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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!

Tuesday 8 March 2016

3dprintmaterials.guru Aims to Solve Your Filament Needs

Post written for All3DP.com 
3D printing filament materials, there are literally hundreds of them on the market now with a multitude of brands each selling — and promoting — a broad range of filament types. It’s a lucrative business and one that continues to grow in line with sales of desktop 3D printers. The desktop 3D printer community of users is a vocal — and vibrant — one and there is much sharing of information both about the hardware and material options on forums and in social media groups.
For users looking to source filament materials for a specific 3D printer and/or application, vendor spec sheets can be a good starting point, followed up by independent tests on certain materials. But, and this is the rub, independent user feedback is hard to source without trawling through multitudinous websites and pages of opinions to find suitablematerials. It can be a worthwhile effort, but also time consuming and expensive with a trial and error approach.

A new web-based platform from www.3dprintmaterials.guru is the first in the industry that aims to provide a solution to this problem and allow desktop 3D printer users to source suitable filament materials for their specific 3D printer model and a range of different applications.....
Full article can be found here

Monday 7 March 2016

Talking with …. Gabor Forgacs

This is a post I wrote for Disrutpive in the Spring of 2015, after hearing a presentation given by Gabor in Berlin and getting to speak with him, at length, subsequently. It was definitely one of my 2015 highlights ...... and still a pertinent post a year on. 

Noting some of the more selfish and sinister practices of humans seeping into the 3D printing ecosystem and even having been on the receiving end of some of it personally, some days it can be hard to look for the good and find the joy. Disappointing experiences are a part of life, though, as is tragedy and life goes on, even when it doesn’t.

Looking for inspiration among those consistently working for the greater good I turned to the field of 3D bioprinting — a discipline that undoubtedly promises so much for humanity in myriad of ways. The ultimate goal of 3D printing compatible organs for patients in desperate need of transplant has been cited over and over and over again since the first breakthroughs in the field around the turn of the century, and is, indeed a noble aim that a number of esteemed research and development (R&D) laboratories across the globe claim to be working towards as they develop new animate printing techniques with living cells for a wide range of specific applications.

The ability to precisely create, manipulate and sustain living tissues will signify a true paradigm shift in the provision of personalised health care and extending life for many. I say ‘will’, because while creation and manipulation has largely been proven there is still a question mark over sustaining the tissues once they have been formed. Efficacy still has to be proven over time too.

I was lucky enough to hear Gabor Forgacs give a presentation on his pioneering work in the field of bioprinting recently, and to speak with him one on one subsequently. The man, who is the founder of Organovo and Modern Meadow, quite simply, is a genius; and passionate in his approach and opinions I found.

He pretty much dismissed the hyped headlines about 3D printing complete organs: “We can NOT print a whole organ – if anyone tells you they can, they are lying.” Qualifying this he assured it was not impossible in the long term, but that no one is even close to that right now. He also gave his own opinion: “I personally do not believe that we will ever be able to print (or use any other engineering technology) to produce exactly the organ required.” To back this up, he cited evolution taking many millions of years to arrive at this very beautiful, extremely efficient organ — the human heart. It is extremely complex, and resilient. Did you know that yours will beat, on average three billion times in your lifetime? But then Gabor threw a curve ball when he asked: “Who says it is the best design?”

Thus, he explained, while today’s biogengineers are brilliant “we can’t build a [functioning] replica of the heart, and I don’t think we ever will. BUT, what we can do, is use our engineering ingenuity, and biological understanding to put something together that will function like — or even better than — the human heart. Using your own cells so it won’t be rejected – that’s where I see bioprinting going.”

Having dealt with his vision of the future of bioprinting, almost as a chore, Gabor was keen to get back to the present. This is where his passion quite obviously lies — making a difference now. In this regard he outlined a number of areas where bioprinting is proving capable of doing just that, even if it doesn’t sound as exciting printing full body parts.

Primarily he believes that using bioprinted tissues as a transition step in the development of new drugs — between pre-clinical trials (on animals) and full clinical trials (on humans) — is a huge advantage for both the patients and the drug companies. He cited how often the biggest stumbling block in drug development comes at this stage in the process because “animal tissue is not characteristic for human behaviour.” Thus, even if a new drug has shown positive results in animals (a huge ethical question of its own) there is no guarantee that  it will transition successfully to human trials. As a result the risks are still high for patients participating in the trials and the losses, if it fails, can be massive for the drug company (circa $500 million if a complete failure is fairly average) and that does not take account of the time wasted either.

