Fabbers, or personal manufacturing machines, are expected to change the way we live. Appearances can be deceptive. These devices resemble microwave ovens but are, in fact, 3D printers that have been around for over a decade, churning out mostly prototypes. These, now, have started capturing the imagination of the world with their market-ready products and unlimited potential.
Three-dimensional or 3D printers fabricate complex objects by depositing materials, layer by layer, and not only make jewellery, toothbrushes, complex machine components medical implants, football boots designed for individual feet, racing-car parts but also food items. At Cornell University, for instance, engineering students with no culinary training used their lab’s 3D printer to fabricate custom-designed cakes which, when cut open, revealed a letter ‘C’.
Cornell’s 3D food printer isn’t commercially available as yet. However, the Fab@Home project (of which the 3D food printer project is a part) has the blueprints online for free, and hobbyists can use them to build their own. One retailer, nextfabstore.com, offers an assembled versions for sale — starting at $3,300.
3D printers typically use plastic, but some higher-end machines are able to work with metals and ceramics too. Known as personal manufacturing machines or ‘fabbers’, industrial-size 3D printers cost up to half-a-million dollars, while low-end personal-scale 3D printers cost less than $1,000. Today’s lowest-cost 3D printers have their roots in the University of Bath’s 3D printer called RepRap and Cornell’s Fab@Home project. The blueprints for both are freely available to anyone who wants to build his/her own machine, or improve upon existing designs — even commercially.
In a report commissioned by the US Office of Science and Technology Policy titled Factory@Home, Hod Lipson, an associate professor at Cornell University, notes that 3D printers are one of many different types of small-scale manufacturing machines like laser cutters, and programmable sewing machines, which when combined with electronic design blueprints, have enabled people to create a wide range of objects.
However, of the small-scale manufacturing machines, 3D printers comprise the most popular and fastest-growing segment. They use an additive process (make objects by systematically depositing a chosen raw material in layers). The most common household 3D printing process involves a ‘print head’ that works with any material that can be extruded, or squirted through a nozzle. Another common type uses a laser beam or glue to selectively fuse powdered plastic, metal, or ceramic raw material in layers.
A user can select an electronic design blueprint and load up the raw materials into the 3D printer. The machine does the rest. In a process that can take several hours to days, the 3D print head deposits layer upon layer of tiny droplets of raw material to form the object. Depending on the complexity of the design, the machine is able to switch between different print heads to work with multiple materials and form shapes with a number of colours and diverse textures.
“People with no special training can rip, mix and burn physical objects like custom machine parts, household goods, jewellery, and maybe someday, electronic devices,” said Lipson, while addressing reporters at the American Association for the Advancement of Science event held in Washington DC this month.
Engineers and designers have been using 3D printers for more than a decade, but mostly to make prototypes quickly and cheaply. In India, DesignTech Systems, a distributor of Stratasys Inc, had launched uPrint – a personal 3D printer – priced at $14,900 in June 2009. Wohlers research suggests that over 20 per cent of the output of 3D printers is now final products rather than prototypes, and the figure is expected to rise to 50 per cent by 2020.
Lack of human imagination appears to be the only limitation for 3D printers. The Fab@Home team at Cornell, for instance, is pursuing the ability to manufacture, on a single 3D printer machine in a single “print job”, a robot. Lipson tickles one’s imagination with his vision of an “...assembly line of computer-guided, 3D printers giving ‘birth’ to baby robots that crawl out of the printer and wander off to a nearby nursery where they learn to use their arms and legs according to instructions already hard-wired into their electronic circuitry.”
And NASA is exploring the role of 3D printers as an integral tool for space exploration missions to manufacture machines that can print their own replacement parts and are versatile enough to use a wide variety of materials available on site. The factories of the future, meanwhile, are expected to have 3D printers working alongside milling machines, presses, foundries and plastic injection-moulding equipment.
In the US, universities like Standford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Cornell have integrated personal fabrication technologies into their science and engineering curriculums. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), too, has launched a Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach (MENTOR) initiative to deploy digital manufacturing equipment, including 3D printers, in public high schools.
3D printers also offer entrepreneurs a cheaper, less risky route to the market. Products and parts can also be made only when they’re needed, saving on storage space and the costs of maintaining inventory. But Lipson also acknowledges that “IP issues are a leading concern of companies that work with personal fabrication technologies”. There could be counterfeit products and illegal copying of blueprints.
Nevertheless, Lipson believes there are many positives. He concludes that “in 20 years, when you look around your home or office, in addition to the usual mass-produced objects, you will see a quirky, one-of-a-kind lampshade, a coffee cup with your dog’s face engraved on it, an elaborately embroidered cell phone case that you designed, maybe even a box of chocolates in the shape of your house.”
(The author, on a sabbatical from Business Standard, is an MIT Knight Science Journalism Research Fellow 2010-11)