Initial Insights from Inside 3DPrinting

Had a great time at the Inside 3DPrinting show in San Diego last week.  The booth was busy, with a lot of interesting companies and inventors with exciting project ideas paying us a visit.  Also, some great fellow panelists and questions from the audience about the present and future metal of 3D printing.

We were sufficiently swamped that I didn’t come close to paying a visit to all of the other exhibitors, so to satiate your appetite for a full update, here’s a great summary of the event written by Sarah Goehrke of Inside 3DPrint.com.  Sarah and I had a nice talk about the new metal processes we announced at the show and that comes through a bit in their recap.

Cullen_R2.jpg_smallLast but not least, as the show was winding down, I stepped away from the booth and bumped into a new friend meandering down the hallway…he just happened to be going rogue from the Robotics show that was happening alongside Inside 3DP.  Pretty awesome…

3Diligent Announces Addition of New 3D Printing Processes for Metal Parts; Now Offers Broadest Range of Popular Metal Rapid Manufacturing Options

Company CEO to Speak on Future of Metal Additive Manufacturing at Inside 3D Printing San Diego

 

San Diego, Calif. – Dec. 14, 20163Diligent, the 3D Printing Partner for Every Business, announced today it has expanded its metal rapid manufacturing technologies to provide the most comprehensive range of 3D printing options to create metal parts anywhere.

The company has announced new capabilities which will enable 3Diligent to offer metal plating of resin and plastic parts in addition to metal casting of wax-printed parts.  These offerings complement the company’s other metal printing and machining options.

The metal 3D printing market is booming – as evidenced by industrial giant GE’s purchase of printer manufacturers Arcam and Concept Laser GmbH. Furthermore, market researcher IDTechEx reported metal 3D printer sales grew by 48 percent in 2015 and material sales grew at 32 percent.

“The size of the metal 3D printing market is growing and so are the number of different printing technologies available.  At 3Diligent, we’re committed to understanding the tradeoffs between these technologies to advise and provide our customers a single, seamless rapid manufacturing solution.  That’s why we’re pleased to add wax-to-metal and metal plating options to our already market leading breadth of capabilities,” said Cullen Hilkene, CEO of 3Diligent.

Metal plating of 3D-printed parts allows designers to achieve many of the benefits of metal printing, without the price tag. Through metal plating, parts are given a metallic appearance and additional durability.

Wax print to cast metal technology provides customers a means to access metals that aren’t readily printed any other way.  This process can be utilized for casting of precious metals or industrial alloys that aren’t readily offered in the powder form required for other types of metal 3D printing.

These processes are added to 3Diligent’s already impressive range of printing capabilities, which include Laser Melting (a.k.a. DMLS), Electron Beam Melting (EBM), and Binder Jetting with Metal Infiltration (BJMI).  The company also offers 3-, 4-, and 5-axis CNC Machining.  Information regarding these previously offered processes are already listed on the company’s website and information about the new processes will be posted in the coming weeks.

Hilkene will speak today (December 14) at 2:20 pm at the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo, taking place in San Diego, Calif., on a panel entitled “The Future of Metal AM: Delivering on the Promise.” Hilkene will discuss the current state of metal additive manufacturing, the technological developments on the horizon, the industries that are leading its adoption and some of the challenges with using this technology.

The company will also have a booth (#320) at the event, where it will show off some samples of parts printed by this range of metal printing processes.

For more information about 3Diligent’s 3D metal printing and other material and process options, visit http://www.3diligent.com/.

About 3Diligent

The 3D Printing Partner for Every Business, 3Diligent launched in 2014 as a way to connect clients deterred by the cost of 3D printer ownership with carefully vetted vendors to enable rapid, high quality additive manufacturing at competitive prices. 3Diligent uses data science to connect customer requests for quotes with the right set of vendors to compete for the work, then facilitates the transaction, guaranteeing parts arrive on time and to spec. This allows customers to streamline their supplier base and also allows service providers to get more out of their capital investments. For more information, visit http://www.3Diligent.com/.

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Contact:

Amber Hack
Senior Account Executive
The David James Agency
805-494-9508
amber@davidjamesagency.com

3D Printing in Westworld: Science Fiction or Science Fact?