Gabor believes that “THIS is what 3D bioprinting can offer resolution to now.” If you utilise engineered human tissue between pre-clinical animal trials and human clinical trials it can illustrate a human toxic response for a new drug ahead of clinical trials and save the drug development project huge amounts of time and money, but, more important than that, it prevents the drug test having an adverse affect on a patient and/or offering false hope.

And the ultimate goal here is to eliminate animal testing completely, the ethics of which is questioned by many — to the point of violence in extreme cases. Even more so when the experiments are conducted on animals for testing beauty products.

As Gabor explained, TODAY Organovo, right now, can print human liver tissue with architecturally, compositionally and functionally correct make-up. When this is interfaced with a drug when taken orally it is capable of demonstrating a toxic response and thus point to a toxic response across the rest of the complex human system. “It may not be the application everyone is getting excited about but it’s real and, actually, the implications are HUGE for humanity,” concluded Gabor on this subject.

And, in the near term, Gabor believes that the small scale bioprinting that is possible now will support some reconstructive surgeries. He cited blood vessels at this point, and the number of patients globally suffering from clogged arteries and requiring bypass surgery, with one famous ex-president as his specimen. There are four arteries from other parts of the human body that are compatible with bypass surgery. One Bill Clinton has used all four — if he needs a fifth, he’s dead. That’s it. Four strikes and you’re out ….unless you use bioprinting!

Gabor reports that Organovo is close to achieving this application of bioprinting part of an artery for bypass surgery and believes it will ameliorate the problem significantly.

I don’t know about you, but having experienced a grandparent and an Uncle that have both undergone bypass surgery, and learning that potentially my kids may have a better outcome — I think that’s huge! 

Returning to the bioprinted liver tissue potential, Gabor went on to explain that this could still help patients with significant liver failure that are waiting for a donor not knowing if they would live of die. Once again dismissing the entire organ idea, he posited how by taking a small piece of liver — what he called an “organoid” and implanting it, there was an increased chance of improving and extending the life of the existing bad liver, potentially providing enough time to find a donor.

With more than 100,000 people waiting for a kidney transplant in the US alone, where only 1 in 6 will get one, this is an encouraging, albeit partial, solution to a very serious situation that is only going to continue to get worse. Any hope has to be better than no hope?

Thursday 3 March 2016

XJET's Metal Jetting Process Gets a $25 Million Funding Injection from Autodesk & Catalyst CEL

 At the end of last year, at formnext, I was fortunate enough to speak with Dror Danai of XJet Ltd.,  who told me about the company's new metal jetting process. Having seen something similar in the very early stages of development at Nottingham University earlier in the year I was flabbergasted to learn from Dror that this tech was almost commercially ready. He told me it would definitely be in 2016, but the date and show it would be launched at was yet to be confirmed. I saw the video explanation and a few parts that made me really excited, but as usual, I was under strict instructions to keep my mouth shut. 

Well now the gags are removed, and today XJET has increased the visibility on the process via a great video on its brand new website. And, in a further move to secure its position as an entrant into the already competitive metal additive manufacturing market, this Israeli company is today announcing the completion of an additional round of funding of $25 million.led by the Catalyst CEL Fund, a private Israeli-Chinese private equity fund and Autodesk, Inc. through its Spark Investment Fund, as well as other existing shareholders.

Despite the metal 3D printing / additive manufacturing sector being competitive, this is something very different to the established sintering / melting / fusing processes of metal powders, and, in my opinion, the incumbents should today be sitting up and taking some serious notice of this announcement.

According to Dror, who is CBO at the company, the XJet process has great potential to meet the growing demand for producing short runs of metal parts. XJet’s innovative technology uses metal nanoparticles which generate precision parts with complex geometries for use in a variety of applications in aerospace, automotive, medicine, dental and other industries.

 The ground-breaking technology is called NanoParticle JettingTM due to the precise placement of metal nano particles, held in a liquid suspension, to build 3D metal parts. The technology enables a  more accurate production of highly complex parts than that of other current technologies. The video explains it better than I could here.           I can't say I'm surprised that Autodesk has invested, they'd be stupid not to, as far as I can see. But Eitan Tsarfati, head of Digital Manufacturing and general manager at Autodesk Israel explains it more sedately: “Our support of XJet through the Spark Investment Fund stems from our belief that this technology has the potential to change the future of the additive manufacturing industry. Autodesk Israel’s Development Center is focused on driving breakthroughs in the future of making things, and we are proud to work with companies such as XJet that likewise are pushing the limits of manufacturing technologies to accelerate a new industrial revolution.”  According to XJet, the current round of funding will be used to complete the development of and to launch Xjet products into main international markets most likely initially in the US at RAPID 2016, in Orlando in May.

