Grand designs: how 3D printing could change our world
The latest manufacturing technology combines computing power and agile machines to build almost any object, one layer at a time. How could it shape the future?
It can already create small car and aeroplane parts, titanium hip joints, and scale models of technology for large energy projects. In years to come it may even print the homes we live in and potentially living tissue to create new organs. The 3D printing revolution is under way: changing approaches to design and the way products are made.
But what is 3D printing? Think of it like a home or office printer, which uses quick-setting liquid, metal powder or resin for ink. When a designer with a computer hits the print button, software sends the virtual object to the printer, broken down into hundreds or thousands of horizontal slices. A moving print head dispenses the ink layer-upon-layer to build a real object.
While small-scale desktop 3D printing for homes is on the rise, it is within industry that the potential of 3D printing is most exciting. Traditionally, designing components for industry meant investing vast sums of money for small prototypes that rarely offered any scope for modification. 3D printing changes that. Engineers believe they could eventually produce a near-limitless range of new objects, or reproduce old ones no longer available for a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing methods.
“3D printing is changing the prototyping and visualisation processes of how we make things,” says Shawn Darrah, Shell Innovations Adviser. “It means complicated designs can be produced cheaper, faster with minimal design flaws and a whole lot less waste.”
Little wonder some see 3D printing as the next industrial revolution. Global consultancy AT Kearney forecasts the market to be worth $17 billion by 2020 – up from $7bn today. But there are still limitations. “Its current speed and the range of materials available are the big challenges that industry is trying to solve,” explains Dr Simon Leigh, an assistant professor at the School of Engineering at Warwick University, UK.
So what is the future for 3D printing? Here we look at some promising uses.
3D printing could change the cars we drive
Technology company Local Motors from Arizona, USA, aims to launch the first commercially available car made largely with 3D-printed parts in 2017. The company says it will use the technique to manufacture 75% of components in its LM3D series of vehicles – from the body panels to chassis – and hopes to increase this to 90%.
Local Motors aims to produce vehicles to meet local needs, which it would make using a global network of factories, each smaller than a football pitch. The company runs a global online co-creation community, with members ranging from hobbyists to professionals contributing design ideas, and engineering and manufacturing experience. Read more about Local Motors.
Shell is also testing the 3D printing of car parts. It is building an energy-efficient concept car for cities, under the name Project M, which contains several plastic components produced with a 3D printer. The technology allowed the car designers to avoid tooling – the conventional, but time-consuming, process of building metal moulds to make components. “As technology develops and the cost comes down, 3D printing will become more and more viable for mass production,” says Matt Brewerton, a senior design engineer for Project M. Read more about the project.
Watch how Local Motors is using 3D printing technology to build its model LM3D Swim. Video: Local Motors
Title: LM3D Swim – Safe Smart Sustainable — 3D Printed Car by Local Motors 2015 - from YouTube
Duration: 0:37 minutes
Introducing the LM3D Swim, the first in the 3D-printed series from Local Motors.
LM3D Swim – Safe Smart Sustainable — 3D Printed Car by Local Motors 2015 - from YouTube Transcript
[Background music plays]
Fast-paced, rhythmic instrumental music plays.
Red convertible appears against a grey background, and a thin white line forms a square frame superimposed over the car graphic. The LM logo also appears on the screen, and appears in different positions onscreen throughout the clip.
[Video footage and graphics]
Flashing images of the printer and the car respectively.
[Video footage and graphics]
Fast motion shots of the printer printing against the background of a factory, finally dissolving to text.
Flashing graphics of the blueprints of the 3D car from various angles.
Fast motion shots of the printer printing, the 3D car forming beneath.
More flashing images of the red convertible in 3D and 2D.
[Video footage and graphics]
Fast motion shots of the printer printing.
Concentric circles drawn in fine, white lines fan out across the screen, superimposed on the footage.
Front view of a vehicle’s headlights shining against an otherwise dark background.
More images of the red convertible are shown from various angles in very dim light.
Again, fast motion shots of the printer printing.
Fade to black.
More images of the red 3D vehicle are shown from various angles in very dim light before dissolving to text.
Safe. Smart. Sustainable. Introducing the LM3D Swim. The first in the 3D-printed series from Local Motors.
It could change construction
Contour Crafting is a prototype 3D printing technique using a special quick-setting concrete. Its creators at the University of Southern California in the USA say it might be able to print an entire house in as little as 24 hours, and even print colonies on Mars.
Invented by Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis, Contour Crafting uses a computer-controlled gantry which travels along rails laid either side of the construction site, following an architect’s plans. A robot arm suspended from the gantry moves from side to side, dispensing concrete from a nozzle. Exterior and interior walls can be built in a continuous process, layer by layer, including conduits for piping, wiring and air conditioning.
“We are advancing the technology in multiple directions including space applications, building applications on earth, and infrastructure elements such as towers and bridges,” says Professor Khoshnevis. He plans to print his first building, a house with more than 90 square metres of living space, in 2017.
Their technique might one day offer a way to build facilities ranging from labs to living quarters for explorers to the moon or Mars, using rocks and other materials available far from earth. Read more about Contour Crafting and watch a prototype Contour Crafting machine in operation.
Computer-generated image showing how Contour Crafting technology might build a house. Image: Behrokh Khoshnevis
It could change the energy industry
Shell is using 3D printing technology to make the design and construction of equipment used in oil and gas production faster and more efficient. Printing technology allows the company to create accurate scale prototypes in material like plastic, which it tests and uses to improve designs and construction process.
“Digital design and 3D printing offer scope to build more efficient prototypes, which we transform into products in their full physical form,” says Shawn Darrah, Shell Innovations Adviser. His team worked in partnership with a Shell project team to develop a system connecting a huge vessel to oil and gas wells in seas nearly three kilometres deep.
The Stones deep-water oil and gas project in the US Gulf of Mexico will be the world’s deepest, located in 2,900 metres of water. When it comes on-stream, it will pump oil and gas from beneath the seabed to a floating production, storage and offloading vessel (FPSO). 3D printing helped the Stones project team prototype the system that will connect the FPSO to pipelines from the seabed. This allowed them to demonstrate the system to US authorities which had to approve its use for the first time in the region.
The connecting system features a huge buoy 19 metres tall, moored at the surface, which receives oil and gas from the seabed. The buoy slots into a turret inside the FPSO, like a plug and socket, enabling production while holding the vessel safely in place. By 3D printing the system in miniature, the team could show how it allows the FPSO to turn and remain stable in rough seas, and disconnect when the wind and waves become too strong, helping the vessel and crew stay safe. Image: SBM
The buoy contains hundreds of solid foam blocks that keep it afloat in water. The Stones team used a 3D printer connected to their computer design system to produce scaled-down plastic versions of all components in only four weeks. Conventional methods would have taken several months. Piece by piece, they built a working prototype of the buoy, simulating the metal outer structure with the foam blocks inside.
Piecing the prototype together by hand showed the team how to improve components before building the real-life buoy in the construction yard. In the process they also worked out the best sequence to assemble it safely and efficiently: in the past they depended on drawings alone. “We are just at the beginning of new possibilities of 3D printing and what it can mean for Shell,” says Robert Patterson, Shell Executive Vice President Engineering.
It could change structural engineering
Dutch design company MX3D is preparing to print an entire bridge in steel in Amsterdam, using an industrial welding robot which they have developed. Their aim is to programme the robot to move across the bridge as it prints the structure, unlike traditional 3D printing that operates within a frame like a box.
“By printing with industrial robots, we are no longer limited to a square box in which everything happens,” says Tim Geurtjens, chief technology officer at MX3D. The company plans to print the bridge in its workshop in the north of Amsterdam by 2017. “Digital manufacturing is still a relatively unexplored territory, but will lead to a huge aesthetic and industrial freedom.” Learn more about their plans.
A computer-generated image shows how MX3D plans to print a bridge inside its workshop. Image: MX3D / Joris Laarman Lab
Story by Kunal Dutta
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