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Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Sunday, 31 July 2011

3D Printing Process Overview

After the last couple of weeks, I decided to put together a quick and easy overview of the processes for anyone that is interested in 3D printing. I intentionally avoided going into specific definitions and materials, which would be too complicated for an exercise such as this. There are many good sources of information for those across the internet for anyone that wants it. If you need help locating it, give me a shout. I have never seen anything like this though, and it would have been useful when I was starting out. It is intended only as a starting point .....

*I don't claim that this is an exhaustive list, but I hope it's helpful.  

Planes, Refrains and 3D Printing's largest Audience yet.

Another eventful week in the world of 3D Printing – long may it continue.

New Scientist magazine ran a feature in print & online covering work undertaken at the University of Southampton that resulted in the design and build of the world’s "first fully 3D printed flying aircraft". The title of the piece is a little deceptive – the ‘uninitiated’ as they have been labelled in certain quarters will probably be imagining themselves boarding a plane that has been completely 3D printed.

This project actually demonstrated some impressive results for a model plane-sized UAV. The aircraft was designed by the  engineering team from Southampton and 3D printed by 3T RPD — a reputable 3D printing service provider — all within a week and on a low budget (£5000).

The video release has had lots of attention and rightly so, this successful application (10 minutes in flight) has huge implications for many different applications of UAVs. Add a real time camera feeding images to a safely positioned computer & operator and no one but a hard core 3D printing fanatic would shed a tear if one of these aircraft was shot down over dangerous terrain! Just an idea. 


And then on this week’s edition of BBC Click, Spencer Kelly, the show’s presenter underwent a head scan. This was to demonstrate the capabilities of hand-held 3D scanning and 3D printing.

The episode is definitely worth a look and can be found here:

A great many positives, with current applications described and reducing costs allowing the technology to go mainstream; along with the customary talk of the future. This included a nod to the open source RepRap project with machines that replicate themselves. Already starting to happen, incidentally. It also described the sustainability and environmentally-friendly benefits of producing products locally.

I was slightly disappointed to see that the film location was described as a ‘rapid prototyping lab’. In fact, the episode was filmed at Ravensbourne, a university sector college in London, with what looked like nice range of equipment. This out-dated description is not overly helpful for the industry’s efforts to move forward with standardized terminology. But this was the least of the confusion that emerged. 

Initially Mr Kelly describes the materials that can be 3D printed under the categories of ‘plastic’, ‘resin’ or ‘even food’. Later on in the broadcast he categorises 3D printing into three types —again according to materials — but this time it is powder, resin and paper (it was product placement only for those in the know). Kelly went on to explain the powder bed, inkjet process quite well, similarly for the paper process, but this completely overlooked the powder sintering and deposition processes. With the resin system, he simply looked in the machine and described it as a ‘large microwave’ with little more added about the process itself. No mention of vats and/or cartridges.

Kelly went on to interview Jeremy Gardiner, Ravensbourne’s course director. This guy seemed to knew his stuff, but unfortunate editing led to further contradiction. Asked, “Is there anything you can’t use to print?” Gardiner replied, “There are certainly lots of different technologies out there. You can boil it down to two, really. Additive processes and subtractive ones.”

Notice the “two technologies” following Kelly’s “three processes” earlier. Not good. I know subtractive processes have a lot to offer within the big picture of engineering and manufacturing, but in the context of this programme, introducing the subtractive option was counter-productive.

Furthermore, and this is annoying, apart from Mr Gardiner casually dropping into the conversation that printing in titanium implies you are printing a hip replacement; there was no explanation of metal-based processes. EOS/Arcam/Concept Laser/Optomec/Renishaw – all of these companies need to up their game on the awareness front. The spark from 3D printing is bursting into flames and now is the time to engage and demonstrate the advantages of additive manufacturing.

/Climbing down from my soapbox/ Maybe I’m getting a little pedantic – the BBC coverage was great in terms of getting the message out and demonstrating applications. Newbies that want to know more can follow up — right? The TV and online audience from this is a significant one, indeed I was woken up by hubby (on early dog walking duty) to be told “your stuff is on the news – look /switches on tv/ — I didn’t know it was THAT advanced!” /sigh/ He did bring me a cup of tea though.

And Stephen Fry obviously saw it, resulting in his refrain on twitter: “I think I need all three of those 3D printers – link” Well that went out to 2.8 million followers!!

This, on top of THAT youtube video exceeding 7 million hits,  coverage on BBC Radio 4 profiling Digital Forming and an extensive article in the Daily Telegraph which heralded 3D printing as ‘The Technology that could Reshape the World’ [http://t.co/M3jYuIz] means that 3D printing has definitely come before a larger audience than ever before.