Wednesday 2 March 2016

How 3D Printing Disrupted the Automotive Industry!

This is an in-depth feature article that was first published in the first print issue of Disruptive Magazine, April 2015.

Abstract:  Proponents of the automotive industry were among the very first to bring 3D printing technology in-house in the early 1990’s. Here I consider just how disruptive the technology has been for one of the world’s dominant vertical industrial sectors.


In the early days of additive technology — the Rapid Prototyping (RP) era — the tech was often referred to as “paradigm changing.” So much so that the phrase quickly became overused and, similar to the (much more widespread) “hype” of today, generated cynicism. However, with almost 25 years of commercial use behind us, when it comes to the automotive industry we can, today, say that the paradigm for developing cars has changed irreversibly as a result of 3D printing technology. Indeed current evidence from automotive companies — across the board (those that produce the ultimate/racing/super/ordinary cars) — clearly exemplifies that the way they develop vehicles has been completely overturned because of 3D printing technologies. And there is further evidence that the paradigm is beginning to change in how they manufacture vehicles too — also due to additive manufacturing technologies.

However, as it has always been, it proves to be limiting — and misguided — to consider 3D printing in isolation, which so many people seem fixated on doing, without considering the software that enables it, the materials that are being printed and the post processes that make it consumer acceptable. It has not been about bringing in a new machine and producing the same components in a different way, rather the design process has changed too. With simultaneous advances in computing power and design software the ability to design increasingly complex parts that can be 3D printed has driven the potential of the hardware. In a similar way, materials development has come on in leaps and bounds to further allow superior application development from industrial grade 3D printers. This has seen the technology evolve from a concept development tool to a much more fundamental tool right across the automotive development supply chain.

Automotive History & 3D Printing

Without going into details of 18th century (hydrogen/steam/electricity/liquids) engine development, the origins of today’s automotive industry dates back to the early 19th century in Switzerland when Francois Isaac de Rivaz is commonly recognised as the first person to design and build a vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine fuelled by gas (hydrogen and oxygen). It wasn’t until 1885 however, that German engineer, Karl Benz produced the first vehicle fuelled by petrol, for which he received a patent in 1886. Two years later, in 1888, he was subsequently credited with establishing the first “production cars” after his wife, Bertha, successfully completed a long-distance test drive. Bertha drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim, a distance of 80 km/50 miles and claimed the ‘horseless carriage’ a triumph. The world, however, was going to take somewhat longer to convince. [Aside: any ‘lady driver’ comments should be submitted to me directly: I dare you!]

1889 saw the first company established, in France, with the sole purpose of producing motor vehicles — Panhard et Levassor. And France it would seem was the initial hub of activity, with Peugot established two years later, followed by Renault in 1898 and Fiat in 1899. From the end of the 19th century automotive development was rapid and exponential in its growth with many engineers/manufacturers working simultaneously and competing hard for market share across the globe. The US gained dominance in automotive production — there is of course the much vaunted story of Henry Ford’s first automated production line in 1908 — and in Detroit alone, the original home of Ford, there was during the 20th century, more than 140 automotive manufacturers. You’d be hard pressed to find that number across the globe today.

Why the history lesson in an article about 3D printing, you may be wondering? Well, I was initially researching which brands belonged to which company (best and most concise resource I found was this for anyone interested) to understand the shape of the automotive industry today. But as I investigated I was drawn into the history and found some really interesting parallels between the automotive industry itself and the 3D printing industry.

Already during its own short history, the 3D printing industry has drawn numerous analogies with other industries both positively and negatively (computers, 2D printers and the internet most common among the positive; bread makers and sewing machines on the negative side) but in going back to the beginning of the automotive industry, I have found some fascinating similitudes that mirror the tech sector that has changed the way cars are developed forever.

Most successful vertical industries can probably claim the simultaneous development, exponential growth and the fierce competition followed by considerable consolidation. Other analogies that have struck me though are how it took cars a good 50 years to “hit the mainstream.” And the one that drew a smile, was the general consensus in the early days of development of motor vehicles, even as awareness grew and interest was piqued, that most people did not see the point, or believe anyone would ever use them in high volumes.

What hindsight does illustrate with motor vehicles was the difference that 50 years made — both to the advancements of the vehicles themselves, their improved capabilities and their utilisation.

3D Printing’s First Fan Base Was Automotive Companies

The general consensus today is that 3D printing was first “invented” in 1983 when Chuck Hull printed his first part in his garage with his stereolithography apparatus (SLA). Of course he played around with it a lot and the patents and IP took time to protect. 3D Systems was not registered until 1986. Over the last few years though, the popular history of 3D printing has extended into the early 80’s, but in commercial reality, it all began at the turn of the decade.

Unsurprisingly automotive companies were among the very first to buy in, as well as the Formula 1 racing teams, with their big budgets and their keen eyes for new advantage-offering technology.

Rover Came First …

The first automotive OEM to adopt RP in the UK was Rover (now Jaguar Land Rover [JLR], and owned by Tata Motors, with headquarters in India). I’ve found a slight anomaly regarding the year it happened — JLR’s website states 1992, but Graham Tromans, who was the Project Engineer tasked with getting the new SLA 500 rapid prototyping machine up and running, recalls it was 1990. He also told me it was the first large frame stereolithography (SLA) platform in the UK (the third in Europe), and cost in the region of £700k. There was one small frame machine already installed at a bureau facility. At this point in time, Graham tells me he was more than impressed with the potential the machine offered over traditional methodologies for building 1-off cars as proof of concept models. However, thus began a steep learning curve that went far beyond the practical logistics of implementing and running the machine. At the time, Rover only had seats of wire frame and surface CAD software in house, but with RP there was a need for solid modelling capabilities. As a result Graham underwent a CADDS5 training course at the University of Warwick. The SLA process also requires that parts were supported during the build but when Rover invested in the hardware, the automatic support generation software incurred a hefty additional investment, which at the time they could not justify. Thus, in those early days, only generic shapes were used to support the parts and these were created individually — taking many long, laborious hours — until finally Rover saw the light and made the investment in the support software.

However, Graham tells me the time and effort was well rewarded when the first part came off the machine. You might assume it was a straightforward, simple proof of concept to cut his teeth. You would be wrong. Rather Rover went for an air intake manifold for the Rover K Series engine. This was a complicated — and large — build; 450 mm x 200 mm x 400 mm. It also took days to complete. It was started on a Tuesday, at around 1 pm Graham recalls, and came up out of the resin vat completed at 5 am on the following Friday morning. It then had to have supports removed, and be cleaned for a meeting at 10 am. Rubber gloves (and the prerequisite kid gloves) were essential. But that first part was a success and caused jaws to drop. That ability to impress still exists today, but back then SLA did not score well on durability — after the first few days (sometimes sooner) parts would fall apart if you so much as looked at them in the wrong way, and leave them in the sun too long and the only acceptable place for them would be the bin due to warpage issues.

The next few years thus saw solid CAD software implemented across the design disciplines at Rover to facilitate the additive technology, together with specific software for support. During this time the machine was used exclusively for concept development, but as expertise developed and experience paid off, the machine was being under-utilised, thus Rover operated a bureau service that saw many other companies using the tech and benefitting from Graham’s growing expertise.

During the 1990’s developments with materials, specifically with the advent of the epoxy resins (rather than urethanes), allowed the development of QuickCast and in 1994 this saw the applications for the machine at Rover expand exponentially. The ability to produce castings quickly together with increasing awareness and understanding of the capabilities of the process by the engine development department at Rover, saw Graham’s team receiving more work than they could handle internally. At around this time the original machine, together with a second SLA 500 were installed at Rover’s Advanced Technology Centre at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) to increase R&D into the process and applications development. [As an aside, it was this move that saw the advent of the Rapid News newsletter by Lee Styger, David Wimpenny and Graham at WMG.] The next significant development of the SLA process that was implemented at Rover came with the introduction of the first solid state laser on the latest hardware investment — the SLA 350 platform. This, together with epoxy resin materials for investment casting applications had a dramatic impact on concept development at Rover.

1996 saw the second process brought in house — SLS, from DTM Corp, which was later acquired by 3D Systems. Throughout this decade WMG also acquired different processes, specifically LOM, SolidScape (later acquired by Stratasys) and ZCorp (later acquired by 3D Systems). It was a decade of development and learning internally at Rover and the 3D printing industry was already seeing some consolidation.

Ultimately though, what Graham’s recollections so vividly demonstrate is not just how far the technology and its applications have advanced but, as Graham so adamantly stated to me: “RP [aka 3D printing] did not just disrupt the development activities at Rover — it changed everything.” The main benefit was in the development of casting applications, due to the time and cost savings achieved while producing better test parts. As a single example, a suspension bracket that would traditionally take months and cost hundreds of pounds, can now be produced more accurately in less than a week for a few pounds. When you consider the number of parts involved in the development and assembly of a car, it is not hard to see how even the initial capital outlay (plus all the added extras) starts to make sense in auto land.

Today, JLR’s additive technology armoury is extensive, indeed it is said to be one of the UK’s largest installed 3D printing facilities — with four different 3D printing processes in-house, namely SLA, Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Polyjet and Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM). The primary application remains functional prototypes. Today, the company states that it produces in excess of 50,000 components annually. Functionality has improved too, JLR fits many of its functional prototypes directly onto prototype vehicles for testing all around the world. One of the more recent applications is the direct production of custom manufacturing aids on the production line at all of JLR’s UK manufacturing facilities, of which there are four.

Testimony from Tata …

It is interesting to compare Rover’s 3D printing journey with that of JLR’s parent company — Tata Motors — which invested in industrial 3D printing tech once it was more established, in 2003. The paradigm shift in vehicle development is remarkably similar — I say remarkable, because the companies’ timelines only crossed in 2008 when Tata acquired JLR from Ford. Tata’s motor vehicle history is relatively short, the company’s first production car only came in 1991, before that focus was on locomotives and large commercial transport vehicles. According to Ajay Purohit, Senior Engineer and Technical Chief of Prototyping activities at Tata Motors since 1992, the company’s 3D printing story started in 2000 when he and his team “first heard about this revolutionary process for building parts layer by layer on a machine directly from CAD.” Unable to resist finding out more, they started with benchmark parts that were fulfilled by external suppliers. And, though the benefits could be proven and the advantages had been well documented, it proved difficult to convince senior management that there was a justifiable ROI on the high costs involved. It was not until the Chairman of Tata at that time saw the process for himself that budgets were approved. Thus, Ajay tells me: “our real journey with additive manufacturing started in 2003.”

And so the Tata story reflects a common theme among many vertical industrial sectors when it comes to the uptake of 3D printing — it took three years from engineers first understanding the real benefits of industrial 3D printing to implementing it with board approval.  Such are the high capital costs and the budgetary restrictions in large companies that buy-in and conviction of ROI can be lengthy and arduous, but Ajay, for one believes it was worth the effort and that the disruption it brought to Tata Motors has been both advantageous and permanent. He says: It has changed the way we produce vehicle prototypes both in terms of improved quality and reduced time. This means that the number of prototype iterations is increased because our engineers are trying many different concepts that allow us to improve performance and reduce costs over all. Once the concept is approved and checked for functionality, every single plastic part design gets 3D printed to check tooling clearance, which means fewer mistakes.”

The first industrial grade 3D printer brought in-house at Tata was an SLA 7000 from 3D Systems. The first part produced on it, recalls Ajay, was a tray for a front console. Reminiscent of Graham’s story at Rover, the belief in the prototyping department was strong, but it took the design department a little longer to connect the dots. Ajay tells me the reason he remembers the part so clearly is because at the time, the Body Design Team at Tata Motors was working with CATIA v4 CAD software and only utilising the surface capabilities. “Traditionally, the B surface (thickness) was designed by the tool supplier. But because the AM process requires leak-proof solid geometry, I added the B surface and created the solid geometry myself.” The positive results were immediate, with many errors being picked up in the design and a new, fast iteration could be developed with minimal cost implications.

Yet again, once the awareness across the entire company was raised (with some internal marketing activities) the designers soon understood how they could optimize designs. Things changed fast over the next six months and very quickly the machine was running 24/7.

Tata has continued to invest in 3D printing technology for its operations, however, Ajay says there are still some missing links in terms of increased uptake, these include: “the cost of materials, a need for real materials like injection thermoplastics for final production parts, design standards/guidelines for AM, standardization in material and processes and reliability.”

Supercars Benefit Too …

The impact of 3D printing on standard production road cars has undeniably been dramatic over the last two decades, but it has been a similar story for supercars too. A great representative example of this is Lamborghini. This Italian supercar manufacturer has been utilising 3D printing for well over a decade for prototyping applications, bringing the tech in-house in 2007. According to Fabio Serrazanetti of Lamborghini’s car body technical department, the company initially proved out concepts, but material developments have seen applications extended.

Serrazanetti and his team utilize Stratasys’ FDM technology predominantly to produce scale models and advance functional prototype parts for design verification and form & fit suitability. These include an array of different exterior parts – from section bumpers, grills, aesthetic frames and those in the engine bay – to various interior parts that span door panels, seat covers, steering wheels along with aerodynamic components such as conveyors and air heaters. The key driver for this process uptake is that FDM eliminates tooling, which keeps costs down and allows rapid iteration on new designs without manufacturing constraints. Another development that has seen the Lamborghini applications broaden is the improved materials, meaning that parts subjected to high temperatures and high stresses can now be prototyped for dimensional and mechanical testing.

