Kristin: These are the raw notes from a talk I gave on the opportunities for advanced manufacturing at the 3D Printing workshop co-hosted by DFEEST, Intel US, RiAus and Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT) in February 2012. Since that workshop, ANAT and DFEEST have launched Fab Lab Adelaide, a place for people to engage in digital fabrication using flexible computer-controlled tools such as 3D printers, a laser cutter and a milling machine.
3D Printing: Opportunities for advanced manufacturing in South Australia
When I was 13, I decided quite definitely that I wanted to be an engineer. Being the child of academics willing to indulge a curiosity, I ended up tagging along with my Dad to the University of Queensland’s Open Day. And upstairs in the Richards building (which I think was Earth Sciences), we watched a demonstration of a new type of printer.
My mum was doing her PhD at the time, and I have vague memories of an Apple IIe, floppy disks and a brand new dot matrix. But this printer was different. As you specified a mathematical formula into a computer, a mechanical arm of the started to sketch a chart across a new page, like a pantograph. And by selecting a different pen, it was possible to see several different colour charts be traced across the sheet.
I kept that print-out of parabolas for ages. Not really understanding what the formulas meant at the time, but retaining the incredible sense of excitement from the postgrad on demonstrator duty.
In early 2007, Bridge8 started a project for DFFEST and what is now DMITRE looking at advanced manufacturing capability in South Australia. The research had three parts:
- Investigating areas of industry capability now and into the future
- Indentifying areas of research strengths and capabilities
- Trying to find a common language that both industry and research would understand when we asked about capability.
We realised that what other sides had in common was the “doing process”, that is not the application, or the scientific discipline but the skills they had to produce outcomes, whether that be research insights or products. It was imperfect, but this common language gave us a way to list about 30 different industry/research capabilities for advanced manufacturing, from coatings to precision machining and process control systems. One of these capabilities was rapid prototyping.
We defined rapid prototyping as: the process of manufacturing a 3D object directly for its digital representation in a computer-aided design system.
We noted that rapid prototyping techniques included laser sintering, solid ground curing and stereolithography.
- Laser sintering is an additive rapid manufacturing technique that uses a high power laser to fuse together small particles of plastic, metal or ceramic powders into a desired 3D object.
- Solid ground curing is a process by which a part is produced by hardening photosensitive liquid polymer in layers and hardening each layer of resin at once.
- Stereolithography creates solid 3D plastic objects through laser hardening of a photosensitive liquid resin like sold ground curing, however each layer is hardened gradually and it requires post-curing.
None of our definitions or discussions (as I remember) included the term 3D printing.
In mid 2008 when we completed industry surveys, 3 companies out of 40 had stated they already had capabilities in rapid prototyping. 7 companies identified rapid prototyping as a capability they would need in the future. These companies were design firms and firms in electrical systems. So why would local businesses be interested in rapid prototyping? And what else might advanced printing techniques offer for local industry?
I think it’s useful to reflect on techniques that advanced manufacturing industries in South Australia might predominantly be using. Many of these companies are electrical component suppliers servicing the defence and other industries, especially for applications involving sensing and processing.
The manufacture of printed circuit boards was another of the capabilities identified during our advanced manufacturing study. Printed circuit boards are etched from copper sheets laminated onto a non-conductive substrate. The manufacturing process may vary, but typically there are three stages – imaging, deposition and etching. So for example, a layer of copper is applied over the base, this is covered by a mask (like a stencil) and then the required circuit is formed by etching away the material that it no longer required.
If we contrast additive techniques, like the ones I’ve mentioned under the definition of 3D prototyping you can already see that they require fewer steps and use less material, making them faster and cheaper. And potentially allowing more options for refining a design idea.
In many ways, this reminds me of the distinction we apply to our understanding of nanotechnologies as either being top-down (such as grinding down particles to make nano-sized powders) vs the yet-to-be-fully realised bottom-up of precision and control molecule by molecule. And again, one of the potential benefits of bottom-up nanotechnologies is that potential to create matter in a precise manner with minimal waste – no off-cuts.
