3-D vision

3-D printing technology has been around for decades, and now more than ever companies see the benefits of printing something from, really, nothing.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Describing the world of 3-D printing, one can almost hear the deep voice of Rod Serling, the late Twilight Zone creator and host, setting up a futuristic yarn: “Imagine, if you will, a world where homes, bridges, and even cars can be created by computers. Where anatomy, human organs, and stem cells can be manufactured under the precise nozzle of a printer …”

Imagine no more.

In July, a news article on the website 3ders.org told the story of a 54-year-old Chinese woman who was diagnosed last year with a tumor in her sternum. She is recuperating after surgeons at the TangDu Hospital in Xi’an implanted a 3-D-printed titanium alloy sternum in her chest. The sternum was printed by the Xi’an-based State Key Laboratory of Solidification Processing, a division of the School of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern Polytechnical University.

In Miami, surgeons have saved the lives of at least three young children born with little hope of survival due to tracheo-bronchomalacia, an incurable windpipe disorder that affects about one in 2,000 children worldwide. The children received 3-D-printed, personalized airway splints, according to research published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, but physicians first had to apply for special medical exemptions in order to perform the surgeries because the devices have yet to be approved by U.S. regulators. All three children are thriving, and a clinical trial involving 30 children is scheduled to begin soon.

Nothing new

3-D printing technology has been around a long time. Decades, in fact. Yet the possibilities are endless, and its growing impact on workplace efficiencies and manufacturing have only recently begun to skyrocket. Objects can be printed now from hundreds of different “build” materials — including plastic, metal, nylon, rubber, concrete, stem cells, and even moon dust.

In 2013, President Obama said in his State of the Union address that 3-D printing technology has “the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”  That same year, Goldman Sachs named 3-D printing to a list of eight industries that would “creatively destroy how we do business.”

And Credit Suisse concluded that four markets alone — aerospace, automotive, health care, and consumer — would “sustain 20% to 30% annual revenue growth, bolstered by the technology’s transition from prototyping to end-use parts and expansion into metals.” But the most prolific growth, Credit Suisse predicted, would come from the consumer market. Even now, 90% of hearing aids are 3-D printed.

In headlines around the world, descriptions of 3-D printing technology have ranged from “game-changer,” to a “technology that could have the biggest impact on manufacturing since offshoring.”

Indeed, it may be all of that, since 3-D objects are built from data files. But has the technology made an impact locally, and is it here to stay?

A quick history

Designed initially for rapid prototyping, 3-D printing — or stereolithography in its earliest form — was introduced by inventor Charles Hull in the early 1980s.

In simple terms, the technology, more properly known as additive manufacturing, builds an object from a computer image rather than creating one from a mold (subtractive manufacturing). Layer by layer, it transforms the on-screen design into a 3-D object one can see, touch, and feel by building it up.

Several different 3-D technologies have been developed over the years. Among them, stereolithography uses a laser to cure a resin that builds the objects; fused-deposition modeling (FDM) deposits melted plastic in layers until a model is filled; and selective laser sintering (SLS) uses powdered metal that is sintered (hardened) by lasers to create a solid piece. As each layer is sintered to the other, the item drops down and the next layer is applied to the top.

At Midwest Prototyping, an employee removes devices that hold six GoPro cameras from the nylon powder they were created from. (Bill Fritsch)

Midwest Prototyping in Blue Mounds actually offers five different 3-D printing technologies. Rather than using ink, 3-D printers use any number of build materials. “Now, you can print with plastics and metals,” notes Steve Grundahl, founder and president. “In experimental bioprinting, living cells are being used to print tissue and hopefully, someday, organs. There’s no limit to what you can print.”

The technology was developed as a way to facilitate faster prototyping and product development, Grundahl explains, “but over time, people have discovered that because these machines are capable of making such complex geometries, you can manufacture things that you couldn’t with traditional technologies like injection molding or thermo forming.” It’s an important shift in the industry, he notes. 3-D printing often replaces the need for mold making and reduces tooling costs. “We’re starting to manufacture high-complexity, low-volume items,” he says.

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Promising prosthetics

Most people are familiar with the plastic models of the human heart often found in doctors’ offices. Those replicas were likely cast from a master mold design that pumps out a 3-D version of an ideal, healthy heart.

The key word is ideal.

“What you can do now, with 3-D printing, is see your heart, and what’s good or bad about it,” Grundahl explains. It is an especially important tool in cases of prenatal or congenital defects because physicians can create an exact replica of a patient’s heart to study prior to surgery. The heart can also be printed in sections for a more complete look inside.

Grundahl holds up a version of a plastic hip socket his company created from a patient’s MRI. Just like the heart, technology now makes it possible to replicate a patient’s hip socket or knee joint using 3-D printing, and design a perfectly customized replacement before the patient is ever wheeled into surgery.