If you’re like me, you loved this season of Westworld.  It was awesome for many reasons – complex psychological drama, amazing scenery, compelling story lines, and some really cool science fiction underpinning it all.

For those who didn’t catch the season, but may be reading because of the 3D printing topic or the buzz surrounding Sunday’s season finale, the setting of the show is a Wild West theme park filled with robotic “hosts” that have been custom built to interact with park guests.

Central to the premise of the show – from the very opening credits – has been the concept that these hosts are so realistic that they might as well be human.  And 3D printing is the driving force for that that realism.  In striking fashion, the opener shows a 3D printer extruding material to put the finishing touches on a piano, a horse’s knee, and a gun, as well as the eye and musculoskeletal system of a host.  To cap off the intro, the printed host is being gradually lowered into a vat of material as a final step to put a smooth coat over the underlying bone and muscle.

All of this feels pretty science fiction-ey.  But is it?  Is there a foundation of science fact in this science fiction?  And if so, how far away from reality is the 3D printing in the show?

This article will explore some of the key 3D printing capabilities displayed in Westworld, discuss the state of science as it relates to these capabilities, and give you a ballpark sense of how far we are from 3D printing on par with what you’re seeing in the show.

To level set and to avoid spoilers, I’ll stick just to what we see in the opening credits.  So give this a quick watch…

Extrusion and Vat Photopolymerization

On the most basic level, are there 3D printers that behave like the processes in the opener – either extruding material from a nozzle or creating solid parts from liquid baths?  Well, for the uninitiated in the 3D printing, the answer is an absolute yes.  Extrusion – gradually depositing melted material from a nozzle – is one of the fundamental printing technologies, first brought to the market by Stratasys.  When their extrusion patents for “Fused Deposition Modeling” (FDM) expired a few years back, we saw many companies roll out new “Fused Filament Fabrication” (FFF) printers leveraging the extrusion technique.

Creating smooth parts from a bath of resin is actually reminiscent of stereolithography,  the original 3D Printing process.  With stereolithography, a platform gradually descends into a bath of light-sensitive liquid resin.  As that’s happening, one layer at a time of the resin is selectively cured by UV light focused on the platform to create a solid part.  Like FDM, the original stereolithography patents expired a few years back, giving rise to a whole family of “vat photopolymerization” machines.  Given that these sorts of printers tend to be a good bit messier than extrusion printers, they haven’t caught on as much with hobbyists.  But they are found all the time in professional and industrial R&D labs and at 3D printing service providers.

Timeline: It’s already here.

Multiaxis printing

One of the cool aspects of the opening was a robotic arm that extrudes the material at different angles.  Does this exist?  Yes, although not as unequivocally as in the question above.  A number of companies have developed early models of robotic arms that extrude material.  In fact, a Dutch artist even developed a way to extrude material in the gravity defying fashion shown in the opener.

Also, while it’s outside the scope of what we’ve seen in Westworld, we’re starting to see multiaxis 3D printing in metal powder happening as well.  Certain “hybrid” systems which combine Directed Energy Deposition 3D printing and CNC machining can move the build platform along multiple axes, achieving something not quite like the Westworld opener, but still an indication of things to come in metal.

Timeline: Multiaxis printing is in the market today, although commercialization is relatively limited at this time.

Bio Inks

While the skin and internal organs of these 3D printed hosts aren’t addressed overtly, it stands to reason that their skin perfectly mimics real skin and they have some kind vascular system to allow for blood (or blood equivalent) to circulate through their bodies.  Do such systems exist?  Not fully, but early concepts of them are being developed in campus environments today.

The printing of bio inks is an area of intense research at the moment.  Bio inks are water-based solutions that can carry living cells and be deposited by pneumatic extrusion printers.  This bio-printing extrusion process is most commonly known for printing tissue assays to accelerate the testing of new drugs.  However, this printing has been successfully utilized on campus to print skin tissue for burn victims.  And while not directly applicable to Westworld, other applications include bio printing onto biocompatible graft implants or printing bio inks directly onto fractured bone to foster bone growth.

