Washington is in love with 3D printing

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

There's a transformative, disruptive technology sweeping manufacturing these days. And Washington is right in the thick of it. 

Call it 3D printing. Call it additive manufacturing. Whatever the term, the underlying technology is giving companies here the ability to design, produce, test and tweak prototypes and tooling rapidly, and to repeat the process quickly, dramatically reducing the time it takes to get to market and fueling a new wave of innovation.

Best of all, the technology isn’t the exclusive property of big companies or research labs. Using machines that are in some cases about the size of a dorm-room refrigerator and whose prices have already tumbled thousands of dollars, Washington companies are making 3D printing as routine a part of their operations as computer-numerical-control machining.

Some recent news items illustrate how this worldwide phenomenon is manifesting itself in Washington:

• Using a 3D printer, the Lamborghini Lab at the University of Washington worked with Automobili Lamborghini to build a 1/6-scale prototype of the Aventador sports car’s body and chassis in just 20 days at a cost of about $3,000, compared to the 120 days and $40,000 such a project would have taken in the past.

• Planetary Resources, the Bellevue-based company developing satellites for asteroid mining, announced that 3D Systems of South Carolina has become an investor and will partner with it on using the technology to develop spacecraft components.

• Microsoft announced at a recent conference that it is integrating 3D printing into Windows 8.1 so that 3D printers can be hooked up to computers and receive digital files as seamlessly as with conventional paper-and-ink printers.

• Such is the widespread interest in the technology that Amazon.com now has, under its industrial and scientific equipment department, a subheading for additive manufacturing products. Also, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s investment company was an investor in MakerBot, recently acquired by Stratasys, the dominant company in 3D printing machines.

• The Kauffman Foundation, Maker Education Initiative and Inventables recently sponsored a global competition seeking a way to convert less expensive plastic resin pellets into filament for low-cost desktop 3D printers. The winner of the $40,000 prize was Hugh Lyman, an 83-year-old inventor and former business owner in Enumclaw.

• OpenBeam USA, an Edmonds-based developer of 3D printing machine kits, recently completed its second round of fundraising via Kickstarter for 3D printers designed not just for inventors and hobbyists but also for developers to build other machines on. The company was seeking $60,000. It raised more than $120,000.

• Researchers at Washington State University are working with Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond on using 3D printing to make metal and ceramic components for a miniature research satellite. Those whose familiarity with 3D printing might be limited to news stories or a demonstration of a machine quietly turning out a simple plastic toy or a salt shaker with screw cap might be excused for believing this is a new technology. It isn’t. But even those who have been intensively involved with additive manufacturing for years marvel at the veritable explosion of interest in, applications for and use of the technology.

“We probably are an early adopter by comparison,” says Steve Kidd, president of Algona-based CimTech, which sells 3D printing systems. “The wave we’re seeing right now, the inquiries we’re getting, is quite wild. By comparison to even when we started, the magnitude is much greater than we’ve ever seen.”

“Not only is it evolving very quickly, the media attention has gone up astronomically,” adds Frank Cox, a materials science instructor at Edmonds Community College. “I wish three years ago we had done a Google search—put in ‘3D’ or ‘additive’—to see how many hits you’d get because now it’s just incredible. Every day, you see something that’s new.”

The boom has been fueled by many subtrends, the most significant being that the machines are getting better even as they’re getting less expensive. Professional level printers start at about $10,000, Kidd notes, midrange printers cost $25,000 to $35,000, and large production machines sell for more than $100,000.

“A couple of years ago, the machines we now sell for $34,000 were probably double that,” he says. “The technology’s come down [in price]. The technology’s become infinitely better, much more stable, more predictable. As a result of that, we’ve seen a great explosion in the industry of what individuals are using.”

As well, the range of materials that can be used to make stuff on the machines has expanded far beyond basic plastics.

One other factor, according to Terence Tam of OpenBeam USA, is that some of the patents that kept the technology locked up have expired in recent years. The result: 3D printing has moved from the curiosity stage or being an exotic tool reserved only for those companies with the biggest capital budgets. Big manufacturers are using them, but so are medium and small companies, not to mention tabletop hobbyists, home arts-and-crafts entrepreneurs and garage tinkerers.

“It’s not only an emerging technology, it’s an enabling technology,” says Cox. “It helps folks in the manufacturing arena make their time to market quicker. It makes something stronger, faster, better.”

One of the drivers of the 3D printing boom is that, while it seems magical to build something as complex as a bicycle chain or interlocking gears in one cycle with no separate machining or assembly required, at its most basic, the technology is easy to understand.

The more formal name for 3D printing, additive manufacturing, derives from the contrast to traditional machining approaches of cutting away a piece of metal or wood to get the desired shape—subtractive manufacturing, if you will.

A 3D printer builds from the ground up, layering hair-thin slices of plastic or metal powder (fused with a heat source such as a laser) into the desired shape. CAD files can be sent directly to the printer, which, after setup, can be left to run on its own, printing parts in a matter of hours.

“Nobody has to babysit the machine. It’s literally lights out,” says Nathan Czech with Ecolite Manufacturing, a Spokane maker of lighting fixtures. In fact, it’s not uncommon for companies to run their 3D printers overnight, with the desired part or component ready when the next workday starts. Czech says Ecolite has put its 3D printer to work over the weekend. “It’s kind of fun to watch the machine the first few times,” he admits. “It’s pretty cool.” But after awhile, the magic becomes routine.

The first and most obvious application, in manufacturing at least, was in rapid prototyping and modeling. Instead of machining a proposed part, component or piece, a company can print it out, see if it is what’s desired, make adjustments and try again. And with more companies owning their own machines, they no longer have to send designs out for prototype production by a third-party service provider, competing for time with other manufacturers who want their designs tested.

“3D printing is now an integral part of our new product development process,” says Gary Hansen, vice president of engineering at Red Dot, a Tukwila maker of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems for trucks and heavy equipment.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in Richland uses a 3D printer for trying out designs for a new device. One area of research in which the technology is being employed: storage tanks for materials like hydrogen fuel.

But manufacturers also have discovered that 3D printing is a great way to make the tooling needed to produce other parts. Ecolite’s architectural lighting fi xtures often involve unusual and complex shapes in the reflectors. Czech says the company uses its 3D printer for crafting the tools needed to form thin aluminum into parabolic curves; if the first one doesn’t work, it’s relatively easy to tweak the design and print out another iteration. “The old way,” he says, “it might take two to four weeks to design a tool and send it out to a shop to machine a tool.” Once it gets a design it likes, Ecolite can have a tool made of metal for high-volume production, or simply use the plastic version.

Kidd says 3D printing enables manufacturers of big stuff like airplane components to turn out lightweight tools that don’t require a forklift to move; if a firm is likely to make only 50 parts a year off that form, it doesn’t have to go to the expense of having a metal-forming tool made. Boeing, he notes, also uses 3D printing to design and produce highly specialized tools like clamps.

The growth in the use of carbon fiber and other composite materials will also mean growth in 3D printing, Kidd says, since materials have been developed for use in 3D printers that can withstand the temperatures of autoclaves used to cure parts.

The next step is to use 3D printers for producing parts and products themselves, rather than the models or tooling. That’s already being done in the arts-and-crafts sector, where entrepreneurs use the newly aff ordable home 3D printers for jewelry and similar goods. Czech is building a 3D printer kit at home for personal projects and gadgets. “The technology is going to open it up to where almost anyone can make their own prototypes,” he remarks. Kidd says avionics companies are using 3D printing to make, rather than machine, custom control boxes.

For 3D printing to achieve much headway into producing more than limited-run, highly customized items, equipment makers will need to deal with the issue of speed. “It’s not a fast process,” Kidd notes. “Everyone wants these machines to run faster.”

But Kidd believes that improvement will come, just as refi nements have driven down the cost of machines and accelerated their applications. The machines will be able to use more innovative materials, such as nonstatic plastics. They can be married to scanners to create digital files rapidly for medical applications such as prosthetics. (Kidd won a Washington Manufacturing Award from Seattle Business magazine for coming up with a way to create wound-healing masks for facial burn victims, avoiding the lengthy and painful process of molding a mask to hold skin grafts in place.)

Says Cox, “There are applications for this stuff no one’s even dreamed of yet. The original equipment manufacturers hire applications engineers; their job is to stay creative and figure out diff erent ways to use the technology.”

Cox has a hand in producing the people who will drive the next generation of 3D printing innovation. Edmonds Community College is one of two educational institutions developing curriculum standards for additive-manufacturing technician training. Additive manufacturing is a great motivator for getting students interested in manufacturing and core competencies such as math and computer-aided design. When students see an immediate result of their work being made in a 3D printer, “You get people turned on to this stuff ,” Cox says.

Thus, while 3D printing has been around a while and its acceptance is now well established, the technology may still be in its formative years, with the extent of its disruptive influence still to be fully appreciated.

“It’s going to significantly change manufacturing,” Czech asserts. “I think it’s going to go so much further.”

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