It’s all possible because of DICOM (Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine) software, a standard output of CT or MRI scans. Data from those scans can be converted to a computerized image for printing. “There’s tremendous potential in the prosthetics industry,” Grundahl notes. “Frankly, that area’s been moving more slowly than I would have predicted.”

Prototypes hot off the 3-D printer at Midwest Prototyping. (Bill Fritsch)

For years, 3-D printing has been used mostly in the industrial world, where widgets and gadgets and tools, and fixtures for making widgets and gadgets and tools, can be created. The technology allows companies to print prototype after prototype until a perfect solution is achieved. But slow printing speeds make it better suited for highly complex, low-volume applications.

“The real advantage for the manufacturer is that they don’t spend any money on tooling,” Grundahl explains. “When you can make a part without ever spending money on a mold, you can prove out your business case, refine your design, and be a lot more flexible in manufacturing.”

It’s an entirely different mindset from traditional manufacturing, where thousands of dollars can be spent up front and amortized over many years in the hope that a product’s run will outlast the tooling costs and therefore turn a profit.

With 3-D printing, a company might pay more to produce a part, he says, but doesn’t invest a lot of capital upfront. “There’s always a crossover point where the volume makes the difference. If you’re going to make 500,000 of something, it does not make sense to 3-D print. But if you’re going to make 100 to 500 a year… It’s all about the niche products.”

For entrepreneurs, the technology can be particularly useful.  “3-D printing really enables some business models that didn’t exist five or 10 years ago.”

Items with moving parts can now be printed as a single piece, eliminating what Grundahl says are “details engineers typically would fuss over. Now you just design for the optimum because the machines don’t care about the complexities.”

Growth explosion

So while 3-D printing is nothing new, there’s been a growth explosion over the last few years. Why?

“Not because of new technology,” contends Dave Vaughan, a mechanical engineer and 3-D printing enthusiast from Isthmus Engineering & Manufacturing. Rather, he says, a patent ran out.

Stratasys Ltd., one of the largest 3-D manufacturers in the industry, invented and patented fused-deposition modeling (FDM) in the early 1990s. In 2012, its patent ran out, and the floodgates opened.

“Dozens, if not hundreds of companies immediately had access to this basic technology and began copying it willy-nilly,” Vaughan says. The explosion in availability generated media attention, and worldwide, the price of 3-D printers began to fall.

“When I got hired at [a former employer], they had purchased a printer for about $250,000,” Vaughan says. “We replaced it with one that cost between $160,000 and $180,000. At Isthmus, we bought one for only about $55,000.” He purchased his own home version for “between $1,600 and $1,800.”

Prior to 3-D printing, Vaughan says it was rare to be able to work with a prototype that one could see, touch, and feel. “Now, instead of one or two really expensive, slow prototypes, you can have dozens. We’ll print a bunch of iterations and try them out. We can print 50 things in a week instead of over the course of three years, or even giving up completely.”

The technology has shortened design time and improved the company’s prototypes overall. “We don’t make mistakes with expensive parts,” he adds.

Isthmus Engineering is a custom design shop. Its 3-D printer runs two to three times a week and creates items small enough to fit into a 6-inch by 8-inch by 5-inch production space. It’s not inexpensive to run the machines, but the tradeoff, Vaughan says, is worth it. “One day, we’ll print metal. Maybe the price will come down or our needs will increase so we can directly print parts out of nickel titanium or something, right in the shop. I believe I will see that in my lifetime.”

Vaughan describes the 3-D printer as a tool, not unlike a table saw or lathe that requires a level of skill to operate. Thus far, CAD skills are one hindrance to the futuristic notion of a 3-D computer in every home.

That’s not the case in outer space, however, where miles above the earth a printer on the International Space Station printed its first 3-D object in July. It’s a breakthrough NASA says will lead the way toward future space exploration.

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Zero-ing in on design

It’s not unusual for Sub-Zero’s five 3-D printers to run 24-hours a day, seven days a week.

Sub-Zero, the Madison-based, high-end appliance manufacturer, has been utilizing 3-D printing for nearly 15 years. Back then, the company used 3-D printing mainly for concept models for new designs, and a fair amount of work was outsourced.

Its first printer could only produce objects able to fit within an 8-inch by 8-inch by 12-inch printing area, which was limiting, admits Doug Steindl, corporate development lab supervisor. But the company saw so much promise in the technology that just 18 months after purchasing the first machine it invested in a second machine measuring about 23-inches wide by 19-inches deep by 23-inches high.

Sub-Zero now has five 3-D modelers in-house, and it’s not uncommon to run all five 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. “What we have is a 60,000-square-foot product development center,” Steindl explains.