Printing vascular systems – the network of veins, arteries, and capillaries that transport blood across the body – is currently another key area of research.  Within the context of Westworld, it’s perhaps possible that the hosts could have plastic vascular networks, and those are currently printed today to serve as surgical guides – basically practice tools for doctors before they go into surgery.

 

polyjet printed organs, polyjet surgical guide
Figure 1. Example of a 3D Printed surgical guide. Two cancerous bodies are clearly visible in this life-sized print of a liver

But assuming the hosts have real vascular systems, true bio printing is required, and vascular systems are difficult to print because they are soft tissue.  As a result, vascular systems that would be biocompatible are prone to collapsing under their own weight.  Research is being done in printing vascular structures by extruding the material for the vascular system into something that looks like a block of jello, which can in turn be dissolved away once the system is created.

Timeline: The building blocks of vascular systems are still in the research phase.  It’s safe to assume that we’re at least 10 years away from the sort of integrated bio tissue printing implied by Westworld.

Printed Circuitry

We never explicitly see printing of internal circuitry in the show.  However, it stands to reason that if the hosts don’t have a neural network like humans, they do have some kind of built-in circuitry or other electrical conductivity.

So is printing of circuitry happening?  The answer, again, is yes, although it’s also in the early stages of commercialization.  A number of the same labs that are exploring bio ink applications have also spearheaded work in conductive inks, which utilize a similar method of deposition.  These inks are commonly silver-based and have allowed for integrated circuitry to be built into things like drones and cell phones.  Timeline: Conductive inks are actively printed in the market now for certain applications, especially antennas.  We’re probably looking at 5 years or so before functioning circuitry across a full host body would be achievable.

All-In-One Printing

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the 3D printers featured in Westworld is that they seem to have all-in-one capability – the same printer extrudes a white material to create piano strings, ligaments, bones, and revolvers.  Is that really happening?

That’s where there’s a pretty meaningful disconnect.  Currently, the closest we have to single machines capable of producing parts with multiple materials work just in resin, or just in metal.  The Stratasys J750 is probably the most prominent multi-material printer, and it works across a spectrum of resins that certainly don’t include metal or ligament.  Gradient alloys have been achieved in metal printing, but that’s largely a function of sieving in different materials at various times in the printing process.  Additionally, there are some exciting things being done with respect to 4D Printing, which involves printing bespoke materials that change shape based on different environmental conditions.

Still, none of these technologies are rapidly approaching the all-in-one capability of the printer we see in Westworld’s opening credits.  If we are to assume this printer can really do it all, it would appear to be making changes at a molecular level.  That would seem to be a long ways from where 3D printing technologies currently sit.  And if such a printer were possible, would it make sense to bundle all its functionality into a single printer rather than just use different 3D Printing tools?

Timeline: At least 15 years, if it were to ever make commercial sense.

So are we a decade from Westworld becoming a reality?

Many of the printing processes evoked by Westworld have a strong foundation already established by technologies currently in the market or on campus.  So anyone watching Westworld should know there’s a healthy bit of science fact mixed in with the science fiction.  It stands to reason that a good deal of the functional elements presented in Westworld can be achieved in the next 5-15 years.

At 3Diligent, we doubt that an extrusion printer that transitions seamlessly from printing bioinks, plastic, ligament, and metal is going to arrive in the next couple decades, if ever.  The ways these sorts of materials are printed today are wildly different.  To imagine all of it converging into a single printer feels a bit more like alchemy than the chemistry and physics of a commercial printer.

With that said, who says you need to do all the printing with a single mind-blowing printer and a vat of resin?  With continued advancement on the foundations already established by printers in the market and in academic environments, Westworld’s vision for 3D Printed everything may not be so far away as you might think.

 

Cullen Hilkene is CEO of 3Diligent, “the 3D Printing Partner for Every Business,” an online rapid manufacturing service that supports designers, R&D engineers, and procurement officials across a multitude of industries.  He is an alumnus of Princeton University, the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Deloitte Strategy and Operations Consulting.  

Readers interested in printing with the technologies detailed in this post should email 3Diligent or sign up for a free account.  

Originally published December 6, 2016