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Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Time Event
10:24a
A question of making ...
Back in July, I got a chance to attend the 3D Printing Conference & Expo down at McCormick Place, in the guise of my other blog, Green Tech Chicago. Hod Lipson & Melba Kurman's Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing was very much in evidence at the show (they were selling it in the exhibit hall), not surprising as Lipson “programmed” the conference part of the event. I noted that Wiley was the publisher of this, and shot an email their way requesting a review copy, which they graciously provided.

As a former publisher, I can imagine the difficulties of developing this book … it's dealing with a subject, niche, and market that is rapidly changing, from constant new developments, to new players popping up, and other big names being swallowed up by competitors (one such consolidation happening just weeks before the show, leaving a “conspicuous by their absence” element there). Fabricated attempts to take an in-depth look at a moving target, and one has to wonder how long this will stay relevant (I suppose they could update it on a regular basis, reflecting changes while building on the “historical” aspects here).

My Green Tech Chicago writing partner has opined that 3D printing is in the same place that computers were back in the early 80's, just emerging from the hands-on hobbyist phase and into the initial corporate expansion, but I'm not so sure. While I remember the limitations of my first computers, they pretty much did what I wanted them to do, within a time frame that I expected (boosted in my first PC by adding a math coprocessor!). One of the biggest issues that I see with 3D printing is their extreme slowness … it may take 3-6 hours to print a desktop tchotchke, and folks I've talked to about this don't anticipate that available systems will speed up any time soon (due to limitations on the fabrication elements). This places a real limit on what can realistically be expected of the technology, as it means that the machine cost is spread out over a very limited population of printed items per year – especially if it's not running 24/7 … if you're making “3 hour” items, you're going to have less than 3,000 if you are running the machine 24/7, and only around 1k if you're looking at a standard work day. If you're printing on a small “home/hobby” machine, that cost might not be too horrible, but if you're looking at a $40,000 pro machine, the cost per piece isn't going to make the doo-dads particularly attractive.

Now, sure, scanning and replicating parts that would be have to be hand-milled, etc., makes a lot of sense, but the “buzz” on the industry is pointing to home fabrication of stuff, and there are going to have to be some serious improvements on speed if that's going to work. This is one bit that was somewhat under-played in Fabricated, which tends to look at the “wow” and less at the “how” on the cost element.

This is not to say that it's not a fascinating read … there are 14 chapters, each taking a look at a specific aspect of the 3D printing world. Now, for those of you who haven't seen 3D printing, here's the basic description from the book:

The way the 3D printing process works is as follows. The 3D printer, guided by instruction in the design file, squirts our or solidifies powdered, molten or liquid material into a specific flat pattern. After the first layer solidifies, the 3D “print head” returns and forms another thin layer on top of the first one. When the second layer solidifies, the print head returns yet again and deposits another thin layer on top of that. Eventually, the thin layers build up and a three-dimensional object forms.
The systems vary, some using powder and an adhesive, some being glorified glue guns depositing plastic, some using lasers to fuse metal dust, or to solidify a gel, and even ones that use standard copy paper (printed, glued, and cut) to build up objects.

Aside from “object” printing (be it one-off replacements for machine parts, or “fashion” accessories), there are other realms that fall under the 3D printing umbrella: printed foods and printed body parts. Interestingly, the medical use of printer technology has been around for a while, as researchers discovered the ability to use old-school inkjet printers (which had less fine nozzles than later models) that could be re-fitted to spray out cells into sheets that could then be used on burn victims, etc., and scanning and “printing” bone replacements has come a long way and is now used almost routinely in some surgeries (with the obvious advantage of being able to make a scanned copy of one's existing bone, rather than having an “off the shelf” model that wouldn't fit as well).

Science fiction is a driving force in much of these developments, as people try to achieve what they've seen in that context … but it's a long way from a 3D printer extruding cookie dough to barking orders like “Earl Grey, hot!” at a replicator. One of the “visions” in here is the concept of a robot that would “walk off the pad”, having had all its component parts, its wires, its batteries, its sensors, as well as its mechanical parts, printed in one go. While current-tech machines can do some really remarkable things (entire mechanical structures with gears, etc., printed together and not needing subsequent assembly), the ability to do the whole thing is still a long ways away. A concept called the “voxel” comes into play here:

In the same way a pixel is a building block of an image, a bit is a unit of information, and an amino acid is a building block of biological matter, a voxel is a volumetric pixel (hence its name). The elementary units of physical matter are atoms. The elementary units of printed mater would be larger, a couple of hundred microns, the size of a grain of sand.
Like a few colors on an artist's palette, a few voxel types can take you far. If fewer than two dozen element types gives rise to all biological life, a few basic voxel types can also open a large range of possibilities. To begin, let's combine rigid voxels and soft voxels. Using just those two types, of voxels, it's possible to make hard and soft materials. Add conductive voxels, to make wiring. Add resistor, capacitor, inductor and transistor voxels, to make electric circuits. Add actuator and sensor voxels and your have robots.
While much of that is no doubt at least decades away, one area which 3D printing is creating massive new breakthroughs is in the plastic arts – sculptures, designs (they have a picture of a bottle opener which is in the shape of a mathematical, single surface, “Klein Bottle”) and even shoes that would be nearly impossible to produce if they weren't 3D printed.

Again, the book goes into a lot of detail in a large number of areas pertinent to 3D printing … so if you want to get caught up with this new field (or, at least caught up through 2012), this would be the book for you. Fabricated has been out since February, so it's probably available at some better-stocked brick and mortar book vendors. The on-line big boys have it at a bit of a discount (20%), and some copies have gotten into the used channels, but you're not saving much there yet. Since the material here is so much in flux, I'd recommend getting this now (yeah, even if you have to shell out cover price), as it will give you the basics and a snapshot of things-as-they-are, before they get too changed … reading this in 5 years is no doubt going to sound “quaint”!


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