So 3D printing and additive techniques offer manufacturing industries a new approach.
From 2011 to 2016, IBISWorld forecasts that industry revenue will grow at an average annualized rate of 15.9% to reach $3.0 billion. In 2012, IBISWorld projects that revenue will increase 20.3% to $1.7 billion. But beyond printing polymer and metal materials there are a range of other printed applications (like circuit borads) that bear thinking about in relation to this technology.
According to David ten Have, CEO of Ponoko, we’re rapidly approaching the point where 3D printers will be able to print circuit boards. The potential then for 3Dprinitng objects within in-built functionality of RFIDs comes closer.
Printed fabrics and textiles
A 3D scan of any body, fed into the computer, clothes to fit printed ot order. Freedom of Creation in Amsterdam and Philip Delamore at the London College of Fashion are designing and developing out seamless, flexible textiles. They use software that converts your three-dimensional body data into skin-conforming fabric structures. Think a soft knit without the needles.
And in fact this is one of many potential applications where design-your-own becomes possible, leveraged off personal data and preferences.
A company called Beehive have been crowd-sourcing funding for an online applications that allows people to design their own eye glass frames – customisation and ease of manufacture.
Finnish technology foresight group VTT have also been focusing on printed functionality. These include:
- Ability to print sensors for temperature, humidity and freshness such as might be used for packing
- Printed solar cells (similar to process used for printing polymer banknotes), which have been worked on over the past few years in a partnership between CSIRO and a number of research and industry partners in Melbourne
Customisation and ease of manufacture will drive uptake for applications in medical devices as well.
Flinders Medical Devices Partnering Program already working with partners using 3D printed technology.
According to my quick scan of applications, 3D technologies can be used in three ways.
Importantly and obviously, 3D printers can be used to create customized medical devices that more accurately replicate the human form. These products include hearing aids, orthopedics and dental implants. Nearly all hearing-aids today are made using 3D printing, stereo lithography or selective laser sintering.
2. Sensors & Diagnostics
Already talk about applications for printing sensors – manufacturing sensor parts already possible. GE produces ultrasound machines including the transducer (the part that touches your body). Manufacturing the transducer itself has been quite complex. GE has started to use additive manufacturing methods using digital micro-printing (3d printing) which provides a single platform to perform almost all of the manufacturing steps needed to build transducers: the piezoelectrics, matching layers, and the adhesive joints between them. Now further extending this method for point of care maternal health applications.
3. Biological Objects
Australian firm Invetech has been working on a 3D bio-printer since 2009.
The 3D bio-printer allows for cells of almost any type to be arranged in a desired 3D pattern. It includes two print heads, one for placing human cells, and the other for a scaffold. The cells used by the device need to be the cells of what is being regenerated – building an artery requires arterial cells for example. The patient’s own cells are used the new organ will not be rejected by the body. The printer fits inside a standard biosafety cabinet for sterile use. The printer is the result of collaboration between Australian engineering firm Invetech, and Organovo, a regenerative medicine company based in San Diego, California.
We’ve talked about printing of kidneys in the TED talk from this time last year. Yet the somewhat forgotten aspects that in that same talk, a young man came onto stage, having been the recipient of a printed bladder wall 10 years ago. 10 years ago.
Medical devices: speed to market and eliminate waste (especially important if talking about medical grade materials)– living hinges, reduction of assembly, custom-made to fit.
If the manufacturing methods can become easier, than the potential reach of applications broaden, due to a lower cost base.
I’ve talked more broadly than 3D printing, looking at functional printed objects as well. But the real excitement of 3D printing lies in how several types of technologies and materials may be combined to create whole objects including circuit-boards, sensors and casings custom-made for the individual and specific use. A print-run of one.
And when I think about this, I go back to the magic that I saw as a 13 yr old with four-colour parabolas being sketched by the modern pantograph and wonder what we’ll take for granted within 5 years.