I want to cover 3-D printing early in this series because it is so quickly becoming mainstream. If I wait to cover it, even my parents may mention it during a Sunday dinner. Perhaps that is the ultimate gauge of technology maturation! In six months, 3-D printing may fit well alongside blog entries on pager technology and music cassette tapes.
Let’s start with a bit of history…let’s go way back to the early 1990s. As a young and sleep-deprived grad student at the Colorado School of Mines, I did a bit work on a precursor to this technology, which used a robot welder and a program running off of an Intel “386” personal computer to produce a “near net shape.”
The outputted “printed” part was sent to a machine shop for final cut to exact dimensions. It was cool. It was expensive. Scratch that, it was really expensive. While research groups were playing around with 3-D printing, few people were imagining the surge of the technology into home units and the entire Maker Movement.
A 3-D PRINTING PRIMER
3-D printing is a process that makes a physical object from a digital design. The object is made from the bottom up or top down, layer by layer until the full object is formed. This is analogous to carefully slicing an apple into thin layers. If you take each slice of apple and make a paper duplicate, including its thickness and shape, you can then stack the paper slices in the same position and end up with a 3-D paper copy of the original apple.
Real 3-D printing can work with many different materials. 3-D printers can also use metal powders that are melted into the final shape, layer by layer. By changing out the materials, you end up with objects that have very different properties that all resemble the original form.
A computer aided drafting (CAD) program is ideally suited to slice a solid digital model and coordinate making the printed layers with a 3-D printer. On one end of the spectrum, using this type of technology, hobbyists make custom printed chess sets. On the other end of the spectrum, 3-D printing has reached the point where manufacturers are making medical device components that can be placed in the human body. That medical device market alone is expected to grow to $2 billion by 2020.
So what’s the catch? (And there are a few!) A 3-D printed part will have lower tolerances than most other manufacturing methods. Often, a 3-D facility must employ people to use fine-grit sandpaper to apply the finishing touches to commercial products. 3-D printed parts scale upward in cost by weight as the precursor material (the stuff that gets printed) ranges from expensive to very expensive. For these reasons, 3-D printing isn’t likely to put traditional manufacturing completely out of business anytime soon. However, 3-D printing has quickly been adopted to fill critical niche markets where materials costs are not a factor and mass production isn’t beneficial.
To get started as a hobbyist you would need a computer, a CAD program and a 3-D printer. 3-D printers range in price from a couple of hundred dollars for a hobbyist kit, tens of thousands of dollars for medium-end commercial equipment and a few million dollars for large machines with metal printing capabilities. The high-end equipment can easily make one-off parts that are used everywhere from the aerospace industry to implantable devices in the medical device industry.
CONNECTICUT 3-D PRINTING EXPERTISE
Connecticut has a respectable presence in 3-D printing from industrial users and suppliers to hobbyists in town libraries and school clubs all engaging with the technology. One popular producer of 3-D printers that is geared for hobbyists is MakerBot Industries, which has six stores in Connecticut. To find out more about plastics-based 3-D printing technology, I would contact experts such as Greg Gondek and his team at ACT Group in Cromwell, CT. For industry-specific metal additive manufacturing technology, I would turn to Tom Maloney, CTO at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT). CCAT serves as a resource to transfer specialized technology, such as 3-D printing, to manufacturers.
About Dave Fazzina
I have spent the past 20 years as a materials engineer, an entrepreneur, a consultant and a part-time mad scientist.
I will discuss a bit of physics, chemistry technology and even some bio science as I explore the innovations that will be tomorrow’s hot new startups. I hope that the topics and discussions will inspire entrepreneurs to take chances and think big. Connecticut is home to some of the greatest inventors. While Nutmeggers are familiar with Samuel Colt and Eli Whitney, we shouldn’t forget that Danbury was Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley.