At the risk of wearing out a phrase; “It’s a great time to be an Engineer!” Not only an Engineer but any person that is involved or interested in innovation in science and technology. I believe that we are in a perpetual state of revolution of technology. No matter what field of science and technology you choose to explore or contribute, the level of innovation is nothing short of astounding.
The Future of 3D Printing
One area of personal interest and that has received main stream attention is 3D printing. Recently I was asked, “what do you believe lies in the future of 3D printing?.” It was at that moment that I thought my mind would explode. I had no idea in which direction to lead the discussion. At first, I thought it important to clarify what we were speaking about. The term 3D printing has been adopted by the main stream due to its ease of understanding and its direct analogy. With the onslaught of availability and the technology in probably its simplest form, Fused Filament Fabrication or FFF, which has brought about a basic understanding and acceptance of “3D printing”. Where in actuality the broader term we should refer to is Additive Manufacture. Within the Additive Manufacture world, the future is bright and moving at light speed. There is no shortage of articles and references to the huge variety of places this technology is being applied. As soon as you research and list them, there are ten more. It’s fair to say that advances range from the Nano scale to Mega scale and I’d be hard pressed to mention a science that is not studying and applying additive manufacture to their arsenal of tools.
The Rapid Expansion of Computers into Engineering
Back to the initial question, “what is the future of Additive Manufacturing?”As with most questions regarding the future, they are often best answered by comparing them with the past. And with this subject, that past is not so long ago. So, I’ve decided to draw from my own personal experience. Despite still being 17 at heart, my own experience of over a half a century provides me some perspective. Even an adaptation of Moore’s Law, wouldn’t be appropriate because Additive Manufacture far exceeds that. I remember a time not so long ago entering a grand hall filled as far as the eyes could see with desks and drawing boards. Masters of Design and Engineering slouched over large drawings of objects most of us could not identify. It was the year 1983 and we found ourselves in the thick of an Aerospace Engineering company. A company that Engineered and built machines that beat mother-nature into submission, we’re speaking about Helicopters, but that’s not the point. The point being there were no computers, zero, zilch, nada. However, with the introduction of Windows about a year or so later my Engineering group received its’ first desktop computer, some 2 or 386 something or other. Located at the center of our 50 person Engineering group, where we all were allowed to take turns performing various tasks. Being awed by programs like Excel, Word, and PowerPoint. Personal Computers had arrived. This computer had not replaced the mainframe, where real computing power resided. However, with the arrival of the PC, so did the buzz that someday this sea of drawing boards that lay before us would disappear and be replaced by PCs. Of course, it’s 1985 so we all chuckled and thought what sorcery are you preaching? Little did we realize that inside of 5 years it would happen, practically all drawing boards were gone. Programs like AutoCAD and CADRA permitted us to produce drawings electronically, no more electric erasers, eraser shields or templates. Although, all of this had to be performed in special environmentally controlled labs where these wondrous machines could survive. I remember being granted access to a special computer room beyond there, where there were a select group of Engineers staring at unique large flickering displays where they were creating 3D models on the computer, what?! Mind you it’s not even 1990. So inside of 5 years drawing boards are out and computers are in. Fast forward another 5 years we’re now out of the environmentally controlled rooms and designing in 3D on RISC workstations. Each Engineer at their own personal workstation Engineering and Designing in 3D at their desk. And with this came 3D files and all the wonders that came with them. We now had seamless communication with other computer programs and systems, directly using what we had created. Whether that be for Rendering, Finite Element Analysis, Stereolithography (SLA) or almost anything really. It was the early 1990’s when we were introduced to Stereolithography. I can remember having a ¼ scale SLA model made of a composite transmission housing I was working on, management was so elated with it that they wanted several more which we then made a dozen urethane castings. However, this technology in the early 90’s, was only available to very large, very well-funded Engineering firms. Push forward only about 3-4 years and a new player had emerged, DEC Alpha, an RISC (reduced instruction set computer) based PC running Windows NT, due to its 64-bit architecture capable of running the sophisticated 3D modeling software, and at a price mortals could afford, and so the march continues.
The Latest in Additive Manufacturing
Of course, things didn’t stop there, however, the next 10 to 15 years were filled with Moore’s Law and a lot of software and hardware evolution. Most of us are familiar with computer power exceedingly getting more powerful, smaller and affordable. And now the software is running on affordable laptops and heading towards the cloud! Here we are 12 years later and you can have your personal SLA machine on your desk for under $3500, Whaaaat?. And if that’s outside your budget, how about a proven, reliable FFF printer for well under $1,000. The Additive Manufacture industry is reflecting the computer and software industry, while just last month a Metal Additive Manufacture machine was released by Desktop Metal, priced at $120,000, which may sound pricey but in a field where other competitors are over $1M you better believe this group of MIT professors are making noise, so much noise they have recently secured $115M in investor funding…..Like I said “light speed”.
So, in a brief half century of time, we’ve gone from paper and pencil to fully computerized “Art to Part” (remember that cliché). And let’s remember in 1985 the World Wide Web did not exist, but that’s an entirely different subject for another day….So, let’s set 2014 as a date where Additive Manufacture has gone mainstream, coupled with the onset of the internet and the explosion in the adaptation of Additive Manufacturing, taking the square root of 50…, in 7 years and a couple months, Additive Manufacture will be a common tool in every Developers quiver.
Sorcery you say, I don’t think so…