CA engineers help us understand the 3D-printing hype, and the technology’s real promise
At the Local Motors headquarters in Phoenix, you’ll find something missing from the car-manufacturing process: an assembly line. Instead, in the 40,000-square-foot microfactory and others like it popping up around the United States, facilities include maker-spaces for sharing equipment and “build floors” where customers can construct their own vehicles, one at a time. Designs are developed openly with in-house engineers and collaborators across the globe. And increasingly, cars are being made by 3D printers that extrude a compound of plastic and carbon fiber, layer by layer, to produce, say, a chassis or a body panel. Alexis Fiechter ’02, head of product development at Local Motors and a self-proclaimed car guy since his time at CA, thinks the automotive industry is poised for a major shift. In comparing how these facilities operate with the Henry Ford model that has long defined American car manufacturing, the importance of direct digital manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing can’t be understated. Fiechter was featured recently in Adweek as one of “10 digital innovators who are defining creativity in a tech-fueled world.” With the introduction of its LM3D series last year, Local Motors has become the world’s most prominent maker of 3D-printed cars. The company has been showcasing the first model in the series — the Swim, winner of a community design challenge — while pursuing federal safety certifications for future highway-ready versions. The Swim proved that a new car could move from design to prototype in just over two months — a timeline previously unheard of in automotive production.
“We’re able to iterate and evolve as fast as the available technology.”As a specialty manufacturer, Local Motors turned to direct digital manufacturing out of necessity. “We knew that if we wanted to stay local, we were always going to have to follow low-volume production runs, so we needed to set ourselves up to do that in the most economical way possible,” Fiechter says. For custom products, the price of traditional manufacturing is prohibitive. A major component of conventional car production is the cost of tooling for each model; once that’s done, any changes entail another huge expenditure. The electrical architecture for mass-produced cars is equally static, which “really stifles innovation and continuous improvement,” Fiechter says. The cost of making changes also encourages Band-Aid solutions when problems crop up — the opposite of the Local Motor approach. “Flexibility is one of the main drivers that pushes us into trying to make 3D printing production-ready,” Fiechter says. “We’re able to iterate and evolve as fast as the available technology.”
– Alex Fiechter ’02
Also called additive manufacturing, 3D printing is the process of constructing three-dimensional objects from digital files. On-screen models are developed using computer-aided design (CAD) software, then sent to printers as easily as one sends a document. The 3D printer lays down material in succession, and an object emerges. Unlike traditional manufacturing, in which a bolt, for example, is whittled down from a steel bar, the 3D-printing process is additive, like hand-building with clay. In their raw form, products are rarely beautiful — the material often has visible layers or rough edges. But the technology can produce complex forms, such as parts that move in relation to one another, like gear trains. Combinations of conductive and insulative materials can be printed simultaneously for 3D electronics. In addition to plastic, the machines can print using finely ground powders to create titanium, resin, silver, and glass.
The automotive industry is hardly the first to adopt the technology. Medical implants, jewelry, and even parts for fighter jets are all being made by 3D printers. In Amsterdam, a steel bridge is being printed; in China, they’re making earthquake-proof houses. The promise that if you can conceive it you can create it — right now — has ignited the public imagination. But 3D printing may not usher in a micromanufacturing revolution in quite the way many imagine, by putting commercial design and production in the hands of individuals. Instead, we can anticipate acceleration in research and development and changes in the ways companies pursue new possibilities.
Fiechter’s friend and classmate Jake Ware ’02 has worked with his share of 3D printers. First at the drone-development company CyPhy Works and now in the Aero-Astro graduate program at MIT, he has used them for their original purpose of rapid prototyping — to quickly test parts that will eventually be replaced by components manufactured using other, generally better, methods. Ware is bothered by news stories that encourage the public to believe we’ll all soon have 3D printers at home to create anything we desire: no more trips to the store, just stock up on filament! “We’re miles from that,” he says. And more to the point, he’s not convinced it’s something we need. The technology comes with downsides, such as the need for constant oversight. “If you don’t pay attention for a while, it might not fail outright, but it’s going to make a part that’s no good,” Ware says. Even the sophisticated machines in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab are notoriously finicky, requiring constant calibration and maintenance, susceptible to catastrophic failure, and apt to degrade with regular use. For iterating and testing designs, though, machining using more traditional methods can be incredibly time-consuming and expensive. In contrast, prints are quick and cheap. “Although simple machines don’t make great-looking parts, they can make a functional replacement in a hurry,” Ware says. With a government-project deadline just days away and no machine shop with an opening, being able to send a CAD file to a printer overnight can be a lifesaver. Printers can also create irregular shapes that classic machine tools like computer-numerical-controlled (CNC) mills or lathes can’t produce. “They have been game-changers for me in terms of rapid development of robotic systems and components,” Ware says. They pick up the pace of innovation.
At the GRAB Lab at Yale, where Connor McCann ’14 works, engineers are creating robotic and prosthetic hands that are almost entirely 3D-printed and customized for individuals. In his research position there, McCann is working on a new construction technique for reconfigurable trusses, which could create much higher-strength and lower-weight structures than conventional manufacturing allows. It’s similar to a method NASA is pursuing for construction in space, and the hope is that it could eventually be mass-produced. Like Ware, McCann has found that some of his prototypes can be made only with a 3D printer. “That’s actually not great, because production can’t scale,” he says. “It can be difficult and time-consuming to print large quantities.”
