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A new dimension in print making

‘Our core business is actually retailing the printers,’ says Thinglab director Christopher Sutton. Photo: Chris HopkinsOn the top floor of a former cotton mill in Footscray, what’s being billed as the new industrial revolution is under way. Two MakerBot 3D printers are grinding out, layer by layer, models of a building and a mounting bracket. Some finished products – buildings, human heads, a robot, bus, lampshade, vases, bracelets and an octopus – lie nearby. All of them are made of polylactic acid, a plastic-like substance melted and fused together by the printer.
Nanjing Night Net

Thinglab, the company that owns the printers, does print jobs for clients, runs 3D training courses and also sells the MakerBots, at $2800 each, to the public. ”Our core business is actually retailing the printers,” says Thinglab director Christopher Sutton. ”Our core markets are education, small business and consumers. We’d sell hundreds a year … we’re seeing rapid growth.”

3D printing is the reverse of subtractive manufacturing, where material is whittled from an object to achieve a particular design. Instead, a 3D printer melts raw material into ultrathin layers, which are piled one on another until the desired shape is formed.

The most advanced 3D printers are able to print metal, glass, ceramic and concrete objects as well as organic material such as food and living tissue.

The big limitation of 3D printers is that they can generally print in just one material – meaning that complex multi-material items such as mobile phones or computer chips are not possible.

Nevertheless, 3D printing can economically make objects that would otherwise require an expensive assembly line to produce.

Worldwide, the emergence of the new technology has prompted hype that a ”new industrial revolution” is on foot. In Australia, it is hoped that 3D printing may eventually help the country’s battered manufacturing sector regain an edge over its cheaper mass-producing competitors.

Experts predict that 3D printers will one day be as commonplace as computers, with one in almost every home.

Its applications appear almost endless. Medical use of 3D printers is expected to soar because products such as hearing aids, orthopaedic implants and dental implants have to be customised for each patient.

University of Wollongong scientists, working with St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, are hoping to print custom-made body parts, including muscle and nerve cells and cartilage, by 2016. In just over a decade, they hope to print human organs.

John Riccio, national digital change leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says that 3D printing would be particularly useful in anything that needed custom design – especially architecture.

In Germany, for example, one house manufacturer prints the walls on the premises, he says. ”They have these large 3D printers that they ship to the site and they basically lay the walls there and then to the specifications that have been designed.”

Forecaster IBISWorld predicts a lucrative future for the technology. In the US, where the 3D printing sector earns revenue of $US1.4 billion, business is expected to double by the end of the decade.

But this is minuscule when placed against the $US2.4 trillion US manufacturing base.

Data on the Australian industry is hard to find, simply because the sector is so small.

”You’re looking at something that is definitely under $100 million here,” says IBISWorld analyst Tim Stephens. ”It’s probably not even $50 million.”

Despite the hype, the limitations of 3D printing mean it appears unlikely to rescue Australia’s manufacturing sector any time soon.

Economies of scale mean that traditional assembly-line production is still cheaper for big production quotas, Stephens says.

Still, the number of households with their own 3D printers is expected to surge as the printers become cheaper. And it is in the home, rather than the factory, that the real revolution may happen.

”Full-colour laser printers were once very rare and only in the office,” says PwC’s Riccio. ”Now everyone has one in their house. When the 3D printer is at a point where it’s affordable for the home, then I would see people buying or downloading design specifications, which they pay for, and then print off.”

The most common 3D items, says Riccio, would be plastic items, accessories, spare parts, custom-made items, or anything needing to be individualised: mobile phone cases, frames for glasses, jewellery, statues, decorative items, gifts. ”You can see the whole jewellery industry being revolutionised,” he says.

And 3D printing is also especially useful for prototypes, which can be 3D printed cheaply and in a fraction of the time.

Michael Chijoff, who runs an industrial design business in Kensington, used 3D printing to create an intricate Minnie Mouse fashion headpiece as part of a collaboration with Disney corporation and milliner Richard Nylon.

”That was a perfect example where 3D printing can do the impossible. That object couldn’t be manufactured using traditional means,” he says. ”You couldn’t get the detail in it through traditional molding techniques because there’d be too many undercuts. 3D printing allows you to print impossible shapes that you could never do traditionally, especially on the high-end machines that print in metal.”

Chijoff’s business focuses on consumer products such as luggage, bags and softgoods and he uses MakerBots every day. The main advantage of 3D printers, he says, is their ability to quickly produce prototypes. ”We can start verifying designs very quickly. Within a day you could come up with three or four different iterations and see if things are working functionally, see how they sit in the hand,” he says.

”It’s definitely fast-tracked the development process. Before we could get our products 3D printed it would take a week. Now we can do it in a few hours.”

Prototypes are often printed multiple times, says Chijoff. He cites a mobile phone case that was first printed on the MakerBots to test the design. A version was then produced on an advanced $200,000 printer to check that a proposed locking mechanism would work.

But, tellingly, the final version will not be 3D printed but produced the traditional way – on an assembly line – because it is far cheaper. ”For consumer products you’re talking thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of units,” says Chijoff. ”You’d never 3D print them.”

The most advanced, and expensive, type of 3D printing is Selective Laser Sintering. Whereas cheaper 3D printers such as MakerBots must use plastic-like substances, SLS is able to print in hard materials such as metal.

The metal must be very pure and finely powdered before the laser can weld it into the shape of the desired object. The results can be very attractive – extremely intricate designs can be created using lasers, says Chris Peters, owner of the industrial design company Annex Products.

”You can print parts in metal that you can’t manufacture using conventional processes,” Peters says. ”But with Selective Laser Sintering you need to refine the metal down to a very fine powder and you need a very high-powered laser. That’s the high-end expensive part of it.”

There are pros and cons to the technique, he says. ”The advantage of 3D printing is that you can produce a one-off without any tooling costs … but the finish isn’t quite as good as a conventionally manufactured part.”

The greater the quantity of production required, the less viable 3D printing becomes compared to conventional manufacturing, he says. ”But if you want to manufacture 10 or 20 parts then 3D printing is much cheaper because you don’t need the tooling, you don’t have the minimum quantity runs you’ve got to do.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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