The internet is awash with tales of engine parts, full-scale bicycles – and of course the obligatory scare stories about firearms – being produced by 3D printers. Global media from the Economist to Forbes have heralded 3D printing as the manufacturing revolution of our time. Now it seems the most advanced 3D technology will soon be available to one and all in Ireland.
TechShop is a US-based workshop network which provides access to creative tools, software, space and expertise. Anyone interested in using professional manufacturing equipment for whatever project they may have in mind is welcome to join, based on a low-cost membership basis.
TechShop already have eight premises in the US with two more planned stateside. But their newest workshop will be located in DCU’s Innovation Campus in Glasnevin, Dublin 9, and will be open to both individuals with an interest in learning more, as well as businesses or organisations who cannot afford to procure any of the high-tech equipment available themselves.
This will be an open-access facility replete with 3D printers along with other tools and high-end equipment that wouldn’t be in the budget of many companies.
"Wherever they go, the workshops tend to have a slightly different flavour depending on the local industrial landscape," explains Ronan Furlong, executive director of DCU's Innovation Campus. "So obviously equipment of interest to bigger sectors here – medical devices, agri-tech, clean energy, etc – will be reflected in TechShop Dublin."
In addition, TechShop also encourage local high-tech equipment providers to participate by offering their technology on site. "I imagine paper-based 3D printer providers Mcor Technologies, for example, will have a presence," says Furlong.
Based in Co Louth, Mcor Technologies have been providing paper-based 3D printers to customers globally in a variety of fields – educational, entertainment, architectural, medical, etc – since 2005.
“We would have already come across the whole concept of technology workshops or makerspace – where people who don’t want to buy high-end machinery outright can go and buy time on machines instead,” says Dr Conor MacCormack of Mcor Technologies. “The principle has been around for a while, such as in MIT’s FabLab. We visited something similar in Philadelphia as well.
“It’s a great concept. Of course for techies it’s like walking into a sweet shop.”
However, with millions of euros worth of investment being pumped into TechShop Dublin one would hope it becomes more than just a playground for hobbyists. McCormack argues that it is all part of a greater movement to “democratise innovation”.
“Individuals and novices do take advantage of these types of initiatives too,” he says. “It’s all about awareness: once people are made aware that the facility is there for them to use, they will check it out. But I do see it as part of a greater movement to democratise innovation, so that everyone can participate. Initiatives like TechShop make that happen.”
He fully supports the Irish TechShop initiative. “We’ve always thought incorporating our technology into universities would be a good idea as it might lead to improved research practises. It’s not just a case of supplying the facilities. If you can bring in big companies to work on collaborative projects with university researchers, great things can come out of it.”
TechShop will bring technology to this country that previously would have had to be sought abroad. It will house several 3D printers of different capacities (see panel). "We will be able to provide a whole new generation of 'makers' and hardware innovators with affordable access to powerful, high-end digital fabrication tools such as 3D printers, 3D scanners, laser cutters, computer numerically-controlled machines, as well as the (increasingly user friendly) 3D visualisation software required to design products and components," says Furlong.
“Commercial 3D printing only works with a few dozen types of materials, mostly metals and plastics of various sorts, but more are in the works (such as Kevlar),” says Furlong.
“Researchers are experimenting with exotic materials, such as carbon nanotubes, that give a sense of the scope of this technology. Some 3D printers can print electrical circuits, making complex electronics from scratch, and at the macro scale, there are already 3D printers that can make a building by “printing” concrete. Right now that requires a 3D printer nearly the size of the building, but it may someday be built into the cement truck itself, with a concrete that uses positional awareness to decide where to put down concrete and how much, directly reading and following the architect’s CAD plans.
Researchers are working just as hard at moving in the other direction: 3D printing at the molecular scale. “Today there are ‘bio printers’ that print a layer of a patient’s own cells onto a 3D-printed ‘scaffold’ of inert material,” he says.
“Once the cells are in place, they can grow into an organ, with bladders and kidneys already having been demonstrated in labs. Print with stem cells, and the tissue will form its own blood vessels and internal structure. A brave new world of manufacturing for sure.”
Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine, recently wrote how 3D printing "could be the transformative technology of the 2015-2025 period".
“3D printing has the potential to remake the economics of manufacturing from a large-scale industry back to an artisan model of small design shops with access to 3D printers.
“In other words, making stuff, real stuff, could move from being a capital intensive industry into something that looks more like software.”
Given our own digital heritage, this is where it gets interesting for Ireland. “Dublin is well served with digital incubators and accelerators (such as NDRC, Wayra, Dogpatch, etc) which support companies who are ‘Bits’ based.
“What we lack, however, is the equivalent facility for companies who are ‘Atoms’ based and this is the gap that TechShop Dublin and its 3D printers will fill.
“If Ireland is to be competitive in the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) sector, we are going to have to nurture innovators who are looking at the ‘Things’ part, as well as those looking at the ‘Internet’ part.”
Centre for Bits and Atoms
"TechShop Dublin in DCU's Innovation Campus, and the creative community that coalesces around it, will in theory become Ireland's own 'Centre for Bits and Atoms' (along the lines of the one in MIT), and allow Dublin pivot from the 'Consumer Web Capital of Europe' to the 'Internet of Things' capital of Europe.
