A Primer on 3D Printing

Although 3D printing has been around for a number of decades, the quality has increased dramatically in recent years and the prices are just beginning to drop, making it much more affordable for small and medium businesses.  And if you really want to explore 3D printing, they are even getting cheap enough for consumers to own.

The reality is 3D printing is a very cost-effective way to have an in-house rapid prototyping capability.  For a relatively modest investment, design engineers can use a 3D printer to catch design flaws earlier in the process lowering costs and shortening design cycles.

What is 3D Printing?

3D printing involves having the computer sending the coordinates for a 3D object to an output device (a 3D Printer) that employs the same ink-jet printer principle that is used to print on paper.  However, in this case the ‘printer’ deposits successive layers of material to build up a full-scale 3D model.   The material used can be powder, plastics, resins or even metals. 

In the case of powder, the printer is actually delivering ultra-thin layers of powder onto a surface, one on top of another, until it produces a 3D model.  With each successive run of the ‘printer head’, the powder that is deposited is then given a spray of a binding liquid that' helps to harden the powder and help form a solid object. 

The end-result of this process might be a model which designers can use to verify a product’s design qualities before full-scale manufacturing begins, or it might be an end-use specialty product ranging from a component in a complex aircraft engine to a consumer medical  or dental implant.

The big benefits of 3D printing is it’s low cost and speed.  The printers can generally produce models in as little as one-tenth the time it takes other types of machines.  3-D Printer-produced models are throwaway models that allow you to see things you would not be able to see as well on a computer with a CAD system.  The beauty of this approach is people can hold the proposed design, study it, and get a good feel for its shape.

Video Introduction to 3D-Printing

The video below (just under 4 minutes) is a promotional video, but it really is one of the best videos I’ve seen that can help you understand what 3D printing is and how it could be used in an office environment.  The video is from the Z Corporation and it promotes the company’s ZPrinter 450.  While Z Corporation products are out of the price range for most individual users, they represent amazing technology that is commercially available to anyone.

It is doubtful that this new generation of 3D printers can replace traditional manufacturing methods such as injection molding, machined or milled parts and manufacturing line assembly.  However I do believe that small and medium specialty manufactures should consider implementing 3D printing processes for individual steps or subsystems in a traditional line manufacturing process.  It is very possible that these new low cost printers would help reduce overall manufacturing costs.

For More Information

Wikipedia has a nice article on 3D printing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_printing).  And the site Fab@Home has lots of good information.  For those of you wanting to learn more about products and services out on the market, here are a few vendor sites to visit

  • Desktop Factory  Makes a very small and affordable printers that truly fit on top of a desk.
  • 3D Systems   Provides mid-range solutions that employ a technology that film transfers photopolymer to build 3-D objects
  • Z Corp  Is widely thought of as providing top of the line printers for an office environment

AIAA: Top Ten Emerging Aerospace Technologies

imageLast month, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) released a list of top emerging aerospace technologies.  The AIAA hopes to make this an annual list. 

Here is the list of ten

  1. 'Greener' aviation technologies – including emission reduction and noise reduction technologies as used in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)'s Continuous Low Emissions, Energy and Noise (CLEEN) program, and the European Environmentally Friendly Engine (EFE) program and Clean Sky Joint Technology Initiative.   For more see this AIAA press release.
  2. Alternative fuels – including biofuels, as promoted by the FAA's Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI), and the recent FAA grant to the X Prize Foundation to spur development of renewable aviation fuels and technologies.  For more see this AIAA press release.
  3. High speed flight technologies – such as supersonic and hypersonic aerodynamics, sonic boom reduction technology, and thermal management aids.   For more reading, check out Supersonic travel may return
  4. Efficient propulsion technologies – including open rotors and geared turbofans, such as those used in the European DREAM (valiDation Radical Engine Architecture systems) program.
  5. Active flow technologies – such as plasma actuators.
  6. Advanced materials – such as nanotechnology and composites.
  7. Active structures – such as shape memory alloys, morphing, and flapping.
  8. Health management – such as monitoring, prognostics, and self-healing.
  9. Remote sensing technologies – including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and satellites such as those used in NASA's Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) program.
  10. Advanced space propulsion technologies – including plasma-based propulsion such as the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, and solar sail technologies.

You can access a pdf of the AIAA announcement here AIAA Names Top Ten Emerging Aerospace Technologies of 2009:  Download PDF

PEW Internet: The Future of the Internet III

A couple of weeks ago,  Pew/Internet and American Life Project published its Future of the Internet III report, which is a list of technology predictions.  A PDF of the report can be downloaded here http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_FutureInternet3.pdf

This is the third canvassing of Internet specialists and analysts by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. 

Technology stakeholders and critics were asked in an online survey to assess scenarios about the future social, political, and economic impact of the Internet.  Some 578 leading Internet activists, builders, and commentators responded in this survey to scenarios about the effect of the Internet on social, political, and economic life in the year 2020.   An additional 618 stakeholders also participated in the study, for a total of 1,196 participants who shared their views.

Key findings:

  • The mobile device will be the primary connection tool to the Internet for most people in the world in 2020.
  • The transparency of people and organizations will increase, but that will not necessarily yield more personal integrity, social tolerance, or forgiveness.
  • Voice recognition and touch user-interfaces with the Internet will be more prevalent and accepted by 2020.
  • Those working to enforce intellectual property law and copyright protection will remain in a continuing arms race, with the crackers who will find ways to copy and share content without payment.
  • The divisions between personal time and work time and between physical and virtual reality will be further erased for everyone who is connected, and the results will be mixed in their impact on basic social relations.
  • Next-generation engineering of the network to improve the current Internet architecture is more likely than an effort to rebuild the architecture from scratch.

Nothing really too earth-shattering based on what we know and discuss today.  More predictions about the evolution of mobile communications can be found here, and also make sure to take a look at predictions related to developments in the Internet user interface.   Much more information can be found by going to the PEW / INTERNET website: The Future of the Internet III