Compared to today’s 3-D printers and their capabilities, models from previous decade seem to have more in common with the printer created by Johannes Gutenberg. Take a look at our most popular recent stories for proof:“Gravity-Defying Robot will 3-D Print a Steel Bridge in Mid-Air” and “3D-Printed Car Gets 1,500 MPG.”
When you live in a time where a robot could conceivably build a steel bridge independently of human guidance, as a Roomba would vacuum your living room, it’s easy to look back at earlier bulky models as Neanderthals.
Of course, when I first learned about them in college, they seemed futuristic.
This was back in 2007, when I sometimes struggled to find riveting technology stories for the school newspaper that would get readers attention. The iPhone was only months old at the time, so most students weren't as tech-obsessed as this generation. The word “geek” was still considered an epithet, not a compliment.
One day I struck up a conversation with a couple of graduate students, who enthusiastically introduced me to rapid prototyping. It was explained as a process to quickly construct models in house, mainly for the automotive industry, to shave months off engineering time.
They were almost embarrassed to call it 3-D printing, as if was too banal a description for the machine and its limitless potential. After all, the Cleveland Clinic was using the same $39,000 machine, the ZPrinter 450, for an amazing applications: to reconstruct aortic aneurisms from MRIs, presumably to save future lives.
These engineering students were making figurines and cat-toy like spheres, which I thought was also fairly amazing at the time. I was baffled at how a little ball could be end up in a bigger ball. Knowing the finished product originated from a little box and a CAD drawing made it all even more out-of-this-world tech. They even cracked a few jokes about it being like the replicator from Star Trek.
Watching the process brings to mind the adage about not wanting to know how the sausage is made. The machine used plaster and an organic binding agent to build each layer at a rate of 1 vertical inch an hour. The delicate structure would need to be airbrushed to blow off particulates and encased in an epoxy resin. It was rather mundane and not at all what I expected.
What a difference eight years make. The latest advances in 3-printing, in the field of direct metal deposition (DMD), are anything but mundane or delicate. Metal and lasers replace organic binding and plaster to create solid structures used for the aerospace industry. This is a something I wouldn’t mind watching for hours on end.
The frontrunner in this category, Norways-based Norsk Titanium AS (NTi), uses a patented process involving Titanium wire heated by a plasma arc welding. It’s fast and there is little to no material waste, which the company says can reduce manufacturing time by up to 90% and cuts cost by up to 70% compared to current processes.
In July, NTi made a few major announcements in its effort to commercialize the technology for industrial applications, revealing plans to build a full scale public-private DMD facility in the United States. Spearheaded by new president and CEO, Warren Boley, Jr., the 200,000-square-foot facility will be the first of its kind, although it’s location has yet to be determined.
“We’re going to make history…this is part of the next industrial revolution,” Boley says. “The project involved hundreds of millions of dollars of investment over the past seven to eight years. Its goal is to build large-scale components for commercial aircraft.”
The facility may even make components of the unbelievably expensive F-35. Lockheed Martin is trying to cut costs anywhere it can, and this would be even more fiscally beneficial to the program than a recent adhesive breakthrough.
Granted, even if the factory 3D-printed gold bars from straw, that project would still be hundreds of billions of dollars over budget. Hopefully, the sky isn't the limit for DMD and space is.
Boley Jr.'s previous job was CEO of Aerojet Rocketdyne, which is a real company and not the name of Luke Skywalker’s first girlfriend. His past experience and connections may prove integral in NTi becoming a player in space exploration. This is pure speculation, but seems plausible enough, considering Titanium has been used in several NASA shuttles and the international space station. And if DMD takes off, that's great for the space industry. More importantly, quickly and efficiently producing parts for new spacecrafts will further NASA's exciting new projects, such as photographingrocks that look like crabs.
With the way 3D printing has been evolving, it makes you think the Star Trek: The Next Generationwriters were on to something. After all, if printing can progress from movable type to space ships in less than six centuries, replicators (not to be confused with MakerBot's Replicator Mini) could very well be real in three centuries. (The show takes place in the 24th century.)
Unless there are some major advancements in cryogenic sleep, we’ll never know. However, it’s comforting to know all the current developments are leading to more than creating knickknacks and overpriced fighter jets. Additive manufacturing isn't just about fabricating models anymore. It's about building a better world and a better future. If only it didn’t seem like it was happening at one vertical inch an hour.