In Part 1 of this two-part series, I focused on the opinions of three experts in the field of 3-D printing who were selected by the editorial staff of the New York Times to discuss the future of additive manufacturing. [“Will 3-D Printing Change the World?” The New York Times, 12 August 2014] Those experts primarily focused on the state-of-the-art and near-term possibilities for 3-D printing. In this article, I’ll focus on the remaining three experts tapped by the New York Times‘ staff who looked at some of the more intriguing possibilities that 3-D printing could bring about. The first expert whose views I’ll discuss is Kacie Hultgren (@KacieHultgren), a set designer and author of videos related to CAD and 3-D printing. It was smart of the Times‘ staff to include a designer among the experts it selected because few useful things are built without having first been designed. One of the benefits of 3-D printing is that it can render designs that were difficult or impossible to produce using traditional manufacturing methods. “Computer-aided design is the new norm in most design industries,” Hultgren writes. “But three-dimensional ideas suffer in the two-dimensional world of computing. It’s difficult to evaluate and convey the true nature of a 3-D design on a two dimensional screen. But 3-D printing eases the design translation to a physical object.” An article published in a guide produced by the 3D Printing Industry notes, “The advent of 3D printing has seen a proliferation of products (designed in digital environments), which involve levels of complexity that simply could not be produced physically in any other way. While this advantage has been taken up by designers and artists to impressive visual effect, it has also made a significant impact on industrial applications, whereby applications are being developed to materialize complex components that are proving to be both lighter and stronger than their predecessors.” [“3D Printing Benefits & Value: The Free Beginner’s Guide“] If additive manufacturing ushers in a revolution in commercial fabrication, the driving force of that revolution will likely be the ability to design new products.
Another expert tapped by the New York Times was Mick Ebeling (@mickteg), founder of Not Impossible Labs. He notes that the medical field is one of the areas in which 3-D printing will find a permanent and welcomed home. He believes that structures built using additive manufacturing techniques will result in medical miracles. “The medical possibilities of 3-D printing are astounding,” he writes, “and I suspect we’ve only discovered the tip of the iceberg. When you watch the incredibly rapid development of 3-D printing, it is not the work of major companies that is breathtaking, though that’s enormously important; it’s guys in their basement who are coming up with incredible solutions to seemingly impossible problems.” Miracles can come in all shapes and sizes. Take the example of six-year-old Alex Pring, who was born with most of his right arm missing. His parents couldn’t afford an expensive prosthetic arm for Alex. That’s when Albert Manero, a University of Central Florida Aerospace Engineering doctoral student and his team, stepped in to help. Manero’s team provided Alex with “the first 3D printed e-NABLE Myoelectric arm that runs off of servos and batteries that are actuated by the electromyography muscle energy on Alex’s bicep!” If that was not miracle enough, the arm was manufactured at a cost of only $350. [“‘Limbitless’ – 6 Year Old Gets $350 3D Printed Myoelectric Arm,” E-nabling the Future, 26 July 2014] “The first thing he wanted to do when he learned how to use his new limb – was to give his mom a hug with two full arms for the first time in his life.” That’s a priceless miracle on its own. Lindsay Hock reports, “3-D technologies are used in custom prosthetics — such as the Ekso robotic suit that is 3-D printed to match a patient’s exact shape — as well as internal devices and implants. A number of organizations have already received FDA 510(k) approvals for additively manufactured implants, and other submissions are in the works. According to 3D Systems, an R&D team in Cardiff, Wales, CARTIS, is already successfully using their technologies for custom-printed implants and surgical guides to enhance facial reconstruction surgeries.” [“3-D Printing: A New Manufacturing Staple,” R&D Magazine, 15 April 2014]
The final expert tapped by the New York Times was Alison Nordt, an engineer at Lockheed Martin’s Space Technology Advanced Research and Development Labs. She writes, “Three-dimensional printing — or ‘additive manufacturing’ — holds profound implications for the space industry.” Nordt is he program manager and principal engineer for the Near-InfraRed camera for the James Webb Space Telescope and has used additive manufacturing extensively in her work. She continues:
“On spacecraft, the size, weight and fit of parts have a huge impact on performance. We used low-cost 3-D printers to develop rapid prototypes, which allowed us to go through many design iterations in days, not weeks or months. We recently made titanium parts for ground support of flight hardware with additive manufacturing, quickly going from 3-D computer models and titanium powder to completed form in just a few hours. This is just the beginning, though. We’re at the cusp of a new age of manufacturing. Lockheed Martin is already making the leap into mission-ready components. In fact, our first spacecraft with 3-D printed parts, Juno, is currently on its way to Jupiter. When it comes to space exploration, 3-D printing drastically reduces the need for costly, complex tooling and can cut in half the time and cost of producing parts. Our ultimate goal is to print an entire satellite. To do that, we’re experimenting with blending materials for hybrid parts. Imagine a single complex part that has different material properties at different points within it. The U.S. needs to invest in manufacturing technology to help this future arrive.”
It has even been reported that 3-D printers are likely to travel in space helping astronauts prepare food and manufacture replacement parts. It’s not quite the same as the Replicator made famous by the Star Trek franchise, but it’s on the same trajectory. Nordt writes, “We need to evolve from prototype-building machines to ones that we can use on an assembly line — or even in space — that deliver the functionality to operate at large scales, the repeatability for trusted assembly lines and the quality to support astronauts for long-duration missions to Mars. We are close to a future where spare parts and stock rooms could be a thing of the past. Space projects will become more capable, more affordable and faster to develop. We need advances in additive manufacturing to get us there.” I have more than a passing interest in this technology. Along with some colleagues, I founded the Project for STEM Competitiveness to help get a project-based, problem-solving approach into schools. Our first program involved a hypothetical mission to Mars (see my post entitled “Teaching STEM Subjects Using a Mission to Mars“). To help participating students with their program, the Project for STEM Competitiveness provided the school with a 3-D printer. The printer helps spark their interest and imagination. Hock concludes, “The overall beauty of 3-D printing technology is that it can be adopted in any industry where there’s a match between the customers’ needs and the production capabilities of a company’s systems and materials. The possibilities are endless and are only limited by the imagination and ambition of the people behind the technology.”