Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Mindboggling Manufacture

My brain is still buzzing with what I saw at the “Digifab ’13 Expo” put on jointly by the University of Southern Maine together with SME - the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. This old cerebrum was pried open and pushed into a different dimension.
A 3D printer at the conference making something

Only recently have I wrapped my mind around how my digital inkjet printer works. It’s late 20th-century technology and it still amazes me, how it whirs and cranks out two-dimensional images I’ve captured with my digital SLR - that’s “Single Lens Reflex” - mid-20th-century optical technology merged with late-20th-century digital technology. The conference, however, featured “printers” that produced objects in three dimensions. Maybe I’ll stop putting the word in quotes when I get used to 3D printing - when I’m no longer stuck contemplating the process in only two dimensions.
Listening, thinking . . .

First I ever heard of 3D printing was when DHS (Department of Homeland Security) raised a concern that someone might smuggle a non-metallic handgun, produced by a 3D printer, past metal detectors. “What the heck is a 3D printer?” I wondered. Well, I saw some in action at Digifab ’13 Conference. A spray nozzle moved precisely around an object that slowly took shape. It was much like an inkjet printer except the nozzle moved robotically in several directions instead of just back and forth, and sprayed a kind of plastic instead of ink. Displayed around on the tables were objects made by these printers including an adjustable wrench and a bicycle chain. The chain looked just like the one on my bicycle except it was plastic, and the printer hadn’t made each individual link separately. It made the whole thing fully assembled!
My mind was whirring as fast as the nozzles. How could it make attached links? By squirting another, dissolvable material between them, then removing it. How many other materials could be sprayed by those nozzles? About a hundred. Could metals be sprayed like that? Yes. There were no printers with that capability on display, but they did exist I was told.
Talking to vendors in the lobby

It was a typical conference with scheduled workshops in function rooms and vendors in the lobby. Workshops were in two tracks: manufacturing and education. Having taught thirty-six years, one would think I’d be attracted to the education workshops, but I wasn’t. Engineers and entrepreneurs in the manufacturing workshops were vastly more interesting. So were the people attending. So were their questions asked and answered. I had a press pass so I was free to wander around with my camera, but I found myself caught up in the technical discussions. Engineers have their own dialect and unfamiliar acronyms flew around, but I was able to understand the flow of ideas. They were extremely stimulating. People described how 3D printing was changing how they worked, how they planned, and how they imagined the future. It was heady stuff.
Everyone was focused

One presenter pulled up an image of a complicated-looking, jet-engine part made by General Electric on a 3D printer. He described how it couldn’t have been made as quickly, as inexpensively, or even as well, if GE were forced to design and build it with traditional technology. When I asked what it was made of, he said, “titanium.” He saw my eyebrows go up and said that, yes, GE has printers that squirt titanium. Others asked how, but no one was sure. Was it molten? Powdered? The technology was proprietary and GE wasn’t saying.
The GE part

The most incredible thing I learned that day came in the form of a comment by a guy I later learned was a 9th-grade dropout. He was talking about a 3D printer producing a functioning human liver! He sat a few rows behind me and I didn’t think he could be serious. I turned around and said, “What?”
“Yes,” he said, nodding in understanding of my incredulity. Others reacted as I did, but still others were nodding along with him.

Kidneys too,” one of them said.

“Making them out of what?” I asked.


“A 3D printer squirting cells?
The first guy continued nodding. We broke for lunch shortly after and I ate with him while he let me pick his brain. That’s where I learned that he got bored with school at fourteen. Then 3D printing captured his imagination and he went back to bolster his math.
Lassiter at the conference

This technology is being made available to schools all over the world through programs like The Fab Foundation, based at MIT and run by one of Digifab Conference’s keynote speakers, Sherry Lassiter. She encourages the installation of Fablabs in STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, Math) schools everywhere.
Hope I’m wrong, but, knowing what a bureaucratic behemoth public education has become, I’m concerned this technology won’t be integrated quickly enough to stimulate brilliant minds like that of my new lunch acquaintance.


Pete Mickelson said...

Our problem, Tom, is not that we need to worry about drop-outs at 9th grade, but rather that we need to accept that all kids are engineers, from the day they figure out how to roll over in their crib. Our job is to sustain that inventiveness through middle school and beyond, where they begin to wonder what they can do with their lives. Engineering is one of the most basic humanities.

Unknown said...

This is a great article. I think you captured the essence of the technology along with the excitement among the attendees for this technology. Thanks for attending the conference and thanks for writing the article.
Joe Rizzo
SME Downeast Chapter 46

Anonymous said...

Oooo look. The perfect thing to put in the corner so the CNC robots can replace the parts of the CNC manufacturing robots that make the replacement modules for our hectic daily lives.
But how will a patented (with copy rights) CAD/CAM kidney compare in price to Asian or Indian black-market one, in bitcoin?