“Besides our rapid prototyping capabilities, we have a full machine shop, a full- sheet metal shop, we can perform vacuum forming, and we can do our urethane foaming for insulation values in our refrigerators. We have a paint shop/powdercoating operation, a QA facility, a full-time maintenance person, and fully functional assembly lines for both Sub-Zero and Wolf.

“So the additive, or 3-D printing part, is a vital part of the operation, but not a sole part of the operation.”

Cost savings, while not specified, have been significant. “Let’s take a refrigerator drawer,” he says. “In the past, we would have just ordered a drawer, or sent one to a model shop in Chicago. At that time, they’d try to machine it out of high-density foam board, in pieces, and glue it together. It was very pricey.”

Now, some of those same parts can often be 3-D printed, and what used to take maybe 10 to 12 weeks can be produced in a day.

“We’re talking for prototyping and testing only,” Steindl clarifies. “3-D printers still cannot provide enough parts in a day because they’re too slow, but that day is coming.”

He foresees using 3-D printing to print service parts for older, legacy models the company no longer carries, or items no longer under warranty. The parts could be printed on demand and sent to customers as a service part, eliminating the need to keep stockpiles in storage.

For now, Steindl says Sub-Zero tries to make anything that can be manufactured or injection molded in-house. “It speeds up our development time so we can get to market quicker. Taking six to 12-week lead times out of the picture is significant.”

The company uses 3-D printing for cosmetic prototypes, such as a door-shelf design, control housing, the front of a crisper drawer, or a deli compartment. The technology extends to Wolf stoves, where knobs, grates, burner caps, logos, and handles can be printed. After coming off the printer, the items are sanded, primed, and finished so they resemble the production part as closely as possible.

“The turnaround time is probably worth as much as the money we’ve saved so far,” Steindl notes. “We’ve taken weeks and weeks out of design.”

The cost of modelers has also fallen. What the company paid for its first machine — which Steindl remembers to be around $65,000 — can now be purchased for about $20,000, but the printers still lack surface quality, he says. “3-D printing can take us a long way. It has saved us a lot of time, and we can be working on many other things while these parts are created.”

Cutting-edge design

As a global consumer products company, Fiskars makes tools of all kinds — from crafting scissors to yard care. At the company’s U.S. headquarters in Middleton, Dan Cunningham, senior research and development engineer, says 3-D printing is used several ways. “We use it for in-house testing and initial design concepts, especially in R&D for mechanisms and new types of products that we want to test immediately.” Fiskars also employs the technology for internal testing or product and cycle testing to assess a prototype’s strength and durability.

Sometimes it prints the blades, too, using its Stratasys FDM machine. “We pretty much run it 24-7. We have one machine for about a dozen engineers, so it is well utilized.”

The public is often bought in to test new prototypes. What do they think of a new design? How does it feel in their hands? Because a 3-D printed object isn’t necessarily pretty, it’s not unusual for Fiskars to outsource the parts to a company like Midwest Prototyping for a more polished finish prior to consumer testing.

“Without a 3-D printer, it would be tough to imagine that quick of a timeline,” Cunningham says. “It really does speed up the first development process immensely. I’ve taken an idea on a Monday, printed a new version every night, and by the end of the week had something I was really happy with.”

The company is looking to acquire more 3-D printers in the near future, he said. “We’re also considering an SLS-sintered metal [printer] so we can test the blades we’re designing. Blades are very tricky to prototype. We usually go through a supplier that takes real steel and grinds them. Now, sintering printers can make nice functional metal edges.”

Fiskars’ machine is fairly large, about 18-inches by 24-inches by 18-inches. “Scissors are not that big, but when you have five or six engineers needing to print things at the same time, you can lay everything out and print them all at the same time, usually overnight. Then we come in in the morning and the pieces are ready.”

The company is particularly interested in how consumers will adapt to new 3-D printing technology. “A big portion of our company is focused on what the creative people out there are doing in their homes,” says Cunningham. “Will they have 3-D printers in their kitchens? Probably not, but in their workshops? Possibly.”

And that day may not be far off. Consider this: In the United Kingdom, the 2014 school curriculum teaches 3-D printing and robotics beginning at age five, giving the children skills to both design and make their own products using 3-D printers, laser cutters, and robotics.

So while 3-D printing, especially for prototyping, still requires a high level of expertise, the technology has proven itself on multiple levels over the years. Still, it remains unsuitable for mass manufacturing. “Our products are sold at Walmarts and Costcos,” Cunningham says. “3-D printers will never beat alternate manufacturing methods to meet those needs.”

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The color Spectrom

Local company brings color to 3-D desktops.

Leave it to some UW engineering students to figure out a way to improve upon 3-D desktop printers and gain national recognition for their efforts.

