Poor Leonardo da Vinci.
A helicopter, a car, a submarine, a bicycle – those and many other brilliant inventions flowing from the greatest mind of the 15th century, and so little technology at hand to flesh them out.
That was Leo Stocco’s thought as he walked recently through Da Vinci – The Genius, a 10,000-square-foot exhibit at Science World. The exhibit features full-scale models of many of the machines he conceived, built by contemporary artisans working from the master’s personal notebooks.
Today with the growing popularity of 3-D printer technology, anyone who fancies him or herself an inventor can find out overnight if they’re truly innovative – or just a pretender.
“We have an enormous advantage over a poor guy like da Vinci, whose every idea would involve a laborious effort to verify. Things that were good ideas, he would have discarded because of the manufacturing challenges. We don’t have that problem any more,” said Stocco, a professor of engineering at the University of British Columbia who is an inventor himself. His specialty is creating equipment for robot-assisted orthopedic surgery.
He designs a part in three dimensions using computer-aided design or CAD software, feeds the design into a 3-D printer and, within a few hours, the machine spits out prototypes of the parts he needs to test his idea.
At UBC, the engineering department has three printers that make objects out of hard and soft plastics. Printers build objects layer upon layer, spraying out a very thin film of gelatinous glue in the shape of the object. The glue is immediately hardened with a dose of ultraviolet light.
In a box at Stocco’s desk there are 3-D-printed gears, replicas of the hip bones of dogs and chickens, bolts – and even a bone-coloured plastic bicycle chain that was printed out in one piece, without the need for a pin and clasp mechanism to lock it together.
Around the world there are about 50,000 3-D printers in service, from a handful of manufacturers. They’re being used to print prototype objects out of metal, glue and other substances, including substitutes for human tissue. They’re used in specialty manufacturing to make things like parts for jet planes. People are working on machines that will print cloth.
Machines of varying sophistication are already in use at elementary schools, high schools, technical schools, art schools and universities.
Future of printing
Last month leading 3-D printer manufacturer Stratasys released a $9,900 US model that’s scarcely larger than the HP printer you’d use in a home office, capable of industrial-quality prototype design. If you’re looking to print simpler, cruder objects, you can get a home model for about the price of a new HDTV.
As with the invention of the Internet in the 1960s, the full implications of the printing technology are yet to be realized.
But here’s a hint: A world in which manufacturing is dispersed to nations that have the advantage of cheap labour could disappear.
Big-name brands may disappear, too – if a girl in a high school art class has a cooler design for a running shoe than Nike and her design goes viral, how much lost business would that cost a big corporate brand? And how many kids are going to chase quick fame or notoriety, as they already do on You-Tube, by offering free CAD designs for a wide array of consumer goods that you could print at home?
In the near future, you’ll never be stranded in a small town if your car breaks down – the local mechanic will be able to print out the part instead of waiting a couple of days for delivery. Still driving a Model T Ford? There’s a part for that.
And what happens when you can download a pirated CAD design for a copyrighted toy, or a gun, onto a 3-D printer that’s sitting next to the computer in your basement den?
A decade ago, when Stocco conceived of a new gearing system for his ortho-pedic robots, the biggest challenge was putting together a physical set of parts to see if the idea would work.
“You would do all the tricks of the trade. You would scavenge similar parts from other pieces of equipment and put them together, retrofitting, and then go to a machine shop and with the drill press and hand tools and lathe, adapting them. Or you spend a whack of money and go to a manufacturing facility to create a prototype for you,” he said. “When you have access to one of these machines, it’s the difference between $2,000 and $20.”
Eventually, Stocco predicts, anyone will be able to download a CAD design for an object with the same ease they buy digital music or ebooks. It will be, he said, “a shopping mall at your desk.”
Stocco finds that his students are more engaged in their work because they, too, can invent things.
“It just allows you to do really cool, creative things. It’s five bucks worth of material. They screw it up, no big deal. I let them print a second one.”
Anything you can draw with CAD, notes Ahmad Sharkia, an engineering student who assists in the printing lab, you can fabricate in a couple of days.
“The boundary constraint you have is basically your imagination, how creative you are. It shows your weaknesses,” Sharkia said.
Stratasys, based in Minnesota, said an industry survey shows that 80 per cent of users of 3-D printers make parts that would fit inside a five-inch cube.
