Imagine being able to build an aircraft part using a three-dimensional printer. The process might look a little but like a replicator from Star Trek. But it is not science fiction.
This technology is not new – it has been around for at least 25 years – but it has largely flown under the radar during that time.
Called 3-D printing, the technology uses additive manufacturing to lay down thin layers of material – each on top of the last – in order to build a three-dimensional object.
The implications for the aerospace industry are obvious – this technology can be used for rapid prototyping and it also appears to be an effective way to manufacture short runs of parts without having to retain parts in inventory. Robert Schouwenberg of Shapeways explained that the cable holders on a Boeing 777 are printed using 3d printing.
Against this backdrop, the digital rights non-profit PubIic Knowledge held a meeting in Washington to examine 3-D printing. Public Knowledge Staff Attorney Michael Weinberg opened the meeting by declaring “This technology exists and it is real.” He was joined by Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn, explained that 3-D printing is producing articles made from a wide variety of materials, including metals, plastics, bio-degradable substances and even sponges. The printers are being driven by a variety of software sources, like CAD programs and 3d scanners. Sohn explained to the audience that 3-D printing permits rapid sharing of designs and the ability to share 3-D designs and print them out anywhere there is a 3-D printer permits both testing at diverse locations and new methods for distribution.
Andrew Lomeli, the Outreach and Government Relations Fellow at Public Knowledge, moderated the first panel. He began by introducing Cathy Lewis of 3D Systems. 3D System started 25 years ago, and has been one of the leaders in the industry. Originally called rapid prototyping, their 3-D printing technology is in use in a wide variety of manufacturing environments. She explained that one of her company’s clients is a major helicopter manufacturing company that is using this technology to deliver parts to the U.S. government.
Also on the panel was Dave Burns, CEO of Ex One. He explained that additive manufacturing Is a mechanism for optimization of manufacturing. His company’s technologies include a mechanism for creating complex sandcasting cores and molds direct from CAD data, eliminating the need for a physical pattern to create a core or mold. His copmany primarily works in metals and ceramics, and is focused on industrial applications for clients like BMW Toyota and Ford.
What is the main problem with 3D Printing? Professor Hod Lipson of Cornell University explained that “Almost nobody knows about this technology … It is clear that something isnt being communicated.” Professor Lipson said that the current state of 3-D printing reminds him of the development of computers in the mid seventies. Lipson explained that in the seventies there were “about 8000 companies making computers.” And none of them could interact with one another. But that the development of industry standards helped to promote interoperability that provided platforms for software development that helped popularize desktop computing. His group at Cornell is working on developing standards as well as promoting sharing of fabrication data (instruction sets for 3-D printing).
3-D technology has the potential to be a disruptive technology because it changes the model for fabrication. It could change the wyat that parts are produced and potentially could change the way that they are warehoused and distributed.