From China to Inside 3D Printing

Whew. It’s been a hectic (and excellent) start to 2014. Sadly, this blog has languished the past three months as a result. Rest assured that more frequent updates are forthcoming.

In January, I visited several 3D printing companies in China. My first visit was to Tiertime, the largest 3D printing manufacturer in Asia. The popular Afinia printers in the US are rebranded Up! Plus machines by the Tiertime subsidiary, Delta Micro Factory. Today, the company is the #2 manufacturer in the world of industrial FDM machines after Stratasys. Intriguingly, the firm has also experimented with powder binding similar to ExOne/Voxeljet, stereolithography and even sheet lamination.

I was particularly impressed by their assembly process for the desktop 3D printers. The firm cleverly has each machine print out a few of its own parts. This serves the dual purpose of reducing tooling expenses with design changes as well as providing a useful test of machine calibration. If a printer is unable to successfully print these parts, it will never leave the door.

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Next, I took a bullet train (reaching 300km/h!) to Xi’an. After a leisurely sunday visiting the Terracotta Army, I packed in a busy day visiting three 3D printing firms. A big thank you to Shuguang Li and Hui Wang for their gracious hospitality. I am excited to be advising Hui Wang’s company Elite Robotics, the largest distributor of Makerbots in China, and the operator of one of the first retail 3D printing stores in the country.

With the Elite Robotics team

With the Elite Robotics team

At Bright Laser, I saw one of the most impressive pieces of technology in the world: a two-story directed energy deposition metal 3D printer. Basically, the printer sprays a metal powder like Titanium 6-4 onto a hotspot created by a powerful multi-kilowat laser. The apparatus is mounted on a 5-axis arm, and is equally capable of creating objects from scratch as well as repairing distressed parts.

3m Titanium 3D Printed Wingspar by Bright Laser in Xi'an

3-meter Titanium 3D Printed Wingspar by Bright Laser in Xi’an

My third visit was to Shaanxi Hengtong, the second largest manufacturer of 3D printers in Asia. The company specializes in stereolithography printers and also offers a laser sintering system for foundry sands and a few FDM models.2014-01-06 15.16.52

I’ll wrap up this post with the exciting news that I will be working semi full-time on Inside 3D Printing as the conference expands to eight cities and counting worldwide. Please drop me a note if you plan on attending any of the shows! The flagship NYC conference is less than a month away and is looking to be the best yet, with keynotes from General Electric, Intel, 3D Systems, Airbus, Autodesk and Formlabs.

3D Printing in Manufacturing: Promoting a “Maker Culture” in RI

I originally guest blogged this post for Founders League. The original article can be found here:

130 Rhode Island manufacturers gathered at Bryant University on Thursday for an educational forum on 3D printing. Panelists hailed from academia, RI manufacturers using 3D printing and organizations that support adoption of the technology.

The event started with a conversation on how 3D printing is disrupting manufacturing today. Many in the audience were surprised to learn from Tom McDonald that the technology has been around for 25 years. While everyone agreed 3D printing won’t be replacing mass-production anytime soon, the first thematic clash emerged: will 3D printing remain a niche manufacturing technology or should everyone adopt it? In favor of pervasiveness, Andy Coutu of R&D Technologies pointed to how Boeing hopes to one day print aircraft wings with no bending or cutting required, while Kipp Bradford of Brown School of Engineering downplayed the impact by noting that on his recent tour of factories in China, not one of them used 3D printing.

The conference continued with anecdotes from current users of 3D printing. Bruce Parkes of GTECH shared how his firm uses the technology to create better designed parts through rapid physical iteration and testing. Breck Petrillo of Ximedica projected that his firm will start using 3D printing for short-run production within 12 months. Dr. Bongsup Cho of URI School of Pharmacy, who 3D prints models of molecules in full-color for education, told the most entertaining story of the day. After placing an order for a $68k 3D printer, he received a call from the URI purchasing department: “Dr. Cho, this printer is rather expensive. Have you thought about Dell or HP?”

The final panel addressed the importance of promoting a maker culture in Rhode Island. Bert Crenca, the founder of AS220 firmly believes that you can build community around access to tools and that the entire state of Rhode Island sees themselves as artists and makers. Anais Missakian of RISD emphasized the urgency of bringing making back into eduction, starting at a very young age. And Sandra Potter of Bryant shared how 3D printing has enabled her students to be makers.

I also spoke on the final panel and conveyed the urgency of adopting 3D printing. According to Christine Furstoss, General Electric’s Director of Manufacturing and Materials, 3D printing will touch half of its manufacturing in 20 years. Companies that learn to design for additive manufacturing will thrive, while those that are slow to evolve will perish. As a nation, this technology will bring manufacturing back from overseas and create a culture where distributing a physical innovation is as easy as emailing a digital file. As a state and a region, we must invest in 3D printers so our makers and entrepreneurs can lead the 21st century manufacturing economy.

ExOne Sand Printing in Auburn, Washington

ExOne Sand 3D Printer in Auburn, WA

Recently, I paid a visit to ExOne’s sand printing operation just south of Seattle in Auburn, WA.  ExOne (Nasdaq: XONE) specializes in large-scale 3D printers for rapid fabrication of metal parts. And when I say large, I mean HUGE–the maximum print size is roughly two cubic meters. The machine itself is taller than a person, and check out the size of the material feed:

Giant material bins for ExOne sand 3D printer

These pictures are of ExOne’s sand 3D printer. The machine uses a binder jetting process using inkjet-like technology. First, a roller deposits a thin layer of specially treated foundry sand. Next, a print head selectively deposits a glue across the print bed. The roller then adds another fine layer of sand and the process repeats until completion.