The biggest impediment to widespread adoption of 3D printing, McCann suggests, could have less to do with what it’s possible to produce than with CAD software’s steep learning curve. Even with many open-development forums active online, the knowledge base required to create high-quality products still rests primarily with engineers.
Partly as a consequence of lessening costs for machines and materials, an impression has arisen that within a couple of decades the 3D printer may become the next microwave. But media coverage tends to conflate cutting-edge and entry-level technologies. While high-end machines are extremely precise and consistent, they’re expensive. Hobby printers turn out lower-grade products and parts that often fail, and even they require controlled environments. Often discounted in stories about 3D printing’s promise are the efficiencies of a well-honed system of mass production and the level of sophistication consumers have come to expect from store-bought products.
Three-dimensional printing can be better understood as one rapid-prototyping technology among many. The process can be grindingly slow compared with laser cutting, which can produce a hundred parts in around 20 minutes — flat parts, that is. Parts produced by 3D printing don’t have the same strength and tolerance as machined components. However, compared with CNC milling, which drills into a block of material, the additive process of 3D printing means that there are very few limitations on what can be made. As always, the choice of tool depends on the needs at hand.
For Fiechter at Local Motors, 3D printing is “a great weapon toward making highly targeted design an economical option.” In his experience, consumers are so diverse that he finds the concept of mass-market products a little insulting. “You haven’t addressed the needs and wants of individuals until you have made something especially for them,” he says. Fiechter anticipates that collaborative design will only grow, citing an abundance of tools for mass contribution and collection of data only recently developed. But whether 3D printing will dominate over other manufacturing techniques depends largely on consumers.
Right now, 3D printers in production scenarios are most advantageous for creating very specific products, a few at a time. The more customization a design requires, the better the technology is suited. “What would really set 3D-printed manufacturing off is if consumers started expecting and insisting that their products should be tuned especially for them, and at reasonable prices,” Fiechter says. Are you ready for your custom ride?
A 3D-Printed ROV to Help Clean Up the Ocean
Recently named one of “15 impressive students at MIT” by Business Insider, Beckett Colson ’11 is finishing a degree in ocean engineering. He discounted 3D printing until he used it to prototype and was impressed with the quality produced by a home setup. Now he’s caught the 3D-printing bug. On a Printrbot Simple Metal, a basic machine he purchased with prize money from MIT’s Keil Ocean Engineering Development Award and assembled himself, he has printed everything from a light-up rocket ship to the propellers for his remotely operated underwater trash-collecting vehicle, which he’s planning to use to help clean up the ocean, where most plastic ends up.
“I can go from thinking of an idea and sketching it on paper to having the parts in less than a day.” – Beckett Colson
Last summer, Colson sailed across the Atlantic with SEA Semester to study the distribution of plastic. Using a Neuston net, he sampled the upper water layer, and he found it everywhere — interspersed, like a plastic soup. After returning home, he decided the best way to stop things from getting worse was to clean along shores. He’s starting this spring on Martha’s Vineyard. After MIT, Colson hopes to work on harnessing renewable energy from ocean sources — waves and currents — and build exploratory underwater robots. “It’s amazing how much we don’t know about the ocean,” he says.
3D Printing at CA
Earth systems science teacher John Pickle used to make models of silicon tetrahedrons, fundamental building blocks of nearly all rocks on Earth, out of marshmallows and toothpicks. Now, using an entry-level 3D printer CA has owned for nearly two years, Pickle, fellow science teacher Max Hall, and the DEMONs club (which stands for dreamers, engineers, mechanics, and overt nerds) have created tetrahedrons that snap together with ball-and-socket joints. They’re not quite sturdy enough for classroom use, but they might be once CA gets its new 3D printer up and running.
The big step up to a LulzBot TAZ 5 with modular parts and dual extruders — delivered this spring along with a range of flexible, conductive, and magnetic plastics — means students will be able to print things that end up stretchy, or potentially even use filaments filled with stone or wood. The new printer’s housing is open, without barriers to understanding its workings. Excitement about the possibilities, not only for science and engineering students, but also for architectural modeling, is bubbling up.
Ingrid Apgar ’16 has been the primary user, and caretaker, of CA’s older 3D printing machine. Turning diagrams from the page, such as electron orbital structures, into hands-on learning tools has been a primary use of the technology, but Ingrid has also printed objects out of curiosity, such as a tiny elephant with movable legs. “It’s given me the opportunity to design things that I wouldn’t otherwise know how to make,” she says. Without much prior engineering knowledge, she approached her projects with infinite patience, spending countless hours in a beta space getting familiar with the machine. The graduating senior spent this spring writing a user’s manual to help democratize the process. She also designed a custom portable cart to make the new printer more accessible when CA Labs opens next year. The new building will have a space built specifically for 3D printing. Naturally, DEMONs helped brainstorm the requirements.
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