"If the acquisitions of IoT companies Nest and Oculus Rift (by Dublin-based Google and Facebook respectively) are anything to go by, Ireland needs to get a strong handle on this sector quickly. Again, TechShop will facilitate this."
TechShop Dublin is expected to open in early 2015 and Furlong estimates an individual membership will be around €100 per month with discounts for students, the unemployed and group memberships, etc.
At the cutting edge of 3D printing: Some of the technology that will be available at TechShop Dublin
Computer-Aided Design (CAD) Software
While programmes such as PowerPoint and Excel are standard parts of a school's computer class, why aren't design programmes part of any art class? 3D CAD tools such as Google Sketchup, AutoCAD Inventor or Solidworks Pro all provide the technology to design buildings, for example. Others can help create videogame levels with their own bespoke landscapes. Other students could invent their own machines from wind turbines to vehicles and from wearable technologies to mobile phones. "The problem with many of the high-end CAD packages is that they are prohibitively expensive and this again is where TechShop comes in, making approximately $1 million (€0.7m) of software available to members to design their innovations before pressing the 'make' button on a 3D printer or CNC mill to turn the bits on the screen into atoms in the chosen material," says Ronan Furlong of DCU's Innovation Campus.
Laser cutters work on comparable principles to good old-fashioned printers. Using similar technology, laser cutters take the 2D images you typically print to paper, but instead shoot a CO2 laser beam that engraves and cuts your design into a wide variety of materials including wood, acrylic, plastic, glass, leather, anodized aluminium, ceramics, etc. "Go into any makerspace, and the row of laser-cutters are the ones working all day, with a line waiting to use them," says Furlong. "They're the digital tool everyone uses first, in part because they're so simple and foolproof. Makers call them the 'gateway drug' to digital fabrication because they are easy to use and lead you on to even more addictive tools. Laser cutters are used extensively for the making of medical devices, surgical instruments and implants."
CNC Water Jets
"TechShop will tell you that their water jet will quickly and easily "cut through six inches of anything on the planet", says Furlong. That may sound unbelievable but if you get water flowing fast enough it can cut through metal. Channelled through an ultra tight nozzle, the water jets spray at an extremely high pressure. Unlike metal cutters, water jets never get dull and can't overheat. Computer-controlled water jet and abrasive jet cutters are used today in engineering to cut soft and hard materials. The plain water-abrasive mixture typically leaves the nozzle at more than 900 mph, while the latest machines can cut to within two thousandths of an inch, and have jet speeds around Mach 3.
CNC Milling Machines
CNC milling machines are similar to 3D printers in that they operate on the x, y, and z-axis, but rather than depositing material, they cut it away. Unlike a laser cutter, CNC routers can cut precise depths, too, so you can create a true 3D object in one pass. "More sophisticated 'five-axis' industrial versions can twist and rotate the cutting head like a human hand to cut in from side angles and otherwise carve metal like the most skilled sculptor, but operating at superhuman speed," says Furlong. "Most of the components in a car engine such as the camshaft will be CNC-milled for instance."
The original MakerBot is one of the simplest 3D printers. It has just four motors: the x, y, and z, along with a fourth motor to drive the
ABS plastic filament (or other material) through a heater to melt it and then onto the build platform to make the object. The frame of an original MakerBot is laser-cut plywood, and some of its plastic pulleys are actually made by other MakerBots themselves. “The electronics are based on the Arduino processor board and there are many more blinking LEDs than are necessary,” says Furlong. If you have to ask why, says Furlong, you’re missing the point. “The MakerBot is not just a tool, it’s also a plaything and a window to the future. 3D printing continues to develop and grow and is becoming an increasingly popular and more affordable way to produce prototypes and finished products.”
Soon dentists will be able to print your new crown “in house” from a digitised model of your mouth. “Likewise your kids will be using 3D printers in school to build miniature replicas of the GPO, while you will be printing copies of your house key at your kitchen table rather than making a trip to the hardware shop,” he says. “At a more industrial level, over the coming years when an aircraft maintenance outfit in Dublin Airport email GE or Rolls Royce for a complex 3D engine part, it’s highly likely that they will be sent a file to print as opposed to a physical component.”
All the digital fabrication, CNC machine tools and CAD software programmes are ways to turn bits into atoms. But how about the reverse: turning atoms into bits? It’s hard to draw 3D objects from scratch on a screen unless you are proficient in AutoCAD or Solidworks; much easier is to just start with something similar that already exists, and then modify it.
"This process is called 'reality capture'," says Furlong. "The idea is that you can take any object and scan it, creating a 'point cloud' of dots that define its surface. Then other software turns that cloud of points into a mesh of polygons, just like the 'wireframes' that make up the characters in computer-animated films, which can be manipulated and modified on screen. You can buy a commercial 3D scanner that can do this with lasers that trace over an object and cameras that capture the positions of points on its surface, but there are cheaper ways, too. Autodesk offers a free online service called 123D Catch that allows you to upload regular photographs of an object (taken from all angles), and cloud-based software will turn it into a 3D object that you can then modify and print on a 3D printer."