The Shape of Things to Come

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How 3D printing is reshaping the world around us

By Paul Gillin

The New Balance Zante Generate running shoe is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

The sole of this new footwear is revolutionary. Instead of layers of rubber and foam, it’s a latticework of hundreds of tiny channels that deliver better support, cushioning and durability. All this at a lower weight than standard running shoes.

The soles are manufactured on an additive manufacturing device, also called a 3D printer. Additive manufacturing is a new form of production that enables shapes to be created that are impractical or impossible with conventional manufacturing technology.

It’s going to change the way a lot of things look.

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3D printing has the manufacturing industry buzzing. It holds the potential of producing customized products at economies of scale.

Although, the technology has been around for 30 years, these printers are now reaching mass market price points. Research firm Canalys predicts the 3D printing market will be worth $22.4 billion in 2020, up from $3.8 billion in 2014.

Retailers, such as Shapeways Inc., stock hundreds of customizable 3D printed consumer items. In China, giant additive manufacturing machines are printing 10 small houses in 24 hours. Startup Local Motors Inc. plans to deliver its first production 3D printed automobiles this year.

But some of the greatest disruptions brought about by 3D printing will be a lot more subtle. The technology, when combined with design optimization software, is enabling parts to be manufactured that are impossible to create any other way.

In that respect, 3D printing may literally reshape the world around us.

A private company in Shanghai used 3D printers to print 10 full-sized houses in just one day.


A layered approach

Additive manufacturing works by applying layers of melted metals or composite materials according to computer models. There’s no need for cutting, boring or machining beyond a little finish work.

The layering model all but eliminates the need for fasteners, joints, and other connection points that create structural weakness.

Local Motors expects its finished vehicles to have fewer than 50 individual components, compared to about 30,000 in the average car. That means lower risk of failure.

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“You manufacture a layer at a time rather than from a geometric feature,” says Spencer Wright, vice president of product at nTopology, a maker of computer-aided design software for additive manufacturing and an avid blogger.

“You’re no longer designing a hole to remove from the part. Instead you’re putting material here and not there.”

Optimized and 3D printed designs are lighter, more space efficient, and consume less energy. General Electric is 3D printing a one-piece fuel injection system for jet engines that replaces one that had 21 separate parts. The new injector is five times stronger and cuts annual fuel costs by about $1 million per airplane.

When combined with topology optimization software, 3D printers can be used to rethink the way everyday objects look. For example, a solid angular support beam can be redesigned as a curved lattice framework that bends to accommodate changes in weight.

A flood of new composites now hitting the market enables engineers to design parts with variations in temperature, humidity, and other environmental factors.

Designers specify requirements and constraints, and the modeling software comes up with the optimal design. Any material that doesn’t contribute to the desired performance is removed, saving cost and improving efficiency.

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“You’re designing shapes you wouldn’t have designed before and then actually manufacturing them,” said Rani Richardson, a business experience consultant at Dassault Systèmes.

Things built this way tend to take on almost skeletal characteristics. Solid surfaces are replaced by woven threads and hard angles yield to gentle curves. Curved shapes are costlier to manufacture than angular ones, but it’s no problem for 3D printers.

Additive technology is also enabling manufacturing to be reimagined. Construction can be done at the destination instead of in a factory.

MX3D is printing a fully functional, intricate steel bridge over the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal in the center of Amsterdam. Robots climb the structure as they build, delivering a finished 24-foot-long trellis sans screw or bolt.

The bridge looks a bit like the exoskeleton of a praying mantis, but it’s stronger and more durable than models twice its weight, designers say.


Lessons from insects

The skeletal analogy is appropriate. It turns out that computer-optimized designs tend to look a lot like those in nature. “Things become more organic and bone-like,” says Duann Scott of the strategy and business development group at Autodesk. “Nature reacts to stress really well.” In fact, additive manufacturing was pioneered by insects, he notes. “A termite is basically 3D printing with saliva.”

As promising as these technologies are, they will take some time to materialize, says nTopology’s Wright. Integration between design and manufacturing software and machinery is still poor.

Computers also don’t always produce practical designs, so human oversight is required. Products molded from composite powders also can’t match the strength of ones milled out of solid blocks of metal. And some products are simply too complex to 3D print. Ever.

“We’re not going to see a 3D-printed iPhone in our lifetime,” quips Dave Evans, co-founder of Fictiv, Inc., an additive manufacturing service provider.

For all these reasons, it’s not surprising that 3D printing for manufacturing applications entered the trough of disillusionment on Gartner’s famous Hype Cycle for 3D Printing last year.

But technology always gets cheaper and more functional over time, and additive manufacturing’s time will come.

Get ready for a world that’s a bit more tubular, a bit more skeletal, and a bit stranger looking than it is now. It’ll also be a whole lot more efficient.
 


Paul Gillin is a writer and senior consultant at B2B social media training firm Profitecture.