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3-D printing could reshape future of many industries

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Andrea Anderson
April 6, 2014

WHITEWATER—A desktop 3-D printer ran in Room 122 of the UW-Whitewater Innovation Center.

It ran like a standard printer, except instead of ink coming out of the printer head creating flat images on a piece of paper, this printer applied heated plastic, layer by layer, to a heated platform by a heated print head. A computer, situated next to the printer, told the printer to follow a pattern, like a computer sending a word document to a printer. A few hours later, the computer's design was a tangible 3-D object that could be picked up and analyzed.

Charlie Olson and Dan McGuire, professors in the UW-Whitewater Department of Art and Design, work with the Whitewater Incubation Program and 3-D print molds for foundry products.

The two mix an engineered powder and a liquid adhesive in a machine to print 3-D molds. The powder is laid in the printer and the liquid comes out of a head in a specific pattern. On contact, the powder and liquid harden and form the mold. In a separate process, medal is poured inside the mold, causing it to break away and leave behind the final product.

3-D printing technology has existed for decades, but in the last decade, it has begun to transform the way things are manufactured, McGuire said.

Charles “Chuck” Hull created the first 3-D printer in 1983. In 1986, he co-founded a company called 3D Systems, which sells 3-D printers and its technologies at a variety of prices.

The technology is attracting more attention, and its consumer accessibility and uses are expanding.

Click here to watch the Whitewater Innovation Center's 3-D printer in action.

In President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union Address, he gave a shout-out to Youngstown, Ohio. He said one of the city's old warehouses is now a state-of-the art lab where workers are mastering 3-D printing, which, he said, “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

McGuire agrees.

Uses

McGuire is co-founder and CEO of Foundry Solutions, a company started in 2000 that uses 3-D printers to manufacture foundry products. Over the years, he has seen production time for some manufactured products go from weeks to days to hours.

McGuire and Olson, technical research associate for Foundry Solutions, are in constant contact with foundry clients across the country who are involved in the automobile, biomedical and aerospace industries. The two men print molds of products, such as parts for knee transplants or an airbus plane, and send them to the client. The client then heats up the metal and pours it into the mold to create the final product on site.

The process would have taken much longer before, McGuire said. Before, there were months of planning and other machining to create patterns. With the printing technology, the pattern phase has been eliminated, and molds can be created within hours or days.

“It's not going to replace all the manufacturing going on out there,” McGuire cautioned. “For things that need to be turned around over night or over a short period of time, like with medical stuff, military, aerospace, those industries are going to keep pushing it.”

The technology has also been used in food production, medicine and fashion. In the last two Victoria's Secret Fashion Shows, models wore 3-D printed accessories. In 2012, a model wore 3-D printed glasses. In 2013, a model wore 3-D printed wings.

Steven North, a junior engineering student at UW-Rock County, said fashion is just one of the latest industries to see the benefits of 3-D printing.

“What will come soon, and is already happening, is 3-D scanning,” North said.

“If I want to print a copy of your glasses, I can,” and eventually do it at a cheaper cost, North added later.

3-D scanning is when an object is scanned for its dimensions and then 3-D printed.

North and another student, Robert Paige, a senior engineering student at UW-Rock, have been building a 3-D printer since spring 2013. All that's left is a programming glitch that needs to be fixed.

The goal is to use it as a teaching and outreach tool, eventually print another 3-D printer, and maybe even print parts for bigger projects – like motorcycles.

The 3-D printer is also a way for students to bring their ideas to life.

The engineering students and the UW-Whitewater professors want to work with students to put their concepts to the test.

McGuire said he and others saw a void in the education and design process for students who had ideas on paper but didn't have a way to tangibly test them.

“(We) saw a real need for students to get some hands-on items from their concepts and get them out into their industry, and this was a channel we thought would be really helpful,” McGuire said.

Eric Ronning, a UW-Madison senior studying mechanical engineering, has won several UW-Madison and national awards for ReHand, a prosthetic hand he designed in 2012 and built using a 3-D printer.

Ronning said ReHand is more “personal, mechanical and intuitive” than other prosthetics on the market.

  The prosthetic is mechanical and is controlled by shoulder movements. An internal mechanism in the palm of the hand controls the force of the hand when it picks things up.

At first, Ronning used 3-D printing for prototyping. Then he started using it more often.

“The more I used it, the more I realized the parts are a lot more durable than I thought and were also really light,” Ronning said.

He eventually used the printer to produce a final product.

3-D printing has allowed for advances in many medical areas.

Researchers across the globe are working to perfect the printing of skin, bone and organs. The advances allow for customization and eventual cost savings, Olson said.

Prosthetics are one example of customization.

Say you lost your right calf. Ronning could scan your left calf, have that image imported into a computer program, and then the program could create a mirror image for your right calf.

Cloning hands is more difficult because of the digits, but Ronning and others are working on it.

Price

In the past year, the price of 3-D printers has gone down significantly, and quality has increased, Olson said.

The 3-D printer the professors have that prints plastic cost $1,500. A year ago, it was more than double that, Olson said.

He compared it to a flat-screen televisions and how he paid more than $2,000 for his years ago, and now they are significantly cheaper.

North and Paige at UW-Rock bought a kit to build their 3-D printer last spring. The kit cost about $500 and is an example of how 3-D printers are within reach of consumers.  

The two use online forums when they hit a rough patch. The open-source nature of people interested in 3-D printing is a great way to share knowledge and patterns, Paige said.

“There is a community of people that share ideas and ask questions,” Paige said.

McGuire and Olson see why consumers might want 3-D printers in their homes, but experts and professionals will always be needed to manufacture and produce the things that require more skill.

“It's like a bread machine. When that first came out, everybody was hot to have a bread machine in their house,” McGuire said. “After a few years, it kind of died out, and they let the breadmakers keep making that bread.” 

Everyone seems to agree, however, that the future of 3D printing is unknown because it is evolving so rapidly.

For now, McGuire urges all businesses to pay attention to 3D printing and its effects on manufacturing. If they don't, he said, they could get left behind.

“If they don't get up with the times, it's coming, and it's just going to eat you up and keep going,” McGuire said. “You're going to be put out of business. You can see it.”



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