“We aim to use materials that mimic the material properties of the final product as far as possible,” explained Serrazanetti. “For example, we currently use Stratasys’ ULTEM FDM thermoplastic with the Fortus 400mc to produce high-performance parts for the grill as they will be subjected to high temperatures from the engine compartment. We also use production-grade thermoplastic, ABS-M30, as well as PC-ABS. Indeed, this is perfectly suited to producing certain interior parts as it also offers excellent feature definition and surface finish, making it better aesthetically.”

However what Lamborghini has revealed is that there has also been investigations into using the FDM process to print end-use parts, specifically for the company’s one-off race car.

3D Printing for a Racing Advantage

Motor sports — they grab headlines and global audiences and as a result involve lots and lots of money. There are some headline events that even I watch, involving teams that represent automotive marques, driving for glory (and sponsorship), with Formula 1 leading the way. For years the engineering and car development was shrouded in mystery, however today, there is somewhat more visibility. It seems many people are just as interested in what goes on behind the scenes as out on the iconic racing circuits of the world.

Like the historical 3D printing timelines at Rover, Tata and Lamborghini, the F1 teams primarily bought into rapid prototyping to diminish their development times. More iterations, more quickly do not, traditionally, have a relevant cost implication at the development stage for race teams, but if that translates to even a millisecond on the track, the investment is justifiable.

Pat Warner, now at Lotus F1 Team, previously Renault F1 Team, has been working with additive technologies for nearly two decades. His perspective on how far the technologies have come is enlightening and he told me that the various 3D printing processes all have a place in the development of a Formula 1 car. Lotus F1 Team employs plastic 3D printing processes in house as a matter of course for concept development, functional prototypes and wind-tunnel models. The time saved is now fundamental to the development timeline and 3D printers have allowed teams to downsize their machine shops. However, 3D printing is being used for some end-use parts. A small number of components, proportionally speaking, but non-critical in terms of performance. And this is testament to where 3D printing processes and the materials are up to — it is still early days for manufacturing, but it has arrived.

Richard Brady at Williams F1 reports a similar story, he told me that 3D printing “is now totally ingrained into the business. So much so that we couldn’t operate without it.”

In 1996, Williams were the first recipients of the SLA 5000 machine. They brought the stereolithography process in-house to expedite the development process of complex parts that required high accuracy, via 3D Systems, and, according to Richard, the company has worked tirelessly with Williams on applications development, and supported their growing machine numbers brilliantly. Indeed, Andy Allshorn was the Sales AND Service engineer that worked on applications development in the UK in the 1990’s. He told me how the first automotive part he worked on (with Williams) was a suspension upright that was traditionally produced via CNC machining and took in excess of 4 weeks at an eye-watering cost. Andy, thinking outside of the box, produced the suspension upright using QuickCast materials, which could then be cast in Titanium by a foundry — the whole process took about a week.

Brady reports that the applications at Williams have progressed dramatically in almost two decades. Now producing a much broader portfolio of fully functional complex parts and assemblies courtesy of a range of industrial 3D printing processes. This includes the most recent addition of FDM, specifically the Fortus production platform from Stratasys, to the team’s additive arsenal.

Advanced current applications where the tech is used as a matter of course is the now well-documented models for wind tunnel testing of the car, parts for moulding and some end use parts. However at every stage of part development, Richard stresses that at Williams they focus on the part first and find the best way to supply that part, in the fastest way. At this point he cited the widely held perception that 3D printing can produce anything and is instant: “It’s rapid! Not instant. You have to step back and not get too immersed in the technology. It is vital to look at the big picture and thus ensure that the process and the materials fit the application. That said, we have come a long way.”

Richard told me that Williams is always assessing 3D printing technology to extend its application to direct production. Right now there are a limited number of non-critical plastic components directly produced with 3D printing on the track cars. Metal 3D printing is also part of this continual assessment. However, currently Williams F1 outsources its 3D printed metal parts having made a conscious decision not to invest — yet. According to Richard, the metal processes are not far enough along to meet their requirements. “We do have a need for it, but not enough to bring it in-house. Beside that, while the static strength is what we need it to be, fatigue is the main issue for us.”

This creeping movement towards more heavy-duty production of parts is similarly reported by Dan Walmesley of Strakka Racing. When I met with Dan last year he was extremely optimistic about 3D printed production parts for the Strakka team’s endurance racing car: He estimated that for the 2014 model, 5% of the car, on the circuit, was 3D printed, and he believes that within 10 years this percentage will increase dramatically, to 70%, if you can believe that. What Dan left me in no doubt of, however, is that: “It is the way forward for us!”