Cédric Kovacs-Johnson, Chase Haider, and Taylor Fahey were out to build a 3-D desktop printer that printed in color, so shortly after graduating, the group formed Spectrom.

“In 2009, a few people saw an opportunity to build a cheaper FDM 3-D industrial printer for between $1,000 and $2,000,” Kovacs-Johnson explains. “The first few models were rudimentary, but they kind of built a new industry in a new model.”

Spectrom’s technology brings color to 3-D desktop printers.

As the technology evolved, the students saw 3-D printing technology becoming more streamlined and reliable, and desktop printers more plentiful. Instead of having one $100,000 printer in an engineering office, for example, smaller desktop printers were appearing on individual engineer’s desks. But the ability to print in color remained a challenge

That was the problem the young men set out to solve.

“Right now, people wanting their 3-D desktop to print in color have to set several hot nozzles, usually with messy results and mechanical complexities. It’s a bad model,” Kovacs-Johnson says.

The need for color is a no-brainer. “Think about it,” he challenges. “How often do people request black and white photos anymore? We’ve come to expect color, and once people see 3-D objects coming out in color, there’s no looking back.”

Spectrom’s customizable software brings reliable, on-demand color to 3-D desktop printers, much like an inkjet printer. The company also manufactures its own consumables — proprietary plastics and dyes — creating an automated system for color.

“Our opportunity was not to build a printer and compete with everyone, but to work with everyone to integrate our product inside their printers, like Intel,” Kovacs-Johnson says.

Colors will be true, he promises. The software will be given away for free while the add-on hardware will be a component designed to work with compatible 3-D printers. Revenue will be generated by hardware sales and consumables.

The company is in the final stages of R&D and making software improvements. “The end goal is not just to be an add-on component, but to be integrated in all 3-D printers being sold out there,” Kovacs-Johnson notes.

The group’s biggest obstacle — reducing transition time between colors — is where Kovacs-Johnson says Spectrom really broke new ground. “We spent nine months researching just that aspect. That’s what our patents are around.”

That’s also what evidently swayed the judges. In November, the company took top honors at the Collegiate Inventors Competition in Virginia, despite strong competition from a field of 112 teams representing colleges including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Clemson, and UNC-Chapel Hill.

In 2014, Spectrom earned first place in the G. Steven Burrill Business Plan competition, and second place in the Governor’s Business Plan contest. In January of this year, the company’s invention was reportedly ballyhooed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (attended by 170,000).

Spectrom’s invention is currently being beta tested. “We have had hundreds and hundreds of people signing up to be beta tested,” Kovacs-Johnson reports. The team hopes to have a spec finalized and ready to roll out early in 2016.

Ship in a bottle?

3-D printing does that and so much more.

In 2013 alone, 3-D printing technology was being used to make just about anything possible, and creating what once was the unimaginable. Among the year’s announcements:

  • Janjaap Ruijssenaars, a Dutch architect, designed a one-piece “endless” house with a 3-D printer. Another Dutch studio was planning to build the first 3-D-printed canal house in Amsterdam.
  • U.S. researchers from Harvard University and the University of Illinois successfully created lithium-ion microbatteries the size of a grain of sand using 3-D print technology.
  • A Chinese company used a 3-D printer to manufacture a one-piece, 5-meter-long titanium airplane central wing spar designed for a passenger plane.
  • The European Space Agency announced it would partner with an architecture firm to test the feasibility of 3-D printing with lunar soil. A positive result could lead to the construction of a moon base on the lunar surface.
  • Scientists in Scotland used a novel 3-D printing method to arrange human embryonic stem cells for the very first time.
  • Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a lightweight structure whose tiny blocks could be 3-D printed and snapped together like Legos to build airplanes and bridges.
  • Kor Ecologic of Canada was preparing to produce the first 3-D-printed car. The first version, Urbee 1, produced the exterior “skin” of the car, while Urbee 2 would contain the car’s interior and all interior parts.
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) awarded a six-month, $125,000 grant to Systems & Materials Research Corp. to further develop a fully functional 3-D food printer. Chocolate is already a popular 3-D print material.
  • Nike debuted the Laser Talon, the world’s first football cleat made from 3-D printing.
  • Scientists at Oxford University developed a 3-D printer that could create artificial human tissue using properties of living tissues.
  • MIT researchers used computer-optimized designs of soft and stiff polymers to create artificial bone, with the resulting composite 22-times more fracture resistant than its strongest constituent material.
  • A 3-D-printed rocket engine component generated a record 20,000 pounds of thrust, according to NASA.
  • A London designer developed a prototype for running shoes that could repair themselves overnight.
  • A 3-D printing company announced that it manufactured the world’s first 3-D-printed metal gun using a metal sintering process and powdered metals. (The ability to print guns on demand has caused a wave of concern.)

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