Tuesday, 26 July 2011

AM vendors missing a trick?

Putting together my previous blog post made me poignantly aware that the majority of additive manufacturing vendors (those that manufacture metal systems and/or those pointing predominantly at industry) have a very poor internet presence, some in terms of their own sites and most in terms of visibility on the social/business media sites. I think I already know why this is — from my own painful experience of trying to extract stories from them in the past — working with industrial clients, NDA's are everywhere and they make it very hard to promote some of the most compelling additive manufacturing stories!

ZCorp and Objet are leading the way in making their presence known globally. They regularly publish their own blogs and comment far and wide on forums and social media sites. They are getting significant profiling as a result of their efforts. There is also a notable but more subdued presence from Stratasys, RepRap (& derivatives), Mcor and 3D Systems (although DDD gets a lot of coverage from many different sources due to its acquisition strategy - I am a good example!!).

They probably already know who they are, but just in case — EOS, Arcam, Optomec, Fcubic, Envisiontec, Renishaw (previously MTT), Huntsman, Concept Laser, Voxeljet and Sintermask. These are some great companies doing some incredible things with additive technologies — but you need to share more :-) 

Top Picks - Recent Applications of 3D Printing

So I promised I would, and, good as my word, here are my favourites.

It probably doesn't need saying, but this has been a completely subjective exercise. These are the ones that, for me, have the 'wow' factor. You don't have to agree!!

In no particular order .....

The Mushroom Cloud Shaped Nuke Lamp is visually beautiful and conceptually disturbing.  It is designed by Veneridesign and available from Shapeways.  Found courtesy of technabob.

Process: Laser Sintering 

Came across this on Twitter, courtesy of  Jason Lopes (@jasonmlopes). It’s really not pretty, but impressive & realistic replication nonetheless!

Process: Polyjet (Objet)

“We’re on the verge of a revolution,” says Clarks International Digital Development Manager Ross Authers. “It is a revolution of efficiency and of process.”

This is an often-overlooked application of 3D printing these days amidst the excitement of  3D printed products for sale direct to the consumer. However, 3D printing is a vitally useful tool in many product development processes — ensuring that the right products get to market in the fastest possible time. Clarks is a fantastic example of how an established UK company has adopted new technology to achieve a cleaner process. And I just love the "Britishness" of this design.

Process: ink jet (ZCorp - colour)

The Nexus Choker is designed by Igor Knezevic. This necklace is available from i.materialise's gallery. I voted for this in the company’s recent design competition because I just love it and would (will) wear it!

Process: Laser Sintering

This original, one-off titanium wedding ring is designed by Ann Marie Shillito in Cloud9 and 3D printed by i.materialise. It is personalised perfection — the bride is Ann Marie's daughter, Kari.

Process: Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Get a Grip People

The follow-up to my last post was supposed to be an upbeat listing of my favourite, most recent finds of 3D printing apps. It is coming together and will follow soon.

This, however, is not it, and it is not quite so pleasant. Although, I have just read the biography of a new follower of mine on twitter, which goes: "100 % Honest, always Dedicated and incredibly Exciting. Work hard - Be nice - Dream big. Sponsored by God. Social media pundit." Anton Perlkvist

As a result of being reminded that I do aspire to live my life by a similar code, what follows will be less of a rant than I had in mind as I launched my computer!

It is just so disappointing when the darker sides of human nature come to the fore. Some of the contentious comments that are flying around as the result of the Zcorp video going viral last week are beyond ignoring now, not least because they are at times ridiculous, petty, and just downright rude — and I'm not just referring to the scanning issues, but won't go there right now. Also some of them are coming at me directly, I imagine because I like to talk up the positives, so, anyway, as a result, I am not going to maintain the dignified silence that I originally intended. Uh oh, probably going to regret this huh!!?

And just for the record, this is my blog, sponsored by me, and all comments are my own!

Right, anyone on the inside of the 3D printing / additive manufacturing industry knows that the technology is not perfect. We can probably all agree on that. There are plenty of shortcomings (materials, repeatability, blah blah blah). Similarly for other product development technologies such as scanning and design software. And this is the choker for me, the majority of these ill-informed comments are generally all about the pre-build process, but are tarnishing the end result as well — 3D printing. These people seem to have got their knickers all twisty about the scanning process and the subsequent editing of the 3D digital model. Because it wasn't included in the video, certain commentators are making the assumption that there is something sinister going on about the whole process. Such nonsense. There are many laser scanners available today, and they are amazingly accurate tools for collecting surface data — but they're not perfect. This surface data is fully modifiable in mid to high-end 3D CAD packages, which allow the designer to add in features that can then be 3D printed. Yes, it can be time consuming and no, not everything can be printed, but we're getting there.

The point? It's this — if all of this process was documented in the video, how many of the 4.5 million viewers would have watched it?? I've sat through a fair number of CAD demos in my time, and the capabilities are amazing, but watching someone else design can be as interesting as watching paint dry if you are not that way inclined. The intention was to get people interested enough to watch and share.

Furthermore, this video wasn't issued as an ad, it wasn't a ploy to deceive, rather it was conceived as an informative marketing piece and as such I think it does exactly what it says on the tin. I suspect that there are individuals at Zcorp that are as taken aback as anyone else at the success it has seen. Anyone with an ounce of common sense will appreciate that the reality of the process is somewhat longer than 2 minutes.

It's has been suggested to me that this video is as fake as a TV cookery show — well, I'm not sure which shows they watch, but I've been able to follow a recipe and I have had some pretty successful results from TV chefs. Thank you very much.

This is where I am at:

3D laser scanning produces real data, this data WILL need modification for accurate 3D printing, but with a good recipe and a good cook — IT IS REAL.

It'd be great if we could draw a line under all this playground politics, but hey ho, that's the optimist in me.

3DP/AM Apps Increase & Improve

As usual, I have been spending some time looking at the breadth of 3D printing (3DP) / additive manufacturing (AM) applications ‘out there’. It is something that I have been lucky enough to do for many years now, but this week I approached the online search conscious of the many “newbies” that were potentially doing the same thing following the viral video and TV air time on a series of news/information channels. 

A couple of things struck me.

The first was how pleasing it is to get pages of links that all take me directly to genuine 3D printing applications or commentaries on tech developments, rather than having to scroll through copious irrelevant sites that either offer 3-dimensional products / photographs / films or 'superior, can't be beaten on price' 2D printing services. Of course, there are also plenty of ads promoting companies that offer 3D printing services, but in this context, I don't think it is such a bad thing. Overall, this is an improvement on even just a few months ago when I set out looking for new applications for the TCT Live 2011 programme (which, incidentally, is complete and can be found here: http://www.tctmagazine.com/x/tct-live/v-seminar.html)! For anyone newly interested in 3D printing or additive manufacturing, the fact that there is a wealth of applications and information at their fingertips is great and will hopefully serve to develop their curiosity into something more.

Second, there is a definite divide in the type of applications that exist. Even going back to the earliest days of rapid prototyping (RP), this divide was in evidence, but today it is stark. I am referring to the aesthetic versus the functional applications of additive technology (I did consider labelling the difference as sparkly versus non-sparkly or consumer versus non-consumer, but they were technically less correct!). Even using the aesthetic versus functional terminology it should still be noted that the terms are not mutually exclusive, as the aesthetic products often have a function and functional products can look attractive. However, I believe it makes the point I am making most successfully.

Whether the dominant aim is to achieve an aesthetically pleasing product or a fully functional part or prototype, the designs and products being realized with 3D printing are just so impressive — occasionally breathtaking and always inspiring.

As a commentator (and a consumer, it must be said) I am constantly blown away by much of the aesthetically pleasing 3D printed products available and I aspire to own them in the fullness of time. However, it is important to recognize and fully appreciate the engineering brilliance and technical capabilities of AM parts. You may have picked up on the nuances of the language I am using (3D printing for aesthetic/consumer facing applications and additive manufacturing for functional/industrial applications) but without getting into the whole terminology debate once again, I think this works. As 3D printing continues to take centre stage, it is vital that the strides being made within industrial applications are not overlooked. A few days ago, EADS and EOS announced a collaboration exploring weight reduction with the DMLS (direct metal laser sintering) process. Weight reduction has been cited as an advantage of additive manufacturing for some time, but the huge benefits that can be derived from it — particularly for aerospace companies — cannot be underestimated in terms of money, sustainability and the environment.

Being on the fringes of this industry (as I consider myself to be) is a really great place. The industry is truly blossoming as I always believed it would. New companies are being set up at an increasing rate, based solely on 3D printing. More established 3D printing/AM companies (previously RP bureaux) are reporting growing order books and increased uptake, and the vendors of the machines, in the main, are reporting year on year growth and profits. The revenue being generated by these applications is vital to the continued growth of the industry and indeed, western manufacturing economies.

Fabulous stuff.