Once again, Dan reiterated the familiar story that the team originally bought in one of Stratasys’ smaller FDM machines — a Uprint — for proof of concept applications. It was all about prototyping — rapidly — to save time in the early stages of product development. However, as the capabilities of 3D printing made themselves more apparent this progressed to functional prototyping and wind-tunnel testing. Dan admitted: “we did not appreciate it beyond this stage in the early days, and we were surprised to realize its potential for manufacturing.” Thus, when the realization did hit home, work began in earnest with Stratasys, developing parts for the car that would be manufactured directly on the high-end Fortus machines.

Where this works for a race team, but would not necessarily work for production road cars is in the demand for (very) limited volumes of parts. For Strakka, 3D printed production parts are specific to their requirements to produce a one of a kind car that gives them a competitive advantage. To date the results have met many structurally critical demands, but a current drawback is that the process is unable to be used for thermally critical components.

Yet again, the Strakka testimony, and indeed all the testimony from motor sports teams, is that the progress is phenomenal but there are still many gaps in the capabilities of 3D printing processes.

3D Printing Automotive Apps That Are Not About the Cars

One of the less sexy applications of 3D printing for direct manufacture within the automotive industry is the production of jigs and fixtures for use on the assembley line. Two of the key benefits of 3D printing processes, namely customization and speed (compared with traditional processes) have seen many automotive factories employing the technology to this end, and saving a pile of money in the process. On a modern production line specific jigs and fixtures are used to position and hold components in place and are essential to maintaining an efficient workflow. 3D printing processes have proved to be invaluable in producing jigs and fixtures on demand and customized to their function on the assembley line. BMW Group was among the first auto company to implement this application across its production lines, and other companies include Porsche, Volvo and Audi.

In a similar vein, last year BMW Group introduced a pilot programme for its production line workforce, that went beyond customization to true personalization. At the company’s Munich vehicle assembly plant a new and innovative ergonomic tool was introduced — a flexible finger cot, which protects workers’ thumb joints while carrying out certain assembly activities. Each thumb cot was designed to precisely fit the thumb of each worker by taking a scan of each individual thumb and 3D printing the tool. With its extensive in-house 3D printing facilities, the BMW Group produced all of the orthotic devices in-house.

An Anomaly — There’s Always One

For a decade or more, luxury motor vehicle company, Bentley Motors, was at the vanguard of uptake and adoption of 3D printing technologies. The company, based in the UK but now owned by Volkswagon (along with Audi, Porsche, Skoda, SEAT, Lamborghini and Ducati) was quick to adopt 3D printing processes for concept development and functional prototyping and was among the first in the automotive industry to document its research and results for end use manufacturing applications of 3D printing as far back as 2008. Indeed, Bentley invested heavily in the technology with in house Laser Sintering platforms — plastic and metal — and set up an advanced manufacturing laboratory that was well utilised across the company.

However, today the company has abandoned its 3D printing activities altogether. The platforms have been sold on from the UK facility, and while development of the Bentley marque is carried out in Germany, with support from 3D printers, there is no longer any utilisation of it in Crewe, according to my source, who wishes to remain anonymous.

So why would a company that experienced massive success with 3D printing, improving design and output, turn its back on a technology that worked so well? It seems there was a change of board, which resulted in a new directive!  Essentially this came down to making more cars, and thus, making more money — just not as effectively.

Sad, but true.

The Future Beckons

In the near term, the future of the automotive industry looks fairly stable. Hybrid technology is going to be an important transition for new and existing vehicle manufacturers. Am I talking about hybrid engine tech or hybrid additive / subtractive tech? Both as it happens and therein lies another, very interesting parallel between these two industries.  

There are perhaps two, relatively new, automotive companies that are driving the vision of the future of the automotive industry — Tesla Motors and Local Motors. Tesla Motors was founded in 2003 by its inimitable CEO and Chief Product Architect Elon Musk. Musk’s mission for Tesla is to transition the world to sustainable transport by developing fully electric cars – a completely new type of car built from the ground up. However, despite Tesla’s own relatively brief history, the vision is embedded in an original concept that dates back well over 100 years …. Nikola Tesla’s vehicle powertrain built around an AC induction motor, first patented in 1888. It’s another beautiful irony that almost takes us full circle.

However, we don’t really want to traverse cyclically, a leap forward would be more favourable.

And that is precisely what Local Motors wants to do for the automotive industry.  Founded in 2007 — a year or more before 3D printing hit the mainstream headlines, and that is important  — Local Motors is the company that exists now with the most far-reaching vision for the future of automotive development and manufacturing.

