From mind to model

Posted on Nov 1, 2013 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

When companies can turn ideas into reality within 24 hours, it’s not hard to imagine the powerful impact 3D printing can have on the manufacturing industry. Simply put, 3D printing technology turns 3D computer models into prototypes by “printing” the model, layer by layer, using various substances such as powder or plastic to create a tangible object.

“It’s an easy way to visualize your parts to check them for form, fit and function,” says Dean Sommerfeld, instructor of mechanical design technology at Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC). “You can model something on computer and it looks good, but it’s hard to tell scale. If you’re designing something to fit in your hand, does it fit?”

There is plenty of demand for workers trained in this technology. FVTC’s Mechanical Design Technology program has a consistent 90-plus percent graduate employment rate. The college is the only institution in the state with three fabrication laboratories (Fab Labs) and one mobile Fab Lab, according to Steve Gallagher, program specialist and Fab Lab manager at FVTC.

The University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley is also targeting the growing need for 3D printing skills and technology with its recent launch of the Center for Device, Design and Development. Officially dubbed “3DC,” it’s been described as “a platform for developing ideas into reality.” 3DC is a private-public venture seeking to connect small businesses and inventors in Wisconsin with the technical expertise and resources necessary to develop their ideas into marketable products.

In return, the inventor provides his or her support and agrees to share royalties with all involved parties.

“We do a good job of preparing our students for the technical skills they need to be successful in industry, but one aspect that could use further development is the ability to take a simple kernel of an idea and turn it into a marketable product,” said Dr. Michael Zampaloni in UWFox’s September announcement of the program. Zampaloni is 3DC’s co-director and professor of mechanical engineering for UW-Platteville.  “Through 3DC, students, working with engineers and local small businesses and manufacturers, will gain some of this invaluable experience as part of an entrepreneurial team bringing new products, ideas, and businesses to the Fox Valley area,” he added.

By supporting the Fox Cities and Northeast Wisconsin small businesses, entrepreneurs and engineering students, each product developed has the potential to directly impact the Wisconsin economy through the expansion of existing businesses, and the creation of new businesses, all supporting high-tech jobs in the local area.

“People hold on to great, innovative ideas that are just waiting to become great, innovative solutions. However, individuals may not have the technical resources or even know where to begin. The 3DC is designed to guide these individuals through the entire product development process,” said Dr. Ranen McLanahan in the statement issued by the school. McLanahan is assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UWFox and 3DC co-director.

Breaking the manufacturing mold

The 3DC announcement is encouraging news to manufacturers such as Mike Tennity of Wisconsin Plastics, Inc. (WPI) headquartered in Green Bay. WPI is a diversified contract manufacturer that provides design and development expertise, along with manufacturing and assembly, taking projects from consumer research through production. The company is one of a growing number of manufacturers in Northeast Wisconsin using 3D printing technology to develop prototypes for customers with substantial savings in time and cost.

“The matter of speed and customization are the key items,” Tennity says. “This equipment is capable of producing functional and finished parts. That allows our customers to get models that, in the past, would have required very expensive and extensive time and efforts.”

Tennity says while finding workers skilled in 3D printing technology is a challenge, local manufacturers are extremely fortunate to have what he calls “the best model-making schools in the country,” referring to NWTC, so nearby.

“Just some outstanding people come out of those programs,” he says. “There’s an excellent staff and curriculum there.”

Keeping the manufacturing pipeline full is the one of the primary goals of Gallagher’s role in outreach at FVTC, bringing the concept and practical application of 3D printing into area high schools and middle schools.

“I think we’re in for a big surprise. These kids are so technologically advanced,” says Gallagher, citing an impressive example of ingenuity from one of his middle school students. “He said to me, ‘I really liked that laser you brought in last week. I built one at home.’ And he did. He took apart a CD/DVD reader and reconstructed a laser from it.”

Tapping in to that kind of boundless creativity and imagination of young minds and connecting it with advanced technology, like 3D printing, is what Gallagher says will map out the future of manufacturing.

“The kids in middle school now will be the ones bringing 3D printing into mainstream manufacturing. Advanced manufacturing, the ability to make changes immediately, is going to change the whole manufacturing industry,” Gallagher says.

Gallagher says the FVTC outreach program reaches close to 2,000 students each year between school curriculum and the mobile Fab Lab that travels to various schools. Yet even with that wide range of interest among students, 3D printing is still a new concept to many educators.

“When I meet with teachers to discuss 3D printing projects to enhance curriculum, many have never heard of it,” Gallagher says.

3D printing isn’t new; the technology’s been around since the 1980s. What is new is the dramatic drop in cost, making 3D printers affordable for the general population.

“In the last few years there’s been an explosion of new printers at a lower cost,” Sommerfeld explains. “Where prices used to be several hundred thousand dollars, now they’re in the thousand-dollar range, or smaller.”

That kind of capability is the primary reason why a 24-hour turnaround timeframe is not an exaggeration, but a reality for manufacturers like Tennity.

“Our slogan is ‘Let’s get physical fast.’ We can turn around a prototype, from sketch to actual part, in 24 hours or less. It’s not unusual to turn these things around in hours rather than the days and weeks it would take with traditional methods,” Tennity says. “Because of that, it allows us and our customers to be much more prolific with prototypes, because they are now more easily and rapidly available.”

Tennity says the speed and availability with which customers can, literally, have a part in their hands is transforming the manufacturing landscape.

“We’ve become a prototyping culture,” he says.

Sommerfeld agrees, pointing to the vast potential 3D printing has for broadening not just manufacturing horizons but countless other industries as well.

“It’s a field that’s just exploding with possibilities,” Sommerfeld says. “It’s almost as easy as hitting ‘print screen’… You don’t have to be an engineer or scientist to come up with a new idea.  Everyone can come up with an idea.”

How it works

1  A person uses CAD (computer aided design) software to design a three dimensional (3D) model of an object, which could include a fully functioning clock or a car door handle.

2
  The computer model is communicated to a 3D printer’s pre-processor, which slices the model into different layers with varying thicknesses (1/1000 inch or smaller). The software looks at the sections (slices) to create a tool path of where it needs to have material and where it doesn’t (hollow areas) to create objects as tiny as a hearing aid or as large as an airplane wing.

3
  The 3D printer “prints” the object layer by layer in its “build box” which contains a smooth, thin bed of finely ground material such as powdered plastic. Depending on the type of printer, the printing head contains a heat source, such as a laser or an electron beam, that melts the powdered material or jets a spray binder over the powder in a precise pattern. The binder functions as a glue for the material as an object is built.

4
  Depending on the type of material used, most prototypes can be  cleaned up and ready to use right off the printer.