3D printing is revolutionizing everything from brain surgery to car design.
In the popular television comedy The Big Bang Theory, two of the characters use a printer to create mini-models of themselves — and a whistle — but 3D printing is fast becoming more than just a novelty. Douglas takes a look at what’s happening in the world of 3D printing and talks to some of the industry’s pioneers here in Victoria.
Another name for 3D printing is ‘additive manufacturing’ which speaks to the fact that three-dimensional objects are created by using a variety of methods to lay successive layers of a material down controlled by a computer.
3D printing technology is not actually new. In fact, 3D Systems Corporation commercialized the first Stereolithography (SLA) printer in 1989 and is credited with the invention of the 3D printer. In the last 25 years, there has been a proliferation of new technologies including Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM)and Selective Laser Adhesion(SLA) providing a wide variety of printing processes and materials. The technology, while interesting and complex, is not the most fascinating part of the story however — the key to the industry’s growth is nothing to do with technology, but creative ingenuity.
Technology in Momentum
If you can imagine it, you can 3D print it, or at least you will be able to in the not so distant future. The current catalogue of items ranges from complete houses, fully functional weapons, clothes, food, a car (everything but the engine and tires) even a model of your unborn child, created by using ultrasound scans. 3D printing with a variety of metals is in its infancy, but it won’t be long before printing jewellery, or sculptures and other objets d’art is commonplace.
The sector embracing, and benefitting, from 3D printing the most is probably healthcare. There are 3D printers printing human tissue here in B.C., at Aspect Biosystems based at UBC. The company creates living human tissue on demand, which is used to improve the predictive accuracy of the pre-clinical drug discovery process. U.S. and Australian researchers recently found a way to 3D bio-print capillaries; a massive step forward in the long-term goal of being able to 3D print human organs.
Getting a 3D printed kidney, or liver may be 10 to 20 years away, but surgeons are already using the technology in a variety of ways. Tim Walzak, director of Camosun Applied Research and Innovation (CARI) says, “The really interesting thing, from my perspective, on 3D printing is its wide range of applications.”
He talks about a young man who was suffering from arteriovenous malformations, basically a tangled mass of veins and arteries in the brain. Using MRI data, Boston Children’s Hospital printed a 3D model of the patient’s brain, along with the blood vessels themselves. Describing it on CBC’s The National, neurosurgeon Edward Smith said, “It’s like I have x-ray vision.” As a result of being able to see exactly what they were up against, they completed a successful surgery that took two-thirds less time.
Talk to anyone involved in the industry and they’ll have a favourite 3D printing story. Warren Strome, CEO of Revolution 3D Printers in Sidney, which makes and sells world-class printers as well as providing a printing service, is excited he could make a 3D replica of the wrench used on the International Space Station.
“I downloaded that [the plans] off the NASA site — they offered it up to see what the 3D printing community thought of it. It actually ratchets; the beauty is this part was printed in one piece. I pulled it off the plate and just had to break it a little bit, move it around and it actually ratchets.”
Strome says printing in space is a game-changer for NASA; items transported to the space station using containers, straps and other widgets made of a special 3D printing nylon could later be ground up on the space station and then extruded to create new items the astronauts require. These items would in turn be ground down when no longer needed and the nylon used again. As Strome points out, “It becomes a closed-loop system, which we could do here too.”
In Victoria, John Sherrah, president of International Technology Integration, is spearheading an altruistic project through his company to revolutionize the current production process required to make prosthetics using 3D printing. He uses Strome’s print services to print prototypes.
He has pulled together a specialist team partnering with three prosthetists, representatives from UVic and Camosun, to locally produce better prosthetic limbs by integrating 3D scanning and printing.
Jesse Skulmoski, a consultant working with Sherrah, explains that patients currently get a mould taken of their residual limb, from which a positive is taken, and from that a clear ‘check socket’ is made. This is then placed on the patient’s residual limb and manually adjusted for fit.
3D scanning of the limb offers a far more precise fit, and the resulting data can be updated regularly as the patient’s limb alters.
“One of the things that will happen as a patient’s limb gets older,” Sherrah adds, “is it changes all the time, so now you have to go through this process of rebuilding this thing manually. With 3D scanning and printing you just take another scan, update it, make changes overnight and all at about half the price.”
