers that ultimately brought the technology to the hands of hobbyists.
Now, the same wave of patent expirations is about to hit the area of laser sintering, which offers its users low costs and high resolution across all three dimensions.
Currently, for the designers, entrepreneurs and artists who want to create finished products, the primary option is to turn to Shapeways, which offers industrial-grade 3D printing services for those who can’t afford to shovel out the tens of thousands of dollars for their own laser sintering printer.
According to Shapeways’ Duann Scott, we can expect a huge drop in prices of laser sintering tools, just as we saw a similar drop after FDM patents expired. There, we saw the price of FDM printers fall from multiple thousands of dollars to as little as $300.
While it’s unlikely that any manufacturers take advantage of the cheapest 3D printers such as these, the price drop is essential to fostering excitement for hobbyists. This energy evolved into what we now call the “Maker Movement,” which some major manufacturers have recently turned to for crowdsourcing projects.
And just as importantly, removing the barriers of intellectual property means a rise in competition, which is likely to bring with it lower costs and additional innovation as far as the printing technology is concerned. “This is what happened with FDM,” Scott explains in an interview with Quartz. “As soon as the patents expired, everything exploded and went open-source, and now there are hundreds of FDM machines on the market. An FDM machine was $14,000 five years ago and now it’s $300.”
Just How Green is your 3D Printer?
For many, the excitement over 3D printing is due mostly to the potential for faster, less expensive prototyping. But for those concerned with keeping their factories lean and green, additive manufacturing brings with it an added bonus, as it has the potential to generate zero waste. Or does it?
According to GreenBiz’s Jeremy Faludi, 3D printing is not a one stop shop for cutting out your manufacturing waste.
“First, let’s bush a myth: 3D printing does not mean zero waste,” Faludi says. He explains that for each type of 3D printer on the market, each one has its own ecological footprint. For instace, a FDM machine can keep its waste down to a negligible percentage, whereas an inkjet 3D printer wastes 40 to 45 percent of its ink, which can’t be recycled.
To determine exactly where 3D printing falls on the “green” skectrum, Faludi compared 3D printers to the other popular tool for low-volume production and rapid prototyping: computer-controlled mills.
The study looked at the materials and manufacturing for the machines themselves, transportation, energy use, the material in the final product, the material wasted, and the machines’ end-of-life disposal.
To test this, three machines (an FDM printer, an inkjet printer and a CNC mill) created the same two parts from plastic, after which their ecological impacts were measured per part per year.
And the winner? Almost regardless of how the machines were used, FDM came out on top. It had roughly half the footprint of the inkjet printer, and about one third less than the CNC mill. As for the inkjet printer and the CNC mill, the results were less clean. The inkjet tended to score worse, but once it alone was pushed to maximum efficiency it came out on top.
Faludi also found that all three machines had the lowest environmental impact when they were producing parts as close to 24/7 as possible, which suggests that job shops really do provide the economic and environmental advantages that they claim.
MIT Adds Color and Complexity to the Mix
If all you’re doing is printing a vase or a figurine, hard plastic, the substrate for almost all desktop 3D printers, does just fine. But for a number of objects, one material just isn’t enough to fit the bill. Meanwhile, most design programs don’t allow for the resolution of more complex objects. Together, this cuts down significantly on what’s able to come out of your 3D printer, and perhaps whether you’d be interested in investing in one in the first place
But on Friday, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab researchers will unveil OpenFab, a design program meant to overcome these obstacles. The software was inspired by Pixar’s RenderMan, and uses a programming language that allows for surface and composition changes to be made with a few commands, rather than requiring the designer to go back and redesign it by hand.
Not only that, but objects can by squishy, and can be made in a range of colors—a bonus not available on current CAD systems.
“In traditional manufacturing most objects are composed of multiple parts made out of the same material,” says paper lead author and PhD student Kiril Vidimče. “With OpenFab, the user can change the material consistency of an object, for example designing the object to transition from stiff at one end to flexible and compressible at the other end.”
The researchers will present two papers of their work at today’s SIGGRAPH conference in Anaheim, Calif.
eBay Jumps on the Bandwagon
Now, eBay has announced that it is entering the 3D-printing arena with a new iPhone app called eBay Exact. Using the app, customers can customize jewelry, figurines and other accessories that will be 3D-printed and sent to the customers’ doorsteps.
When users open the app, sample items from MakerBot, Sculpteo, Hot Pop Factory and a few others appear onscreen. Depending on the item, you may then modify as much as the pattern, shape, color and material (so long as its plastic or metal), pay through PayPal, and await the shipment of your custom-made item, which should arrive within a week or two.
Although the technology here is nothing here, like recent moves by Staples and Amazon to get ahead of the technological current, eBay’s new app goes to show just how mainstream the technology is becoming.