Sunday, December 8, 2013
By ERIC ADLER McClatchy Newspapers
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It took five hours and 10 minutes to “print” this coffee mug at the Prototype Studio at Hallmark in Kansas City, Mo. The technology that makes this possible is becoming omnipresent and companies and ideas are booming.
Photo by Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star
Olaf Diegel, a New Zealand engineer, has created a market for his functioning electric guitars made by using 3-D printing.
Courtesy Olaf Diegel
"You start with a block of material and subtract things until you get what you want," said Robert Landers, a professor of mechanical engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
But the first word in 3-D printing's alternative name, additive manufacturing, tells how it is different.
Instead of chipping or cutting away at some material, a 3-D printer's nozzle runs back and forth, over and over again, oozing out layer after layer of whatever material is inside. It could be spools of plastic, metal, ceramic or cookie dough. These printers have already been used to create a heart valve. Some predict the printers will use biological tissue to create entire replacement organs.
Instructions for what to build are guided by software, much of which is free online. The 3-D printer builds a whole object in place, as if it were growing from the bottom up. Or it creates parts of an object that can be assembled.
Printers can be small enough to fit on a desk, using spools of thermoplastic filament that looks like weed trimmer line. Or they can be huge, with nozzles pouring out stone-like material to create walls or 10-foot-tall sculptures.
A YouTube video from the MIT Media Lab shows a quick-motion video of a 3-D printer creating a playable flute.
In New Zealand, engineer Olaf Diegel's experiments with 3-D printing spurred for him a new market in intricate electric guitars with hollow, lace-like bodies.
"I used to be a wannabe rock star," Diegel said by email. "So two years ago, I decided to see if the 3-D printing technologies had improved to the point where they could make a real, working electric guitar. Not just a prototype, but the real thing, that could be sold as-is. It worked incredibly well, and I started blogging about it, and the business spun off from there."
In Italy, inventor Enrico Dini, chairman of Monolite UK Ltd., has created a massive printer he calls D-Shape to create tall, sturdy and intricate stone-like sculptures, organically shaped with many large curves and holes that would be difficult to create using traditional building techniques.
Made of a combination of magnesium powder, sand and adhesives, one such wall is being used as an artificial reef. In principal, the technique could be adapted to create walls to build homes. Another vision: astronauts using 3-D printers loaded with moon dust and other material to build housing on the lunar surface.
A rocket part goes bad? No more "Houston, we have a problem." Problem solved. A printer produces what's needed.
Three-D printing technology is not new. It first came to public notice in the early 1980s, and industries and scientists began toying and experimenting with it soon after. The airplane, automotive and other industries have used industrial 3-D printers for years to design and test specialty parts.
Few people, at this point, envision 3-D printing replacing the cost-effective injection molding or other mass production techniques in the near future, if ever.
"When you make parts for the automotive industry, for example, you have thousands and hundreds of thousands of components," said Landers, the Missouri professor. "I don't think it will ever compete with the truly high-volume stuff. It is very good for small volume."
For many companies, that means using the printers to work out kinks in prototypes before sending a product into mass production.
In Kansas City, Hallmark Cards has seven 3-D printers to test ideas and create small volumes of ornaments and keepsakes.
"We've had them for at least six years," Hallmark's Scott Browning said of the printers. "Ours are running every day, most of the day."
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click image to enlarge
A wrench and a bicycle chain were created by 3-D printing at the Prototype Studio at Hallmark in Kansas City, Mo.
Photo by Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star