3D Printing: Here, There and Everywhere

Carl Weinschenk
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Robotics: Humans Need Not Apply

One of the biggest stories of 2013 was the progress made by 3D printing. It is an amazing development in two ways: It allows the functional recreation of objects over great distances and it has been very quickly commercialized.

All technologies, to greater or lesser degrees, seem intensely good or bad depending on who is at the controls. Nuclear energy can destroy or light cities. Guns can protect families or rob them. Google Glass and similar technology can eavesdrop or help find kids in a fire.

3D printing can be considered the poster child for that duality. It can replicate firearms, as is the use that so far has gotten the most notoriety, and be used by terrorists. Or, 3D printing can be used to make food more accessible to the hungry or to help the environment by enabling people to reproduce replacement parts for consumer electronic devices in their home instead of calling on repairmen to drive crosstown to deliver them.

One certainty is that the category will get as much attention in 2014 as it did this year. Indeed, a significant piece of news this week primes the pump: 3D Systems is acquiring Xerox’s product design, engineering and chemistry group for $32.5 million in cash. The deal for the group, which is headquartered in Wilsonville, Ore., is expected to close by the end of the year.

The press release said that Xerox and 3D have a long relationship and jointly developed the ProJet 3D printers. It is a big deal: 3D is adding more than 100 Xerox engineers and contractors and is increasing its research and development expenditures by 75 to 100 percent.

Needless to say, the folks in Wilsonville will be working on some futuristic projects. Perhaps one of them will focus on the type of activity described at CNET. Apparently, to date, 3D printing has focused on discrete and inactive parts that are self-contained. When put together, they form the entire device.

CNET writer Michelle Starr describes a project at Cornell in which an integrated system, in this case a loudspeaker, is created using a 3D printer. The team used a customizable Fab@Home printer, according to the story:

For the speaker housing, the team used the usual plastic material. They printed the conductive coil using a silver ink. The magnet was a little trickier—for that, the team called upon chemical and biomolecular engineering graduate student Samanvaya Srivastava to devise a viscous material composed mainly of strontium ferrite.

Starr adds that the technology is not yet at the point at which these elements can be produced concurrently in their finished and integrated states, since the requirements for each are different (the example is that metal and plastic require different temperatures). The elements need to be assembled on the receiving end.

The post includes an interesting video with Hod Lipson, a member of the team and an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell. Lipson makes the point that a key to the research is to determine if usable active components, batteries, for instance, can be part of a 3D printed system.

3D Systems was founded in 1986, and though its roots are old, 3D printing seems to have come out of nowhere. At NextGov, a panel discussion raised the question of whether widespread and sophisticated 3D printing will lead to a culture of reuse or a culture of waste. A culture of reuse would mean less overall replacement of objects such as washing machines and stoves – the examples in the story – because printing broken parts would be easy and inexpensive. A culture of waste would focus on random printing of “useless knick knacks” and reprinting if the original version is not pleasing.

3D printing is interesting both from the technical and social perspectives. Exploration of both issues will continue through 2014 and beyond.

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