ITS Weekly - 28 April 2017

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Headline of the Week: The 3-D Printer That Could Finally Change Design, Development and Someday Manufacturing

It feels like the idea of designing and fabricating things is making a comeback. We have started a makerspace on campus. There was a meme of this ilk related to woodworking in my Facebook feed this morning with lots of comments about the value of creating and making. In yesterday’s mail came the latest issue of MIT Technology Review and the first article that caught my eye was one describing a young firm’s effort developing a 3D printer for fabricating metal parts. They intend for it to be of a scale for widespread use for designing and developing parts. Looking into the future they imagine their technology might fundamentally change manufacturing.

Let’s quickly review the current situation. Lot of firms make inexpensive 3D printers for plastics. You can make some useful things and plastic models of many others. In advanced manufacturing settings, very expensive machines with specialized high power lasers and highly skilled technicians can make metal parts that are extraordinarily expensive and only practical for making very value parts and ones for which other fabrication approaches are difficult or impossible. For example, GE makes a specialized fuel nozzle for a new jet engine by fusing layers of metal powder together with advanced laser technology.

The firm is called Desktop Metal. They endeavor to develop two machines. One would be a “desktop” 3D printing machine for designers and prototypers and other would be bigger and faster for practical manufacturing. Breakthroughs include speeding up the process of building up layers of metal powder and binder and the development of a specialized microwaves that, once the part is printed, burn off the polymer, make the metal more dense, fusing it  together and all below the melting point.

This is the sort of technology that can unleash the creativity of artists and designers and fundamentally change the economics of reproduction. If widely distributed machines can print parts then, in addition to the cost of the raw materials, transportation costs to and from alternative mass production sites play a bigger role and costs associated with labor a smaller one. Much has to come together for these scenarios to play out but it is fun to imagine the idea of a 3D printer for metal parts coming to a makerspace near us!

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Suggested Reading/Viewing/Listening:

The 3-D Printer That Could Finally Change Manufacturing by David Rotman

ITS Blog Highlights from the Week

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ITS Weekly is published most Fridays by Paul Mattson, Executive Director of Information Technology Services at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Content is made available under Creative Commons license.