Monday, August 20, 2012

3D printers in the news again

We've spoken about 3D printing here on several occasions.  I'm fascinated by the potential of this technology, which may replace a great deal of manufacturing as we know it.  It's not unlikely that in a couple of decades from now, you'll literally 'print out' spare parts for your appliances or vehicles right at home, if you're into doing your own maintenance.

Two recent news reports illustrate the impact this technology is having in the real world.  The first is from the US Army. reports:

For the first time, the Army is deploying special scientists and self-contained, mobile laboratories to the warzone capable of designing and producing problem-solving inventions for soldiers operating in remote outposts in Afghanistan.

The service’s Rapid Equipping Force, known as the REF, took a standard 20-foot shipping container and packed it with high-tech, prototyping machines, lab gear and manufacturing tools to create the Expeditionary Lab -- Mobile.

. . .

“The soldiers out there, they know how to do stuff; they know how to fix stuff and they know what they need to be able to do, but what they don’t have is the technical expertise in many cases to do it themselves,” said Col. Pete Newell, commander of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force at Fort Belvoir, Va. ... “It’s really difficult to connect the guy who is building the product to the kid who really needed it to begin with, so what we went after is to connect the scientist to the soldier,” he said. “Rather than bringing the soldier home to the scientist, we have uprooted the scientist and the engineer and brought them to the soldier.”

. . .

The labs cost about $2.8 million each and include state-of-the-art equipment such as a Rapid Prototyping 3D Printer, a machine that can produce plastic parts that may not even exist in the current inventory. There’s also a similar device known as a Computer Numerical Control Machining system for producing parts and components from steel and aluminum.

“This is cutting-edge technology that allows you to actually print parts and pieces to things,” Newell said. “They are not really inventing something new; they are modifying something that exists already so they can do something else.”

. . .

These labs don’t just fill a battlefield role, they can also be deployed to solve problems on the ground during natural disasters on the scale of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors in Japan.

There's more at the link.  Here's a US Army video report about the system.

The second article is particularly heart-warming.  The Telegraph reports:

There are those who live their entire lives without being able to lift their limbs. And, had it not been for recent advances in 3D printing technology, the young girl in the video embedded [below] might have been among them. Her name is Emma and she is afflicted with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (often known simply as arthrogryposis or, even more simply, as AMC).

AMC is an awful illness that, in its worst cases, seems to put every joint in a newborn body somewhere other than where it ought to be. “When she was born,” says Emma’s mother. “Her legs were up by her ears and her shoulders were internally rotated.”

Emma is unable to raise her arms unaided. But, with the support of her WREX, the robotic brace she wears, she can now draw and point and play like any other toddler. She calls her WREX her “magic arms”, proving Sir Arthur C Clarke’s assertion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

Naturally, there is not a single brace that will fit Emma for a lifetime or, one imagines, for more than a few months. As Emma grows, or simply exposes her WREX to the exertions and calamities of childhood, new parts are frequently required.

And this is where 3D printing is crucial. For anyone unfamiliar with the term: 3D printing allows us to instantly “print” bespoke parts for almost any bespoke structure. Unlike traditional machining, it does not begin with a piece of metal or plastic and then sculpt away unwanted material until the required part remains. Instead, it just “prints” the required part exactly as designed.

3D printing is already on the brink of revolutionising sculpture, architecture, manufacturing and disaster relief. Now, it seems, it could revolutionise aspects of medicine too.  It may prove the most important technology of the 21st century.

I have no particular insight into this video. I share it simply because it is beautiful and because, when I first watched it, I felt as I did when I watched coverage of the Curiosity Rover landing on Mars: thankful to be alive at a time when such wonders are possible. What a brave new world this can be for brave new girls like Emma.

Again, more at the link.  Here's a video report about the little girl.

Isn't it amazing how technology has transformed her life?  Just a few years ago, that would have seemed like an impossible dream.  The same can be said of the Army's new expeditionary lab.  Without 3D printing, it wouldn't be nearly as capable.

Computers were invented only a very short time before I was born.  In my lifetime so far they've gone from massive, multi-ton installations as big as a house to the small, compact devices we use today.  What will they be like in another half-century?  It's almost impossible to imagine . . . but I bet it'll be interesting, for those of you who will be around to see them!



Don said...

CNC machining is not "printing" and has been around a long time.

So far, 3D printing is limited to plastics and to a lesser degree sintered metals and ceramics, the material properties of which limit the applications of those parts.

(Sintering means fusing finely powdered materials.)

ScottH said...

3D printing is fun stuff to play with; I've done quite a bit with Shapeways:

Get and learn how to use some 3D CAD software; you'll be amazed what you can create.

SiGraybeard said...

That story about little Emma was really touching. Brought tears to my eyes (granted, that's a low threshold). Sent it to some friends and they said the same thing.

Anonymous said...

I know you like 3-D printers and guns; here's the logical end: