Imagine being able to create just about anything by simply uploading a design to a computer and printing it out. From coffee mugs to dining room chairs to airplane parts, three-dimensional printing is changing the face of manufacturing and the production of a variety of goods.
The traditional manufacturing process, called subtractive manufacturing, takes a piece of material, like a block of steel or wood, and carves away at it until it’s in its final form. Because it creates a lot of waste, it’s not very efficient or cost-effective. Conversely, additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, builds up an object in layers. A printer uses a nozzle to eject a superheated polymer onto a stage, one layer at a time, until a final product is made. The negative space in an item, like the hole in the center of a gear, simply isn’t printed. That means less waste, making the process less expensive and more environmentally friendly.
3D printing has useful applications across a wide range of industries. Manufacturing companies like Boeing are using the process to make parts with fewer smaller pieces, which are stronger, lighter and less expensive to create. Students at Wake Forest University are conducting research on how to print new skin directly onto burn wounds. Researchers at MUSC’s Advanced Tissue Biofabrication Center are developing a mechanism to bioprint three-dimensional structures like human organs from living cellular building blocks. NASA has sent a 3D printer to the International Space Station, where astronauts can manufacture spare parts and tools using a device the size of a microwave oven. Furniture, utensils, clothing, shoes, jewelry, phone cases, toys, eyeglasses, guns, prosthetics and more all have been made using 3D printers, and the potential seemingly knows no bounds. If an object can be interpreted using three-dimensional mapping software, it can be output using a 3D printer.
Matt Luther, business development manager at local 3D printing company ZVerse, says that the medical field is where some of the biggest growth of 3D printing is taking place. “We’re seeing some truly amazing things come from there that seem like science fiction,” he says. For instance, a broken leg might traditionally require a titanium rod to be surgically inserted to transfer load from the weakened bone. Over time, however, that rod will deteriorate. For better results, a webbed titanium rod has been produced using 3D printing technology. The body’s tissues are able to grow into the rod’s holes, effectively fusing them together and making the rod an actual part of the body, and stronger at that. It’s reminiscent of the fictitious adamantium that was bonded with Wolverine’s bones in the X-Men films to give him superhuman strength.
Other existing medical applications include printing human cells combined with a hydrogel to create living tissue, like an ear. “In its raw form, it looks like a blob of gel,” Matt says. “And then four months later, it looks like ear cartilage. Doctors can surgically attach it to a patient with no ear, and, after fixing it up using plastic surgery, it will grow and function the same way a normal ear does.”
Doctors and scientists at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., are partnering with the FBI to use facial recognition software and 3D printing to reconstruct the faces of soldiers injured by IEDs and landmines. “Where that’s trickling down to civilian life,” Matt says, “is traumatic car accidents, hip replacements, that type of thing. All of these will be repaired more and more with additive manufacturing techniques.”
Interest in the potential of additive manufacturing has led the federal government to partner with the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining to create the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. The institute’s focus is promoting the open exchange of information and research among U.S. companies and establishing a means of educating and training American workers in the technology. Partners include GE, Bayer, Lockheed Martin and 3D Systems Corporation, which is the world’s largest producer of 3D printing systems and is located just north of Columbia in Rock Hill.
3D Systems Corporation sells industrial and consumer grade 3D printers and printing software across the globe, and it can custom print parts on-demand for industrial and manufacturing clients. The company also has created a line of personal 3D printers, called the Cube, which sell for as little as $1,299, plus the cost of the material cartridges. Feasibly, each home could one day have its own 3D printer, and families could print anything they needed from it, using free open source designs and knowledge of the software.
Of course, printing is limited by the size of the machine and the materials that it uses. At around one foot square, the Cube is fairly small and can only output items that can fit on its stage. It is possible to piece together smaller parts to create a larger object, but the printer only outputs a plastic polymer. So while a plastic dining room table and chairs is certainly an option, a large wooden door is not – for now. As prices drop, printing materials expand and technology improves, expect to see more home 3D printers create more elaborate items.
ZVerse is bringing 3D printing to the consumer market for those without the cash or desire to purchase their own printers or without the know-how to operate the software. Founder and CEO John Carrington came up with the idea for the company after creating a model of a drawing his daughter did of an Easter egg. He had his team scan her picture, turn it into a 3D model using graphic design software, then print it out using an industrial 3D printer. Made of a composite powder, it feels like a textured ceramic.
“That first 3D egg is where it all started,” John says. “From there, we got my daughter’s school involved. Chris Angel, headmaster at Hammond School, saw the connection between art and science and understood how compelling this would be for his students. My daughter’s first grade classmates made drawings of their school mascot, Henry the Hawk, and we had them modeled, printed and presented to them. They thought it was magic.”
ZVerse’s first brand, Doodlesculpt, was launched from that experience and is being marketed directly to the end consumer. Because few people know how to use the design software required to convert an item from a drawing into something that the printer can use, Doodlesculpt takes that step out of the equation. “Parents can submit their children’s drawings to us, and we’ll do the conversion for them, print out the items and ship them,” John says.
Doodlesculpt also is being marketed as an educational tool. “We’ve found a value to educators with that platform,” John says. “We’re partnering with a national franchise of art instruction camps, called KidsArt, as well as other educators, to work 3D drawing plans into their curricula to teach kids about design, 3D printing, spatial reasoning and more. What we’ve seen, when kids first see their drawings in three dimensions, is a light turning on.”
ZVerse used the same technology and concept to create a line of three-dimensional artwork in relief, and it all began with a little USC football game in Tampa in January 2013.
“When I saw Jadeveon Clowney knock that guy back to another planet during the Outback Bowl,” says John, a USC alumni, “I saw the potential in being able to create a 3D product from that type of content.” So he tested his theory by printing a plaque-like sculpture from which an image of the hit pops out in 3D. While he can’t sell “The Hit” at this time because of strict NCAA licensing rules regarding current players, he was able to show it as an example of what ZVerse can do and hopes to have the opportunity to license it for sale after Clowney declares for the NFL.
“Since May, we have attracted the attention of the world’s largest sports marketing agency, which has led to amazing opportunities, including the first ever collegiate license for 3D printing and a distribution deal with Barnes & Noble, which operates bookstores at 600 colleges. We plan to have all the major NCAA licenses within the next few months, and that is just the start,” John says. He hopes to work out a license with content producers like the NFL, MLB and other professional leagues that will enable ZVerse to take a photo of an event that has just occurred and be producing and selling 3D images in as little as a week.
“The time from conception to production is dramatically reduced with this sort of manufacturing,” John says. “It also produces images with very fine detail.”
While the consumer novelty market is where the current hype surrounding 3D printing lies, the technology has limitless potential applications. Richland Library has added 3D printers to its Teen Room, which will hopefully spark youthful interest in the process, and with high schools, technical colleges and universities working to include additive manufacturing design and production into their curricula, the possibilities of what can be created with 3D printers is endless.