With the hyped headlines that have swathed the vision of Local Motors during the last 12-18 months it is easy to find yourself at one of the two possible extremes of reaction. For a general consumer “the 3D printed car” is exciting, there’s no getting away from it. For 3D printing industry insiders and particularly those working on Additive Manufacturing applications, that very same hyped phrase is what can leave one entirely sceptical. (For me personally it is up there as one of the most ridiculous phrases ever, along with “the future now!” Ugh!) The Strati (a proof of concept, co-created car) has a 3D printed body and structure – while sporting a traditionally developed and manufactured drive train; as well as ‘normal’ (ie NOT 3D printed wheels, tyres and lighting systems). This has been explained to people at length, over and over again, according to Lee Herge, COO of Local Motors. He told me that one of the most common questions they get is “are the tyres 3D printed?” To reiterate, no, they are not.  But does that ameliorate those ‘3D printed car’ headlines? Of course not — because that would not be the future now would it?

Besides, those two extremes — dismissing it because it is not ALL 3D printed, and believing the car to be wholly 3D printed — miss the point entirely. The point being that it is not just about the production method — it is as much about the entire supply chain and co-creation. This is the vision at the heart of Local Motors — a vision focused on establishing micro factories producing local cars relevant to the region where they are being produced and meeting the needs of that region in the most effective way. 3D printing, as it has proved many times over the years, is an enabler in this regard — a key one as it happens, along with the carbon fibre reinforced ABS material, that is allowing Local Motors to move towards a 2nd generation four seater, “drive to work” car, Lee told me.

Earlier this year Local Motors released details of its first two micro-factories, both in the US. Knoxville is progressing apace, while DC is close behind. Local Motors also currently has a presence in Europe with plans to move further afield. The vision is global and it is all in the name — motors created locally.

So, as mentioned, while the Strati was a proof of concept, and never intended as a production car the next generation of vehicle from Local Motors is intended to be a global car, with four seats and retailing in the region of $18-30k, for the consumer. Lee hopes it will be at the lower end of this range, but it’s still too early to be more precise. From the Strati concept the plan is to use 3D printing for the structure and the fenders of second generation car, while, again, the engine / wheels / lights etc will be “someone else’s”. In terms of classification, Lee explained to me that the second generation will be determined as a speciality construction car — this puts it between a kit car and a typical production car. This requires less regulation but will ultimately adhere to full regulatory NHTSA safety standards with air bags and crash testing. The aim is to be doing this in 2016.
What was exciting to hear is that with 3D printing, more specifically, hybrid additive and subtractive technologies, Local Motors is proving it can exceed current safety standards on the structure of its vehicles. The empirical data is yet to be released, but, for me, they’re making the right noises.  


3D printing has considerably and irrevocably disrupted how cars are designed and developed. Automotive OEMs and their suppliers have adopted and accepted 3D printing processes as an essential tool that has improved the product development process in a way that no other technology could have. That said, it can not now, and likely will not ever exist in isolation. What is more, it continues to challenge how cars are made in production, but it’s still very early days in that regard.  

A couple of final thoughts to close out.

First, are fully electric cars a noble aim or should the best possible hybrid engines be the goal? Talking to a range of people with far more understanding of the automotive industry than I over the last couple of months, my idealised comprehension of the virtue of electric vehicles has been somewhat tarnished. Comparing electric vehicles with petrol/Diesel vehicles, like for like, on the road, there is an absolute and undisputed carbon benefit to electric vehicles. What had passed me by is that if you consider the carbon footprint of both from concept development to disposal it gets rather more murky — literally! The challenges of manufacturing (and disposing of) the battery and fuel cell of an electric vehicle, it seems, is anything but clean.

However, for anyone that wants to bet against the potential of humans to leverage technological power over time, I’ll leave you with an ultimate then and now comparison from the automotive industry that ensures I will continue to never say never:

Website links:

Tuesday 1 March 2016

Archiving some of My Work on RPES

I couldn't be happier at the way that 2016 is panning out work wise, as a "proper" freelancer. With regular writing gigs now with All3DP, fabbaloo and the GrabCAD blog, as well as a renegotiated freelance contract with Disruptive and the AM Shows I get to write and talk about 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing with a range of different audiences. What I like about this is that my perspective is wider and demands looking more often at the big picture while also narrowing in on specific issues and developments across the ecosystem.

Anyway, with my work being spread out more I thought it might be a good idea to bring it all together in one place, a kind of archive, and will go back to at least the beginning of last year, where a lot of my intensive work was published in a magazine. All articles and posts here will reference the original source where first published, with links, where applicable.

I apologise in advance if this fills up inboxes for followers here - feel free to unfollow / delete / or maybe if something catches your eye, read and feed back :-)