Bringing home rapid manufacturing

Present day factories and product distribution could soon become totally obsolete if rapid methods develop as some are forecasting. Tom Shelley reports

Present day factories and product distribution could soon become totally obsolete if rapid methods develop as some are forecasting. Tom Shelley reports Just as flip cover communicators went from something invented for "Star Trek" to something in the hands of every teenager, there are those who seriously believe that something very akin to Star Trek replicators may soon be in every home, or at least, in workshops in every neighbourhood. Where there is a demand, there is soon a technology. A pair of designers in the Netherlands has demonstrated the ability to rapidly manufacture garment products to order, as well as novel lamp shades, and a US company is supplying increasing numbers of low priced rapid manufacturing systems into schools and the first two into homes. The man who seriously believes rapid manufacturing systems will be found in every home is Dr Bill O'Neill, a lecturer on production processes within the Cambridge University Engineering Department. Presenting a lecture entitled: "Manufacturing technologies: warning, disruption ahead" he predicted that the desire for consumers to have what they wanted when the want it would be a driving force that would bring low cost manufacturing back from the Far East to local communities or even the home. The crucial added value would not then be in manufacturing, but in the intellectual property in downloaded designs and the software to be incorporated into those products based on electronics. He argued that driving forces would include the ability to get more quickly to market as well as the elimination of the need for purpose designed jigs, tools and fixtures, as well as transportation, inventory and warehousing, except for that associated with feed stocks, electronic components and replicating machines. Presently, he commented, most of the cost of an aeroplane stays on the ground because it is tied up in the specialised jigs, tools and fixtures used to make it. Applied to clothes, designs could be tailored to suit human body shape and dimensions, as is already the case with upmarket sunglasses, bespoke medical implants and some hearing aids. Anyone could start up their own business as a design house, provided they had the necessary design skills and marketing abilities, and so we could expect to see a resurgence of cottage industries. The only cloud on the horizon, he could see, is that protecting intellectual property against theft and piracy is likely to become an even bigger problem than it is already. He did not mention electronic intelligence, but we could at this point mention the growing trend in downloading software updates onto either hard disks, which in latest developments are only 25mm in diameter, or onto field programmable gate arrays and other chip level firmware devices. The Dutch team with the 3D printed clothes technology is called, Freedom of Creation. It started in the late 1990s when Janne Kyttanen showed functional products made by selective laser sintering (SLS), fused deposition modelling (FDM) and stereolithography (SLA) at his graduation exhibition at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam in Spring 2000. He then started his company in Helsinki. In spring 2002, Jiri Evenhuis, who had previously masterminded the making of 3D printed textiles, joined forces and they co-founded a new company with the same name in Amsterdam. The textiles are made as a kind of nylon chain mail, made by SLS. Apart from whatever uses customers may be making of these in Amsterdam, Dr O'Neill told us that the military are interested in the technology. Apparently, they are thinking in terms of the potential to introduce conducting materials to make garments that function as Faraday cages, as well as body armour, which as our mediaeval ancestors discovered, conforms to body shape and is much easier to fight in than protection made up of armoured plates. The lowest cost machine currently available seems to be the Dimension FDM machine from Stratasys, available in the UK from Laser Lines, which sells in the UK for £18,975. Freedom of Creation points out that this about the same price as UNIX computers had at the beginning of the 1980s. Freedom of Creation has now entered into a scientific collaboration project about advancing the 3D printing of textiles and smart textures with the universities of Loughborough and Liverpool. Seeking to establish whether such technologies really are now going into schools, which we consider to be the stage before entering the home, we asked Stratasys for some horse's mouth information. Vice president and general manager Jon Cobb emailed us from the US to tell us about its penetration of machines producing parts made from ABS into the school market. "Dimension was introduced about two years ago. During that period of time we have installed well over 1,000 systems worldwide. "Dimension is a 3D Printer that is designed to be in an office environment. The system is relatively small - the footprint of a multipurpose laser printer - and is set up on a network just like any 2D printer. Anyone on the network can simply click a "print" icon and the system begins printing a 3D plastic part. The system delivers a clean plastic part that is ready to be used almost immediately. The system is available for $24,000 and has proven to be very reliable, printing multiple parts day in and day out with little or no service intervention. "Over 30% of our total sales have been made to educational institutions. These institutions range from high schools to two year technical schools to four year engineering and design. We offer the educational customers the system at the $24,000 price. We add additional maintenance and approximately one year's worth of consumable supplies at no additional charge. Dimension systems are currently operating in a number of schools in England today." Subsequently encountered in the flesh at this year's Solid Modelling exhibition, he added that particular users that came to mind included a high school in Illinois who was using one to make puppets for its theatre group. He also knew of "Four or five" machines sold into colleges in the UK, where, he said, "Producing it in 3D allows the student to really understand what they have designed." Asked about Dr O'Neill's predictions, he mentioned two machines sold "Into small businesses in a home environment." Both are apparently being used for "Making bits of models for the serious modeller." On the technical front, Stratasys has recently introduced an improved Dimension machine, designated the Dimension SST, priced at £25,950. The company has also introduced a polycarbonate material for use with its T-Class systems, including the FDM Vantage and FDM Titan. DSM Somos has emailed us some images of the Panasonic X70 camera phone prototyped by stereolithography in Somos 9120 resin. It may only be a short time before such products are manufactured locally or in the home by such methods rather than prototyped. Freedom of Creation Dimension Printing - Stratasys Laser Lines DSM Somos Eureka says: Large factories and many of the juggernauts presently clogging the roads could go the way of the dinosaurs if rapid manufacturing in the home or local environment really takes off as predicted. Doubters should look at the drastic reduction and increase in availability of computers over the last 20 years Pointers * It has been predicted that rapid manufacture of consumer products within a local or home environment could drastically change the face of manufacturing and distribution of many consumer products * Extrapolations are based on advances in technology and the drastic increase in availability and reduction in costs of home computers, applied to rapid manufacturing machines