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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

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.



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