The Future of 3D Printers

Mar 25, 2013

It's a fascinating look at 3D printers; how they work, and how they're being used at East Carolina University.

Think about something very simple. Imagine you are moving to a different place, and in the move you lose something, like a couple shower rings. Well imagine if instead of having to go to the store, or having to order the rings from the manufacturer, you go to your computer, and design one, or simply download a model, and print out them out. East Carolina University in Greenville has 5 3D printers on campus, and we went there to find out what they are being used for, and exactly how they work.  Stephen O’Connell has this.

Go online and you’ll find all sorts of fantastic ideas to demonstrate the potential of 3D printing, from a lunar base, to the perfect shoe for your foot, to food, and even printing a 3D printer using a 3D printer.

At many colleges their experiencing a more modest use developing prototypes or models for students and manufacturers. I went to East Carolina University last week and spoke with two professors responsible for 3D printers on campus. Professor Ranjeet Agarwala, who is studying for a PhD right now, told me that he uses the 3D printer for students in his engineering and technology classes, and has done some work for national companies that manufacture in North Carolina.

“ For example a couple of years back Keihin in Tarboro, they manufacture computers for Honda, they come down and ask us to make a computer casing for them, so we made it in the 3-D printer, and gave it to them.”

A 3D printers technical, and less fantastic term, is a rapid prototyping machine.  Professor Agarwala tells me at the beginning of our interview that Dr. Rick Williams was the horse, or white knight, who got the machines on campus. Williams has been working with the printers for the past ten years, including time at Auburn University in Alabama. He has a box of gadgets and trinkets with him, including a wrench, a turbine blade, and brackets he uses for resistance tests in his classes.

So the tolerances aren’t that great, so the wrench itself, although it’s functional, you can see, it doesn’t necessarily move back and forth real smoothly.”

The black wrench is made from ABC plastic, the same used to make Legos. The high resistance plastic is shipped to them in string form, in spools, like a knitting ball.

I mean essentially what happens is this machine melts the plastic and runs it through an extrusion nozzle that extrudes it down to about 10,000’s of an inch in diameter, and it prints almost like a glue gun one layer at a time in ten thousands of an inch increments, so the bill platform moves down every layer ten thousands of an inch and there’s a hundred layers per inch in the build.”

For the name given, the printing process isn’t rapid. The newest wrench has been printing for an hour when we get to the shop, and Dr. Williams says it will be a half hour more. Although fully assembled when printed, there’s another disadvantage, most especially for the aesthetically minded engineer.

You’ll see on this little model here, because you get layers, you end up getting this stair stepping that occurs, so every time you got a curved surface it’s not going to be perfectly smooth.”

Despite some obvious disadvantages, the opportunities the technology affords are striking, and the downsides are easily dismissed. The technical term that describes the type of engineering employed is additive manufacturing. Rather than its more widely used opposite, subtractive manufacturing, 3D printing uses materials that are recyclable and cheaper because it’s built from scratch so material is not wasted.  

But when it comes to the price of the printing machines, figures vary widely. A home version, about the size of a toaster can be purchased for two thousand dollars. The machines that Dr. Williams and Professor Agarwala use are in the 50,000 dollar range. And as Dr. Williams told me the prices don’t slow there.

There are machines out there that are upwards, and I haven’t looked at in, as far as prices, in probably six, seven years, but upwards of a million dollars, that the military uses to, a lot of repair parts they can do, titanium, repair turbine blades, basically using lasers and titanium powders.” 

After watching the wrench print for a few minutes longer, Professor Agarwala takes us to the shop where the machine he operates is. This machine resembles an incubator. It shuffles a powder back and forth on a surface. On top, you see a colored outline. The object is being printed underneath.

“ So what it does it takes this 3D cad model in color so what you’re seeing right now is actually this layer being printed, and you can see if you come here you see how that is laying a glue, laying the powder, and then injecting that glue on top of that you see that, that’s color, and then another layer and another layer until it’s done you see that.”

This machine manufactures an object with considerable more detail and color. The trade off for the beauty and detail of these objects is that they are usually not functional. The engine model and the Cleopatra head he gives me are virtually useless. And as opposed to the plastics almost instance readiness, this machine’s post processing requires more time, as Williams puts it, the object becomes something of an archeological dig when completed. Professor Agarwala finishes it with a super glue material which strengthens it.

Despite the two machines differences they operate off the same principal, layer by layer the material is binded together into an object of their design. Dr. Williams and Professor Argawala agree that most satisfying is its ability to help their students.

“ When I see a student, an architectural student, you know, and they’re going for a national competition, and they can print their model in 3-D and take it to the competition, and they say wow, and it’s very different than what others have, a traditional wooden cardboard model, and when they have to make change they have to start all over from scratch or something like that, where our students just have to come back and print it again, you know. There’s some changes, and a lot of my students, actually three or four of them are in jobs that the job profile is just printing, using the 3D printer, for the electronic industry or something like that, so I get a kick out of it, to see that what they’re learning in the class they’re actually making a living out of, you know, so that gives me a kick.”

Professor Agarwala has one student who is attempting to build a 3D printer from scratch. He’s using off the shelf products, and Agarwala says the students ambition is to have one in a home for 500 dollars. Dr. Williams is excited about its power to make ideas something you can hold.

“ Yea I think that similar to Ranjeet is seeing a student where they’ll design something in CAD, and I think sometimes when you’re in the CAD environment it’s hard to see scale,  you know the picture is worth a thousand words but I think if you have a 3D model is worth a thousand pictures.” 

When I asked about students access to the machines Williams says students aren’t trained to operate them, and although it would only take a few minutes, he says what’s important is mastering the Computer Aided Design, or CAD, software.

Williams says he doesn’t use the printer very often because they don’t have the manpower to do so.

While they both seemed to agree that a lack of resources was one of the biggest problems in utilizing the technology to its fullest, I sensed an underlying issue, one that is unfortunate right now, but exciting for the future. I sensed that maybe they don’t really know what to do with the machine. But, as you’ll see, very soon 3D printers may be building homes, even a lunar base, constructing firearms, engineering body tissue, reconstructing evidence for police investigations, and rebuilding artifacts for archeology. Stephen O’Connell, Public Radio East.