A massive manufacturing technology convergence is in its early stages at this very moment. Exponentially expanding computing power, artificial intelligence, robotics and advanced sensing technology will change the way we make everything.
Since prehistory, we’ve been working at finding new ways to make things. We started out, over a million years ago, chipping away at lumps of flint or obsidian in order to make axes, knives or arrowheads. Obsidian was so important that some of the oldest trade routes sprang up around it, and it might even have been the earliest form of money.
From the Old to the New
We’ve since learned to work with all kinds of other materials. A tribesman 50,000 years ago may have banged a stone against a piece of flint to make a knife. Today, we might use a computer-controlled blanking press to punch a knife out of a sheet of steel, with a drill and a grinder to put holes in the tang and an edge on the blade. However, the basic way we fashion things hasn’t changed that much.
I still remember my first job as a teen, building medical device components in a machine shop. We often worked metals like platinum and gold — and carefully swept up the precious leftover chips after a job was completed. We still transform most of the things we make much as we did during the Stone Age: by removing stuff from a piece of material in order to create the physical shape we desire.
Despite the manufacturing advances of the Industrial Revolution, the way we make things is largely the subtractive process it has always been. We still saw, mill and grind. Then we take the shaped bits and assemble them with glues, screws, welds and rivets.
A pharaoh’s armorer or goldsmith could walk into a modern knife factory and be bewildered by the machines operating there — but the basic physical procedures used to create useful objects are essentially the same.
That’s changing fast, due to an emerging technology called 3-D printing.
3-D Printing and The Z-Axis Transformation
Unlike subtractive manufacturing processes, 3-D printing is additive. It doesn’t make things by taking something big and making something smaller out of it. It takes something small — a thin layer of plastic, metal or even human cells — and, by adding successive layers, builds something larger out of it.
The basic 3-D printing concept is similar to that used by the 2-D printer you probably have next to your computer. Your printer deposits a thin layer of coloured material on a page, with a precision of several hundred ink dots per inch. The pattern, whether text or picture, is described by a digital file you generate with your computer, which tells the printer precisely where on x- and y-axes to place the dots of ink.
3-D printing takes that idea and extends it in an additional axis — the z-axis. By printing layer upon layer of material, a 3-D object can be constructed. The result? We can produce complex shapes undreamed of using traditional tools.
Like a traditional 2-D printer, complexity doesn’t matter when it comes to 3-D printing. Your printer doesn’t care if it is printing a single solid colour on a page or a copy of an artistic masterpiece.
In the end, all it prints is a pattern of dots on a page described in a digital file. A 3-D printer essentially takes this one step further. It places many ‘pages’ on top of each other to build a 3-D shape. The additional complexity comes at little or no additional cost.
Furthermore, there is little or no waste. Unlike a subtractive process, which removes material, which must then be discarded or recycled, the only material used is what is needed to build an object.
3-D Printing’s Promise Becomes Reality
The technology is already transforming how we make things. 3-D-printed components are now making their way into everything from aircraft to rocket ships. General Electric, for example, recently purchased a small 3-D printing company to produce jet engine parts. NASA, on the other hand, is using 3-D printing to manufacture metal components for rocket engines where traditional manufacturing techniques don’t work.
According to Ken Cooper, advanced manufacturing team lead at NASA’s Marshall Center:
‘Basically, this machine takes metal powder and uses a high-energy laser to melt it in a designed pattern. The laser will layer the melted dust to fuse whatever part we need from the ground up, creating intricate designs. The process produces parts with complex geometries and precise mechanical properties from a 3-D computer-aided design.’
In addition, the process NASA is using reduces the manufacturing time by orders of magnitude, reduces cost and creates a stronger product.
3-D printing technology is even moving into the field of biotechnology. Innovators are developing bioprinters that can print cells like a common printer does with ink. The cells can be precisely placed to mimic the structure of a human organ.
The technology is currently beginning to see use in drug discovery and development. Unlike a cell culture, something that mimics the structure of an organ is likely to be a better test subject for a new compound. With sufficient refinement, this technology in the future could even be used to print entire organs, which would put an end to organ transplant waiting lists.
However, while this technology is still in the future, 3-D printing is making a dent in the biomedical field right now in other ways. It is, for example, replacing traditional methods for manufacturing dental implants.
With a 3-D printer, you could have a new custom crown made while you wait at the dentist’s office. Recently, a 3-D printing company received FDA approval for printed bone replacement implants. One patient had 75% of his skull replaced with a 3-D printed prosthetic. The technology is also being used for joint replacements.
3-D printing introduces an element of flexibility to the way we make stuff. Typical mass production techniques require a heavy investment in tooling, but the flexibility to change the end product isn’t always there.
With 3-D printing, all that needs to be changed is a digital file using computer-aided design software. That kind of flexibility is proving to be a huge boon to engineers, who can design a prototype on a computer and rapidly print out a copy.
This flexibility means that truly customized things are becoming a reality. 3-D printing allows anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to design, manufacture and distribute a product, without the need for an expensive factory.
Websites have popped up that allow customers to transmit a 3-D design file, which can then be printed for a fee. Users are making everything from custom smartphone cases to jewelry — and with consumer-level printers, they can now begin to do some of it at home.
Contributing Editor, Money Morning
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