The printed part is then used by a foundry for sand casting metal parts. See the gallery below for an example mold. Molten metal flows through the hole in the top of the mold and soon encapsulates the core, creating a hollow metal part. Note that each mold is consumed in the production of a single part, so to make 10 objects you need 10 molds.

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Note that these parts are highly fragile – dropping one would almost certainly destroy it. The cost of printing is incredibly cheap compared to other 3D printing technologies as measured by print volume: only $0.20 per cubic inch. I couldn’t afford to sells prints for that rate from my desktop-class Ultimaker!

As you might imagine from the machine size, the cost of one of these sand printers starts around $750,000. Ford Motor Company reportedly owns three ExOne sand 3D printers, but the company is mostly pursuing a service bureau business model.

Thanks again to Sean for spending time with me, and for the 3D printed dragon!

ExOne 3D printed dragon out of sand

Should Tesla Motors Use 3D Printing for Tooling?

Tesla HQ Check-inLet me take a stab at describing Tesla Motors in one word: streamlined. From the sloping lines on the Model S and the robotic assembly at Nummi to the touchscreen reception that automatically prints visitor badges and notifies employees of visitors, the company excels at applying technology to enhance speed. It should come as no surprise that half the Tesla team has a background in consumer electronics while the other half are veterans of the automotive world.

I set up a meeting to speak with Tesla after hearing Peter Carlsson’s keynote at CSCMP. As I noted in a previous blog post, Peter highlighted the turn around time for tooling as a major challenge. I was fortunate to meet with Paolo Cerruti for a lively discussion about bleeding-edge fabrication of molds and tooling inserts using 3D printing

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Seth Magaziner of Rhode Island on 3D Printing

Seth Magaziner In a recent interview by RI Public Radio, Bonus Q+A asked Seth Magaziner, Rhode Island candidate for general treasurer, if it was realistic to think that manufacturing jobs would come back to the extent that Rhode Island once had. He responded,

If you go down to the Jewelry district now and see the kinds of things that are being developed, in areas like 3D printing for example, that is a manufacturing opportunity that could be an explosion for this state and across the country.

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3D Supply Chain at CSCMP

Conference Comparison

I traveled with Liberty Advisor Group this week to the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals annual conference in Denver, CO. In a surreal juxtaposition, the pot-centric CHAMPS tradeshow took place at the same time. Something to look forward to: at the end of this post I’ll share the world’s most impressive “glass art.”

I helped Liberty set up a booth complete with two 3D printers: a 3D Systems Cubify and my homemade Ultimaker. We talked with numerous supply chain professionals from companies ranging from Haliburton to the Home Depot and engaged in lively discussion on how the 3D supply chain will impact how goods are transported.

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Giving Guill Tool a Hand

A reminder to be cognizant of safety at Guill Tool

A reminder to be cognizant of safety at Guill Tool

I had the pleasure of meeting Rich Guillemette today and touring the Guill Tool manufacturing plant in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Besides a great sense of humor evidenced by the hand above, Guill Tool is a world-class manufacturers of extrusion tooling. Depending on the particular die being made, machinists will use electrical discharge machining (EDM), lathes, five-axis CNC and other powerful staples of traditional manufacturing to create dies with high-precision extrusion channels as well as internal cooling channels to cool the tool as material is extruded.

Increasingly, we are seeing manufacturers of dies adopt metal 3D printing. Complex shapes that would require multiple pieces and cuts with an EDM machine can instead be produced in a single piece. This reduces lead times and enables digital storage of the die model file for faster replacement. As Peter Carlsson, VP of Supply Chain at Tesla, said in his recent keynote at CSCMP, turn-around time for tooling is increasingly important as product life-cycles decrease. Whereas 4-6 weeks used to be acceptable in the automobile industry, Tesla now wants a turnaround time of 2-3 weeks or better.

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3D Printed Hearing Aids

University of Rhode Island kindly invited me to give a talk on 3D printing today (“The Third Industrial Revolution: How 3D Printing Changes the Manufacturing Paradigm”). Rather than regurgitate a technical talk targeted at an engineering audience, I thought I’d share the story of a student who came up to me afterwards.

3D printing lets me hear what you are saying right now. Before I got these custom 3D printed hearing aids, I had to wear uncomfortable foam plugs. I worried about them falling out or getting wet. The 3D printed version fits perfectly, never falls out, allows me to hear better and has the electronics inside so I don’t have to worry about moisture.

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A Visit to Shapeways HQ

The Old Print ShopJust a couple blocks from Shapeways HQ in Midtown Manhattan lies a relic from a time passed over. The Old Print Shop displays the works of artists that use printmaking as an expressive medium. Fitting that I should walk by on my way to the company that operates the “Factory of the Future.”

Shapeways is a 3D printing marketplace and service bureau. Earlier this year, the company raised a $30 million Series C from an illustrious cohort of investors: Andreessen Horowitz, Union Square Ventures, Index Ventures, and Lux Capital. The company operates dozens of 3D printers in Long Island, NY that create everything from gold cufflinks to nylon walking machines.

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General Electric and 3D Printing

General_Electric_headquartersI sat down yesterday with Richard Rainey and Stephen Shackelford at General Electric global headquarters in Fairfield, CT. Initially, we were to discuss the Lightweight & Modern Metals Manufacturing Institute (LM3I) of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). But with the Rhode Island coalition merging into the Draper Labs led group in Cambridge, our conversation turned into a lively discussion of how GE uses 3D printing.

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