“Everyone would love to have a machine that could make as large a part as they want, but the reality is, there are lots of small components that go into every big product,” Joe Himenez, public relations manager for Stratasys, told The Vancouver Sun. He thinks the idea of having a sophisticated home printer is unlikely in the near future, but agrees that the potential market is huge.
“There have been roughly 50,000 of these machines sold, with all the competitors combined, in the last 20 years. But the CAD software [users] out there number in the millions. Imagine that each one of those people working in CAD is a potential user of this.
“We’ve been making these machines for over 20 years. It seems like every day we learn about a new application or a new way people have come up with to use these things – ways that we or other people couldn’t have envisioned.”
Timo Minx and Philipp Fuhrmann of Coquitlam-based Captherm Systems are using a 3-D printer to greatly accelerate the pace of research on electronics cooling technology. Among other things, they want to dramatically reduce energy consumption at the massive data centres or “server farms” used by companies such as Google, Amazon, Cisco and Apple to serve ever-increasing global demand for cloud computing services.
Greenpeace International warns that the expansion of cloud computing is one of the leading challenges to global efforts to ward off climate change, because server farms require large amounts of electricity to support air-conditioning systems needed to run the farms at optimal operating temperatures. In many places, those farms are served by non-renewable energy sources such as coal-or natural gas-fired generation.
Captherm is developing solid-state cooler units that would enable computers to generate less heat, by directly cooling their silicon chips rather than looking for ways to improve the energy efficiency of air-conditioning systems. The company already has eight patents and working models of its machines.
“We predict to be able to save 30 to 40 per cent on data operators’ cooling bills,” Fuhrmann said. “The information technology [IT] industry is our first market to go into because of the low barriers to entry,” Minx said.
“Then we would leverage that successful implementation in the IT sector to branch off into LED light cooling, electric vehicle cooling, medical cooling. Space exploration is huge for us.”
First, however, Captherm needed working prototypes, so it spent about $110,000 to obtain both a printer and a “CNC machine,” which is a computer numeric control machine about the size of garden shed that can be programmed to mill out a metal version of a plastic 3-D prototype.
When Captherm likes a plastic prototype, it mills a working metal version of it. It used to take six weeks to get a metal part from an outside shop. Now one is available the next day. It’s a drastic reduction in research and development costs, and in the time it takes to advance the work.
Printers cut costs
“Before we got this equipment, we were doing one-off parts,” Fuhrmann said. “You go to a CNC supplier and say, ‘I need one evaporator prototype.’ They are going to be like ‘Oh sure, I will do that between my 10,000 and my 100,000 piece orders. It will be four to six weeks.
“The 3-D printer can give you form, fit and function testing really early on in the design process. We’ve seen it so many times that people have an idea in their head – let’s say a simple wrench. They go to a shop in the area. They get a plastic injection mould, spend $5,000 to $10,000 on that mould and then figure out ‘Oh, we forgot a little detail – it doesn’t work quite the way it was supposed to.’ So $10,000 later, you are basically back to the drawing board.
“Instead you can print this wrench for maybe a couple of hundred dollars – even under $100 per cubic inch of material. If you need to make a modification, you go back to your computer, you modify it, you print it again, and once you have everything figured out, you go to a process like a CNC. This is going to save people money.
“For a CC machinist, this [3-D prototype] provides incredible value. If you have the 3-D prototype in your hand, you can ask yourself ‘How do I get in this with my cutter?'”
If you are a large company, Minx suggested, “you may have five or 10 [research] people on payroll. If you have them working on a project like this, and you have to wait six weeks to find out if works or not, you’ve effectively paid these people [to wait] for six weeks. You can take a six-week time window, and cut it down to 48 hours.”
Captherm has struck off a second company, called Rapid Prototypes, to produce items for other companies involved in RD, and is using the proceeds to help support the parent company’s research.
“We fully understand the position our customers are in because Captherm is in the same boat. We are going through the same product development cycle,” Minx said. Added Fuhrmann: We are making it really easy for clients on our website to get a price on our printer as well. If they want a print job, all they need to do is go to our website and upload their design file.
Our website calculates the price that we would charge them. You put your credit card information in, send the file to us, and we put it into our printer and the next morning we ship it.”
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