Talking of fabulous, watch out for my favourite finds — coming soon — a hat tip to some of the sensational work of the designers and the technology.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Chocolate, Gold, Solar Power & Going Viral — A Week in 3D Printing. Not Forgetting it's getting a tad Naughty!

So much is happening in the world of 3D printing. Social media tools and staying in touch with my contact network are great for keeping abreast of all the latest developments — I love that aspect of my work. But perhaps the thing I love the most is getting different pieces of the puzzle and fitting them together in a bid to establish a clear picture. I remember when (I sound like my Grandma) getting one significant announcement for the next issue of TCT was a big deal. Right now the announcements are coming thick and fast and 3D printing is going viral.

Thanks to a fabulous video from ZCorporation this week, which was posted on YouTube [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZboxMsSz5Aw] 3.5 million people (and counting) have watched 3D printing in action. While the 3D printing process itself is quite clearly the central focus (hurrah), it is almost certainly the enthusiasm of David Kaplan, Theoretical Physicist at John Hopkins University, that has caused the video to go viral. The way he encapsulates the "wow" factor of 3D printing on film is definitely contagious. I, like many other 3D printing ambassadors, (that's what I am apparently) have seen the wow factor expressed when explaining the process to someone for the first time. It's always a great moment. But while we are able to share these experiences, and enjoy the knowledge that one more person has discovered the potential of 3DP, it is a hard one to convey with words alone — spoken or written. The fact that ZCorp has caught this on film and shared it, is momentous. Every single convert to 3DP is a valuable asset to the industry, but to be introducing, and possibly converting, millions in one hit is truly a watershed moment. It doesn't even stop there. The success of the video has seen numerous news crews gaining access to ZCorp's facilities and reporting on the technology.

The other three notable announcements recently are much more process development oriented.

First, a collaborative research project between the University of Exeter, the University of Brunel and Delcam software has resulted in a 3D printer producing chocolate products. Although not commercially available yet, the premise is that this easy to learn and use printer will appeal to a mass market, with future plans to introduce other materials for consumer products such as jewellery and accessories. I am looking forward to the time that I can replace my chocolate fountain centre-piece with a chocolate 3D printer. Naive & overly optimistic? Possibly.

Another significant development has come from quality 3D printing service provider i.materialise in Belgium. Users of the service are now able to get their designs printed in gold and/or silver. This has been in development for some time, but it is just fantastic to see these popular and sought after materials available for consumers via a 3D printer. This will definitely up the ante for 3D printing within the jewellery sector. I know what will be on my Christmas list this year.

Solar energy is currently a hot topic, and it has collided — fairly spectacularly — with the 3D printing sector. Markus Kayser has released information on his Solar Sinter project, which "explores the potential of desert manufacturing, where energy and material occur in abundance." Using the sun (in the Sahara Desert) as the energy source and the bountiful sand available at this location as the raw material,  his 3D printer is based on the the sintering process. [http://www.markuskayser.com/]. The potential here is vast, but right now I am just loving the office space.

And finally, this made me laugh yesterday morning. Naughty, but funny!!

Friday, 1 July 2011

AMF File Format Approved - Users Are Itching to Try It Out!

The announcement that the new file format for 3D printing has been approved by the ASTM F42 committee went live a few weeks ago. The successor to the widely used STL format, AMF — dubbed by some as STL 2.0 — has been two years in development, and the process has been an inclusive one. Over this time I have watched the mailing list that was set up inviting anyone involved with additive manufacturing and 3D printing as well as 3D CAD to take part in the initial survey and the subsequent discussions, drafts and revisions, which at times got highly technical and occasionally contentious.

All of this bodes extremely well for AMF. It has been a carefully managed process that has taken into account the requirements and opinions of a wide user base. Hod Lipson, of Cornell University & Chairman of the ASTM Subcommittee overseeing the development process of the AMF file format deserves particular recognition for his contributions and management skills.

Since the announcement, I have put out a few feelers to see what people that use AM & 3D printing think. The general consensus is that they are excited about it, believe it will make their lives easier and can't wait to get their hands on it. All of my contacts have indicated that they are not downloading it for themselves, but they are waiting for the CAD vendors and/or AM system vendors to incorporate it into their products and provide upgrades for existing equipment. Fair enough, but who's responsibility is it to get it out there and working for people? There has been little filtering through from the vendors as to when we will see it but I imagine since the announcement, which they will have been aware of ahead of time, there is a race on to get it to market within the product ranges. After all, the first to market could gain a competitive advantage.

Now where have I heard that line before ...... ?