Manufacturing ‘revolution’ brewing in Danville

Imagine downloading a product design to your computer and “printing” the 3-D item layer by layer.

This “revolution” in manufacturing has arrived. As it evolves, it could change the way people consume, demand and make products, said Christopher Williams, director of the DREAMS Lab at Virginia Tech.

“Now we’re starting to put manufacturing in the hands of everyone,” Williams told attendees of The Network meeting at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research on Tuesday.

The assistant professor for mechanical engineering calls this “democratizing” manufacturing, or opening the door for all entrepreneurs to create new inventions or businesses.

Additive manufacturing works by using a machine to layer melted material — plastic, nylon, sand or metal — to form solidified objects that adhere to a computer-aided design model.

“The part grows in front of you,” Williams explained.

Traditional manufacturing and machining whittles away at material to get the desired part or product. The advantage with additive manufacturing is that it would waste far less material.

While the technology has been around since the 1980s, it’s mostly been used for making prototypes for testing or printing patterns for molds. Currently, Essel Propack, a plastic tubes and caps manufacturer in Danville, uses this technology in a Danville Community College lab to create prototypes for customers.

Now, though, the technology is being used to create the end product. This is how Align Technology customizes its Invisalign braces using 3-D scans of dental impressions.

Additive manufacturing allows for more intricate design with complex geometry. And machines take no more time to produce this complexity than for a simple design. For example, Williams showed a model of his skull that he made using his CT scan.

While machines currently can’t produce multi-material products, they can make some interlocking pieces without assembly. Williams envisions using 3-D printers to print electronics directly on parts and even to “print” cars.

“There are no more constraints,” Williams said. “There are no more rules about what can and can’t be made.”

This also allows for cost-effective customization of products personalized to an individual’s needs, like with hearing aids.

That’s where he believes the future of U.S. manufacturing is headed. He said this wouldn’t affect commodity manufacturing but would serve a niche that would allow America to take advantage of what it’s known for: innovation.

Williams believes the potential will lead to a “digital renaissance” of manufacturing, where product designs are shared on the Internet for download and 3-D printing anywhere. This makes it easier than ever to invent new products.

For examples of this, visit www.thingiverse.com or www.makerbot.com.

For more information on the Virginia Tech DREAMS Lab, visit www.dreams.me.vt.edu. To watch The Network presentation, visit www.ialr.org.

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