I was first exposed to additive manufacturing through a MakerBot 3D printer. Our company was starting to make investments in the world of 3D printing, and we had a MakerBot in the office. It was pretty cool, printing little 3D figures like cars, animals, gears etc.
When my middle schooler had his science fair last year, I offered to bring the MakerBot to the fair, and set up a station to show it in action. Working with an intern in the office, we printed a Chinese dragon (the school’s mascot was a dragon) the day before to display at the station. That whole print took 21 hours to complete. We also displayed some other 3D printed items that the intern had done.
Students and adults alike were fascinated by the printer. Many had never seen one … we managed to print a few tops for everyone to check out, just so they could see the printer in action. Mind you … it took just over an hour to print a top (we had a couple of false starts and restarts), so we couldn’t get many made in the 2 plus hours we were there.
The MakerBot is a personal 3D printer, and it takes some time to make prints, and depending on the material used, the end products can be fairly robust. Later that year, the FIRST Robotics team that I mentor used a 3D printer to print some parts for their robot. These weren’t parts that underwent a lot of stress and tension though, so we felt pretty safe. When I start thinking about the feasibility of 3D printing on a larger scale, the things that immediately come to mind are:
Time – how long it takes to print what you need
Mass production -how efficiently and repeatable the process is (remember the restarts for the MakerBot?)
Strength – can these parts match up to the tensile forces and stresses that parts sometimes have to undergo?
As I think about the automotive industry, I wonder how ready it is for the whole world of additive manufacturing. Enter Local Motors, which created a drivable, fully 3D printed car!! About 75% of the car was 3D printed, and to me, that was pretty amazing. I don’t think it is possible to have a whole car 3D printed, given some of the mechanical components needed, but I do believe 3D printing has its place in the automotive landscape.
image courtesy of: Local Motors
The interior of vehicles, and modifications of interior parts of a car are where I can see 3D printing having an impact. Designers may even start designing accessories for the car that can be 3D printed. A holder for your cellphone, so it can be placed conveniently and securely so you can glance at it if you need to for directions, etc. Car companies can provide the designs, so you can 3D print these accessories in whatever color and material you want, depending on your taste. If you have a good 3D printer, I can see gear knobs and switches being 3D printed to add some customization to your vehicle as well.
I don’t know when we will see mass-produced parts in the actual manufacture of vehicles. Right now, I think the cost outweighs the ROI. Of course, as I’m writing this, I just read that Toshiba is coming out with a metal 3D printer that is 10x faster, and uses a different technology, than its competitors. So I guess time will tell! It certainly is an interesting field that seems to be gaining a lot of momentum. What are your thoughts?