This is the Digital Life, Episode 231 in 3, 2, 1. Welcome to Episode 231 of the Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
So on the podcast this week, we’re going to chat a little bit about new developments in additive fabrication or also called 3D printing. I was lucky enough to attend the Develop3D Live Conference at my alma mater, Boston University, which happened last week. I got to see some of the new technology coming onto the market for metal printing on the desktop. So that’s coming to market right now and that’s a pretty significant change from past metal additive fabrication.
So I’m going to talk a little bit about the history of it. I mean it’s been about 30 years where you could construct metal parts using additive fabrication, but it was kind of a dangerous process that needed to be in a highly controlled industrial environment. So because it was dangerous, that was sort of a limiting factor when it came to bringing one of these into a design office or what have you. So, for instance, these systems used a metal powder, which operators could inhale and that would be pretty damaging.
That doesn’t sound good, Jon.
No. Then additionally, these powders are explosive. So between those two things, you definitely don’t want that in your …
Yes, or in your shop really, but these newer technologies use slightly different system. The way they work is they have plastic encapsulated powders. So essentially they work similar to the 3D printers that you would see using a plastic. They build up an object and the metal powder is encased in this plastic and what you do is after it prints it out, you wash it in a bath, which dissolves all the plastic away and you’re left with just the metal, which is then more or less baked in this furnace called a sintering furnace. It’s just like a little easy bake oven, right, it makes your metal part, but it’s very cool because I got to see a live demo of one of these systems.
It essentially it feels like clay almost after it’s been washed. You can sort of very easily sand off the edges. You can see the little lines from building up the 3D print, but those can be easily sanded off and once you bake it, it’s a solid metal part. I mean this is like a part that’s been machined. It’s pretty amazing because during this heating and curing process, all the metal sort of melds together and it’s probably not as strong as some of the other industrial processes, but very strong nonetheless.
Why is this so exciting? What’s so special about that? Well, when you’re talking about additive fabrication, you’re talking about taking digital designs and then, you’re creating these physical objects. So digital designs that are human or even algorithmically generated, right, you can come up with forms that you would never think to do with another process.
For instance, one of the demos at the conference used a matrixed internal piece that the part was for I think a part of a motorcycle and normally, that would be a solid piece, but within the piece, they have this very complex matrix that makes it just as strong, but there’s a ton of air in there now, right, so it’s all these crisscrossing pieces that if you cut open the part, you can see that the part is no longer solid. It’s 50% air, but it’s constructed in such a way that it maintains its strength, but it weighs half as much. I mean this is the kind of stuff that computers can do that a advanced CAD type system can do that you would never think to do otherwise. It would be too complicated to manufacture any other way so-
In a more traditional process.
Correct. That’s just some of the possibilities that come along with these metal 3D printers. I got to say, I mean the footprint for these things is really small, Dirk. I mean it’s as big as the old school laser printers if you remember those in the office. Those things were sort of chunky and took up, I don’t know, a couple square feet of desk space. I mean that’s it. I mean some of the larger systems, of course, are slightly taller, etc., but this is printing metal parts with some minor post processing, you can have these custom metal parts for your prototype or what have you. Some of the demos were even showing how you can scale these.
So if you start off with a couple of these machines, you can connect them together using a print queuing system, which reminds me very much of my days when I used to do more printing. So they can have a queuing system that sends the information to a group of these printers and if one print fails, it just moves it to the next printer. So essentially, you have the possibility of some level of scale as well with these printers, at least the advanced ones.
So as I was looking at these, I couldn’t help but think about all our conversations around compressing time and space with smart-ware, which is really what it’s all about. So there’s no longer this long wait for your supply chain in theory. You can now have parts to either fix a broken machine or to generate some object either at a service bureau or maybe even some day at your home.
So it was really exciting to see these things and you can tell that the CEOs who were giving these presentations are pretty excited as well because nothing like this has ever really hit the market before. Even the systems, they’re maybe $120,000, which what sounds like a lot, but if you think about how much money I spent on like photocopiers.
Realize that this is not a lot of money when you’re talking about office machinery.
Yeah, and it’s very B2B and also very niche, right. There aren’t a whole lot of diverse businesses that would need on-demand metal fabrication of stuff, right.
Yeah, that’s true. It’s funny though because once you start using your imagination around the possibilities for things as we start thinking differently about our supply chains and these machines get incorporated into it, I mean today, it is very niche, but as the technology improves, I could see everything from small mechanic shop to the aforementioned copier shops to even folks who are willing to do a little DIY work at home all taking advantage of this.
It’s interesting because there’s a certain … I mean the maker movement really encapsulates this well. There’s a desire to make things, to build things and we’ve become very reliant on sort of overseas channels for delivering cheap goods to our doors. So that’s not quite as prevalent in today’s culture, but I mean like my grandparent’s generation, they were making just about everything. I could see a big change in the relationship between consumerism and sort of the burgeoning maker culture.
Talk more about that on the consumer side because I’m … First of all, it’s interesting. It’s cool, these advances, but I’m struggling to see what their application would be in terms of for the consumer. I see it in the supply chain, in the big picture, but in the context of why would I as a consumer want this machine sitting in my house that fabricates metal, right? We’ve got machines now that fabricate pages of print. We don’t have many that fabricate plastic, although some people do it for fun, but why would the consumer want a machine that fabricates metal in their house?
Yeah, it might be at your house. It might be at your library for instance. I mean I’m always order … I have an old dishwasher, for instance, and these parts rust out on me, right, and they’re easy to snap out and snap in.
That’s a good example though. I would want the repair man to just show up with the part.
Yeah. I mean, yeah, if you’re willing to pay for the hourly time for the service, sure.
You’re saying you would DIY it.
Do it yourself, DIY it, yeah, yeah.
Yeah, do it yourself. I mean I already order the parts online. It would be very cool if I could just get a digital file and it would print out in my basement printer so that’s the example. Or I have a pool, right, so there’s all sorts of weird parts for pools, mostly plastic, but there’s all kinds of weird stuff that I order off of Amazon and stuff that I sort of jerry-rig because having a pool basically makes you a unskilled plumber, right, so you immediately need these whack-a-do parts.
So this isn’t in the kitchen. This is in the garage next to your toolbox basically.
That’s how it would impact consumers.
Right. I suppose I mean there’s … I’ve got all sorts of everything from picture hangers to nuts and bolts to drill bits to just things where I never know where they are and sometimes, you really need something like I don’t know if … So, for instance, I know that coming down the road, you can print titanium, right. So if I needed a drill bit to drill a hole for a bolt or something in my door, right, rather than go out to the hardware store, I might print a titanium saw drill bit that pops on the front of my drill. It’s sort of all of the things that you can imagine.
So sometimes when I’m shopping on Amazon just like do they have this kind of LED light bulb and I’ll just search on sort of this strange part and sometimes I find it. What if you can do that, but it’s just sort of you can imagine something that’s simple? What if there’s a CAD design for a really long drill bit that has some strange function, right, that I really need right now and then, within a few hours, I can have that and go back to work instead of having to wait for all these things? So it makes all that possible.
Exactly. What’s funny is this is just sort of the beginning. I’m not saying all these libraries exist. I know some of these things exist for the CAD libraries for plastic parts and that’s what I was talking about a little bit too about the maker culture and like my grandmother would just sew clothes. She had that skill, but she would have to get the materials to make dresses and things like that.
There was an oral tradition that passed down over generations that imbued her with the ability to do that craft.
Right. So I see some analogs there just as she was able to find her materials. The materials that we need to keep some of our modern appliances going or it’s not readily apparent and some of them are very customized and so it returns some power to the folks who can do that sort of work. That’s just sort of the first step, right. That’s not the totality of it. That’s just what I can think of off the top of my head, sort of personal, but there’s all sorts of possibilities there. My hope is I mean as we see this in the green movement just trying to reuse things and trying not to dump everything out. I think this supplements that attitude as well, reuse rather than waste.
Yeah. So you’ve been learning a lot about this and obviously very enthusiastic about it. So I’m going to treat you like an expert and you might say, “Dirk, I don’t have a freaking clue,” and that’s fine.
To me, this becoming practical at a consumer level, part of it is multiple materials and a machine. So not a metal machine here, a plastic machine here, a something else machine there. Currently, are there machines that are providing both metal and plastic multiple or is it just like here’s my plastic machine, here’s my metal machine?
Yeah. I think they’re strictly one or the other. I mean the metals, there are sort of … Maybe it takes a couple minutes to switch between metals so you can do copper or you could do steel. In the future, you’re going to be able to do titanium and other metals. So there’s a wide array of metal parts. The plastics, there’s a much broader array of machines available for the plastics, but so far as I know, there’s no plastic and metal machine, which is not to say that that’s not coming. I could see that being a good product idea.
Well, I think it has to at the consumer level because you are not going to have all these difference expensive high tech machines for different substrates, right. You may or some geek on the fringes may, but it’s not going to become more of a mass product at that point. There needs to be one magic box and that magic box needs to deal with different substrates on its own. It’s like there’s not a printer for black and yellow and magenta and blue. It’s all together in one and that’s really what it’s going to need to reach the consumer level, which it sounds like might be decades instead of years away maybe?
Yeah. I don’t think it’s that far away. One of the things that I’ve seen over the past couple years just this uptick in interest in additive fabrication across all levels whether it’s from construction to hobbyists printing out things, to even kids like using 3D printing systems. So I do think there’s some momentum here for 3D printing that’s at the consumer level. It’s just mostly kind of toys, fun things and/or art work and things like that. Less of these machines are printing a part for your dishwasher or what right now.
Yeah, it’s less practical. It’s more novelty at this point.
Right. So I think what’s significant about this, stepping back a little bit, to understand that this is an emerging technology that is rapidly advancing and that designers are really going to be challenged to understand the flow between digital and physical and that’s what we’ve talked about in the past with smart-ware. This idea that there’s less of a line between digital and physical whether you’re talking about sensors being everywhere, right, so your information in the physical world is getting digitized and in this case, the opposite. You have these digital objects, objects that maybe are generated by a computer, maybe generated by some genius imagination, right, but they’re digital objects. These are becoming physical. There’s these blurred boundaries now and it’s happening relatively quickly on multiple fronts.
To me, all of these emerging technologies converging, whether you’re talking about the internet of things, 3D printing, I remember we’ve talked about the biological side of things all the time with neuroscience and genomics, there’s this convergence of emerging technologies coming together that separately are amazing, but together are that much more powerful. So I’m always impressed with the things that I saw on TV as a kid like watching Star Trek, The Next Generation, the replicator, right. This replicator can’t make me earl gray hot like Captain Picard spoke to his computer and immediately had a cup of hot tea, but we’re starting to approach that with certain types of materials and certain types of objects.
I actually think a hot tea replicator in the house is sooner coming than a metal fabricator in the house. Ironically, I was just thinking today about it’ll be nice to replicate fried chicken in the house and I think that’s going to take a longer time.
Probably. A run to KFC might be a little bit quicker, but we’ll look forward to that.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to this show, you can follow along with the things that we are mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the digitalife.com. That’s just one L in the Digital Life and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everyone, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you are listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
You can find the Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollet. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Go Invo, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk.
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.
So that’s it for Episode 231 of the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.