3D printing is also being used to make incredibly lifelike cosmetic silicon prostheses shrouds that look and feel like skin.
It’s a 3D Economic Revolution
There is no doubt, 3D printing is a disruptive technology, and it’s as revolutionary in its own way as automation and robotics. Walzak certainly thinks so.
“The immediate prospects of 3D printing is that it brings small volume manufacturing to every single community — that’s the exciting part.”
Brian Wesley, chair and CEO of Business Victoria, agrees with Walzak. “3D printing creates the ability for entrepreneurs to start a micro-factory in their community to serve local and global needs. This is a good example of how creative entrepreneurs and new technology can stimulate significant economic growth.”
Make no mistake, 3D printing technology is going to change manufacturing here on Vancouver Island as increasing numbers of entrepreneurs begin to see the potential. It will allow for greater personalization of products and small runs of products. This wasn’t possible in the past, but it’s now becoming quick, easy and cost effective. Almost anyone with a moderate investment will be able to manufacture just about anything.
The only immediate barrier is the ability to initially design a product in Computer Aided Design (CAD). However, the Internet has an answer to that: thingiverse.com, hailed as the world’s largest 3D printing community, features more than 100,000 3D models. It is an open platform, where designers share their CAD designs under a Creative Commons License, allowing anyone to use or alter any design.
The most obvious way businesses on southern Vancouver Island can use this technology is in making inexpensive prototypes of just about anything. Instead of tooling and machining using skilled people and expensive machinery, which takes weeks and costs large sums of money, 3D prototyping allows a designer to send a CAD file directly to the printer. In most cases, the part will be ready in a matter of hours. This reduced cost, and quick turnaround means a product can move through several iterations in mere days rather than weeks or months, all at a fraction of the cost.
Strome says 3D printing provides a way for manufacturers to come up with an idea, make a prototype, and put it in front of board members or potential customers so they can assess the look, feel and functionality for a few dollars, instead of using the longer and more costly process of injection moulding.
To illustrate this, he points to a model of a small turbine that he made for a dollar in a matter of hours, alongside a quote from a company in China to supply a prototype of the same item using traditional methods. The cost of producing the machined prototype: $1,100 with a 13-day delivery time.
Jordan Mikkers of Maximum Prototyping explains how a small local company used his 3D printing service to make prototypes of a Christmas-tree-shaped remote for Christmas lights. It was called the Treemote. “We made 20 to 30 prototypes on the printer, which took about 60 hours, but that allowed the company to go to trade shows and provide a good visual demonstration of how the product would work … they ended up getting orders at the shows and are now in Canadian Tire, Thrifty Foods and Save-on-Foods. It’s been successful in helping them through the transition phase from idea to working prototype that’s basically production ready.”
“The big revolution is rapid tooling” says, Walzak. “To be able to get quick prototypes and small-volume rapid manufacturing done locally resulting in in-house, quick turnaround time is huge. From a product development cycle, being able to produce prototypes on a quick turnaround basis allows you to do refinement and accelerate the cycle so you are quicker to market.”
The Future of Manufacturing is in 3D
“You’ve heard of the term desktop manufacturing?” Strome asks. “This is the beginnings of that — where anybody now can take their idea, and if they can do CAD design they can take [their design file] and make their product, test it, sell a few, gain some popularity, some following … and then the right person sees them and wants ten thousand!”
“There’s such a wide range of available materials now and high quality machines are producing parts that are nearly, or absolutely indiscernible from things like injection moulded parts,” says Walzak.
Wesley sees a bright future for Canada in this industry, if we step up in time. “There are many examples in history where it is apparent that the application of new technology has the potential to create significant opportunities but we need to act. Our options are to stand on the sidelines and watch, or aggressively create new opportunities and a new future. Other countries and communities are already jumping on the bandwagon. We need to determine how to really take advantage of this new technology, to help create a new economic future for Canada. We need to establish a reputation as one of the countries to look to in terms of expertise [in 3D printing] and support local companies such as Revolution 3D Printers who are in the business of developing world-class 3D printers.”
The final irony is that many of the parts for Strome’s new machines are made by his existing machines. There’s something futuristic — and may be just a tad scary — about 3D printers printing printers.