Printing goes to the next dimension
The advent of 3D printing has created a paradigm shift in manufacturing, and while the industry in Ireland is still in its infancy, those at the leading edge say it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the norm
‘ANYONE WITH THE capital to open a factory with 10 or 20 3D printers right now could make a lot of money,” says Tony Tansey from the department of Mechanical Engineering in Tallaght Institute of Technology. Sound business advice from one of the few people in Ireland with access to a selective laser-sintering (SLS) machine, which uses high-power laser technology to fuse particles of plastic, ceramic, glass and metal powders into 3D shapes.
The only problem is – an SLS machine costs about €500,000. So, filling a factory with them would require quite a lot of capital.
Nevertheless, 3D printing is the future. Bioengineering, biomedicine, computer-parts manufacturing, hearing-aids customisation and product-development modelling are just a few of the increasingly popular uses for the new technology. Theoretically, even car parts could be manufactured.
The real beauty of the technology lies in its inherent ability to tailor individual products for each new customer at little or no extra cost. “There are already a lot of commercial companies worldwide that are offering 3D printing services,” says Dr Dermot Brabazon of the DCU Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering. “All you have to do is email them your computer aided design (CAD) file and within 24 to 48 hours they can guarantee to have it back to you.”
Of course, there are more affordable models out there than the SLS machine. Prices for 3D printers – using various materials and processes – range from around €10,000-€300,000. “Every university in Ireland has 3D printing capabilities now,” says Dr Brabazon. “A lot of the cutting edge research is in the medical field of manufacturing soft and hard tissue scaffolds for surgeons.”
University research tends to focus on medical solutions. Where the technology is regularly being used for industry right now is in product development. “3D printers are making models of anything you can think of – from shampoo bottles to Formula One racing car body parts,” says Brabazon.
While it is technically a manufacturing process, because 3D printing is still so high end, it’s one area where China is not leading the way on cost. The US would have the most companies – like MakerBot Industries – and patents at this point. Dutch company Shapeways.comhas also proven competitive in the European market.
The short time 3D printing has been available tells its own story but it’s the high cost of the technology that is the real barrier to entry for most.
The SLS machine in Tallaght IT isn’t just expensive to buy but would have considerable running costs.
“The main material we use is a nylon called duraform,” says Tansey. “Models and products take time to build and the machine uses consumables like nitrogen. So we often build a lot of parts in one go. The machine can do a run with 300 parts in it at once, which might take 40 hours in total.
“Our machine is quite diverse and we have the capability to work with powders, liquids and steels. But there is the material cost in carrying an inventory for each.”
Louth-based company Mcor is manufacturing some of the cheapest and most eco-friendly 3D printers on the international market.
Improving access to the technology is a philosophy which has driven the Mcor founders since the company’s inception in 2005. Its Matrix range of 3D printers were designed with the aim of making accessible this niche technology where anyone can turn their ideas into low-cost 3D objects.
“Basically our machines take in three reams of standard A4 paper, just like a regular copier, and they print out a sheet in three dimensions with the help of an adhesive,” says Dr Conor MacCormack, co-founder and CEO of Mcor.
“For product development there would be a big draw in this country for 3D printing technology in the medical, dental, architectural, engineering and educational sectors. I imagine all secondary schools will have 3D printers of their own in the future.”
What makes the increased access and utilisation of this type of customisable manufacturing process so interesting is the potential it has on changing the future shape of all markets. “We will start to see the return of a lot of small cottage industries with their own 3D printer set up in a bedroom or garage, who might be in the business of designing bespoke parts and selling them on eBay,” says MacCormack. “There is a revolution in mass customisation on the way. You cannot underestimate the significance of being able to create different designs at the same price.
“Costs will be dramatically reduced. We’re close to a point where you can print out a finalised product that can be used immediately and then offer your clients a different design the next day, all of which can be happening locally so there would be no shipping fees. This has the potential to significantly disrupt the manufacturing chain.”
Mcor offer the only entry-level 3D printer for sale outside of the US. The printer can be bought with all consumables on a one-year plan for €13,500. Using paper, it’s significantly cheaper than its competitors. A Matrix model of the human skull, for example, costs around €10, compared to €500 for a plastic prototype. In addition, the models can be fully recycled. “It is one thing buying a machine, but companies also need to be aware of the continuous running costs,” says MacCormack. “We are hoping to lead the way in affordable and eco-friendly 3D printing from Ireland. We just opened up a new office in San Jose.”
Budding cottage industries or simple enthusiasts can also find “build your own” 3D printer sets for less than €1,000 online. Members of Irish hacker spaces, like Dublin’s TOG, have pooled their resources to assemble their own printers for communal use. This type of approach is now a global phenomenon which has opened up niche technology to those without thousands of euros lying around. “As a group we bought and assembled a 3D printer from US company MakerBot,” says Christian Kortenhorst, a member of the TOG and director of CK Computer Solutions. “It cost us €1,000 and uses ABS plastic. It’s a small platform but the materials used are quite cheap.”
FROM PROSTHETICS TO ART 'BESPOKE 3D PRINTING'
CURRENTLY, 3D printing is exciting people most in the area of medical solutions: dentistry, prosthetics and osteology. But not only does the technology open up a brave new world of custom-made body parts, one company is even making personalised, artistically designed prosthetics (pictured below). San Francisco-based Bespoke Innovations can now take existing prosthetic limbs and turn them into “wearable pieces of art”.
By scanning a customer’s natural and prosthetic limbs and creating a computer model, Bespoke Innovations offer its customers the opportunity to order any kind of personal design to be incorporated into a “fairing” (the covering for an artificial limb). A variety of materials, patterns and designs can be chosen from to make the fairing look elegant, sporty, alternative, etc.
Speaking to Bloomsberg Businessweek, Bespoke Innovations co-founder Scott Summit explained
just how personal their designs can be. “We are working on this guy from Israel right now – we are designing a Porsche 911 aesthetic for him. We just did three other legs for three guys in Germany, all to reflect their very distinct personalities.”
According to the website, the custom fairings cost between $4,000-$5,000.