Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing


Advances in 3D printing research

In the last few weeks, a couple of interesting articles have been posted which focus on efforts in the development of digital manufacturing.

The first, by Erick Schonfeld, editor-at-large for Business 2.0 magazine, concerns startup digital manufacturing company EoPlex in ‘The Next Net’ blog. The article describes how EoPlex “has figured out a way to print small parts in mass production from the size of a poppy seed to a deck of cards”.

The interesting thing here is that the process used by EoPlex allows a part to be printed using more than one material. Erick Schonfeld describes how:

“EoPlex can take any CAD design for complex, small, three-dimensional parts that would be too difficult to otherwise manufacture, and print it. It slices the object to be manufactured into hundreds of layers much like a CT scan does to your body, then reassembles it by printing the layers one at a time and burning away the parts it does not need.”

EoPlex CEO Arthur Chait is quoted as saying that EoPlex can make parts out of combinations of ceramic, metal, and many other materials. (The trick is to bind the material as a powder to a polymer ink). Erick Schonfeld’s opinion:

“What’s really disruptive about this approach is that it costs no more to print a complex object than it does a simple one, just as it costs no more for a newspaper to print simple words than an elaborate illustration. And if you want to change the design—add a gear here, a chamber there—virtually no retooling is required. Just alter the CAD file, make some new screens or masks, and print out a new part”

EoPlex plans to move into production trials next year with several customers. While this article doesn’t mention the idea of 3D printing at consumer level, it does show that the technology exists to carry out 3D printing of an object using more than one material. Arthur Chait explains that:

“EoPlex uses a layered approach that is much more like semiconductor deposition than RP. The EoPlex process deposits various ceramic and metal powders in ink form to build panels of complex 3-D parts and then sinters the entire stack to form the channels, conductors, insulators, catalysts etc. The process is unique and addresses market needs that can’t be done with RP (rapid prototyping).”

The big question here is whether this innovative process could ever be used with hardware that would be affordable at consumer level. Certainly, semiconductor manufacturing processes are extremely complex and require considerable investment. While the technology may exist to print parts using semiconductor manufacture methods, the conversion of this process to a consumer environment has not, to my knowledge, been explored to date.
The second article of interest is by Matt Sparkes, who is Web Executive at the New Scientist magazine. In his blog, mattsparkes.org, he has posted a detailed article on the work of the Reprap project at Bath University in England.

This project, headed by Adrian Bowyer, aims to create a cheap rapid prototyping machine that also allows the creation of printed circuits. This is interesting in itself, but the method by which it would be distributed is even more interesting: the machine would self-replicate. This means that a person with one machine could create two more to pass on to others. (This is almost like the theme of the film ‘Pay it Forward’ that was released a few years ago!)

The key to achieving this is to make a machine that can produce almost all of its component parts, to make self-replicating machines, according to Adrian Bowyer.

To do this requires creating a machine that walks a fine line between complexity and simplicity; complex enough to manufacture its own constituent parts, but with constituent parts simple enough to allow this.

To date, most of the component pieces of the machine have been designed and tested, and the next step in the project is to combine them all into a working prototype.

In order to improve the design, and to allow replication, the plans will be made freely available under the GNU licence, as will the software to design parts and control the machine. This is a perfect example of outside innovation if there ever was one. Contributors to the project are based in the U.S. and New Zealand as well as the U.K.

According to the article, the ultimate aim is to create a machine that can also create electrical conductors, and once that ability is combined with the 3D plastic forming, any device can be created, even electrical motors.

The article suggests that having the ability to create complex devices at home could lead to new ways of doing things, most notably in communication and medicine. One example is an open source, peer to peer, mobile phone network that doesn’t rely on a service provider. This would be made possible by creating phones that also act as base stations, routing traffic from one phone to another towards it’s destination. The absence of a service provider would theoretically make the service free.

A second example given relates to medicine. Matt Sparkes’ article states that, because patents don’t apply to personal production, an individual can make a copyrighted drug as long as it is for strictly personal use. Bowyer imagines that Reprap could someday provide the means to do this. It is suggested that the hardware cost of a machine that could produce drugs for individuals might work out less expensive than the oveall cost of those drugs purchased through conventional channels. This would be most applicable to newer drugs administered on a long-term basis.

The Reprap project is also investigating a new raw material that would be used by the machines. This is a polymer called Poly-Lactic acid, that can be created by fermenting starch, either from corn or potatoes, which would be carbon neutral and easily available in developing countries.

There are many interesting elements to these two articles, and both are worth reading in full. While the two technologies involved are still at the developmental stage, the progress being made by the likes of EoPlex and the Reprap project are all significant stepping stones to a time when digital manufacturing is as common in the home as printing documents is today.

Both of these articles are well worth reading.

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