Outbreaks of the future: 3d printing.

15 March 2012

More and more in the year 2012 of the common era, I find myself noticing what Warren Ellis once called 'outbreaks of the future'. Advances and developments in technology that were once the thoughts of the dreamers of science and are now the fruits of the labor of shapers and makers of novel things. Perhaps it's due to my lack of 3d modeling ability that I tend to focus on the field of 3D printing, which has fascinated me since I helped build a 3d printer several years ago. So it goes.

The first thing that I noticed was that a new speed record has been set for true three dimensional nanoscale fabrication. Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria printed a model of a formula 1 racecar that is slightly over a fifth of a millimeter in length using a stereolithography apparatus that uses laser light projected into a tank of liquid photosetting resin. By using laser light it is possible to tune the beam down to a fantastically small diameter, sometimes no more than a couple of individual photons in size. The particular resin used will only harden if struck by two photons simultaneously, which not only leaves a lot of room for error but also makes it possible to create extremely small but detailed structures. The model was built up of about one hundred layers, each of which is constructed out of about two hundred horizontal lines. Total fabrication time: about four minutes by the clock on the wall. If you look at the pictures the accompany the article, you will note that all of them were taken through a microscope, to give you a sense of the scale upon which that toy was made. That the printing process from start to finish only took four minutes at that scale is nothing short of amazing. That kind of thing was limited to semiconductor fabs just a few short years ago, and now it's being done in a university setting.

The next blip picked up by my infonet's spiders is from the other side of the fabrication and manufacturing spectrum. