3-D Printing may not take off until next year, still revolutionary

Jed Barker | Collegian This freshly printed piece consists of the plastic part encased in special support material. The support materials is used to fill in and support hollow or overhanging features of the design since the printer cannot print over thin air.Photo credit: Jed Barker.

3-D printing has been making many waves recently. The current chatter is that it is going to hit the market in a big way by 2014. According to the business news media site Quartz, patents currently preventing competition in the industry are keeping the cost of 3-D printers high. High-end printers are upwards of $10,000 while according to PC Magazine, Staples offers the home version at the lower price of $1,300. However, those patents expire next year, and will make the current design of 3-D printers and those to follow much cheaper.

But what exactly does a 3-D printer do?

“The 3-D printer allows students to build or to have complicated parts manufactured at low costs,” said Dale Schinstock, professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering and co-advisor for the Unmanned Aerial Systems design team.

Complicated parts that can be created include decorations, models, bowls and 3-D printers. That’s right – printers can now print fellow printers.

“By far the coolest printing design was parts to build another 3-D printer,” said Eric Wagner, research technician for the mechanical and nuclear engineering department. “We printed everything up in the printer except for the servo motors, the electronics and the fastenings. Everything but the nuts and bolts basically.”

K-State currently has a fused deposition modeling printer in the mechanical and nuclear engineering department. Fused deposition modeling is where the printer starts on a tray where it deposits the material layer by layer on top of each other. To get around spaces and holes so the piece doesn’t collapse in on itself, the printer has another nozzle that lays down support material that dissolves in a simple chemical solution. That is a very different result from more conventional means of producing parts.

“It would take more money and a better part of a day to machine the same part out of steel,” Wagner said. “You can build things with the printer that would be impossible to machine.”

It also eliminates waste. 3-D printing is known as additive manufacturing, meaning that in the production process one would only use what they need and nothing more. It is exactly the opposite of manufacturing steel, since that requires a piece of metal to be reduced and cut down to size with scraps leftover.

Terry Beck, professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering, said he uses the printer for class.

“We’ve used the rapid prototyping system to build wing models for running tests in our wind tunnel,” Beck said. “In aerodynamics, the final project is to build a glider and testing it inside Weber Arena. The goal being is to try and have your glider fly from one side to the other.”

An example of this type of printing was shown as a ball inside of square cube frame. When Wagner picked up the object, the ball moved against the cube frame holding it.

“That was printed together exactly like that, with support material keeping the frame and the ball separate,” Wagner said. “There is no way one could machine this in the same way. The machine tool wouldn’t fit between the frame and the ball. This would take three machined pieces with the frame welded together to get the same result.”

While other projects completed by K-State’s 3-D printer have been universitywide, the main usage of the printer is for mechanical and nuclear engineering itself – though anyone can get a design printed for $50 plus materials used.

“The machine is great for prototyping work,” Wagner said. “One utility of the printer is that it is time saving. We can print parts for projects to see if they fit in a few hours. If it is not a high strength application, then the part is an end user product.”

Schinstock said the printer was a great way for students to have parts made at low costs, but there is a catch. Low strength applications rears up again, though with flight involved new problems with the printer’s results emerge.

“Plastic is heavy. Most builds use materials like balsa wood and carbon fiber for the body,” Schinstock said. “If we incorporate it, we can’t make it big. The pieces we use are mostly mounts to put the equipment in the air craft.”

The process is great for its timeliness, especially in a classroom setting. It is even better than the older version they used.

“The older process involved a laser curing resin into sticking in place,” Beck said. “Being made out of resin made the material very heavy and dense. It made the process of sanding the part very hard as it was also brittle.”

With the current level of 3-D printing, smooth is an impossibility. Since it is put down level by level, the material staircases. To put it in the terms of graphics, the printers are still pixelated.

This should not be a problem for the next generation of 3-D printers, which use a process called selective laser sintering. It takes small units of material and puts them together with a laser. It is thought to be the next big thing as its products can be sold as finished goods. With the patents in place, the only way to get use of such printers is through Shapeways, a company that runs 3-D printers for clients.

According to the Wall Street Journal, however, there are a few reasons why 3-D printing is not the big revolution that people seem to believe it is. It takes a few hours for the item to be printed – way too long to work on a mass produced scale. Injection molding and metal forming deal with a wider variety of products that 3-D printing can currently handle, but there is a problem of durability.

In the end, 3-D printing has lots of future and current uses for K-State. Even with a few hiccups in mass production, those issues look to be taken care of within the next year when patents expire and everyone can get there hands on this technology.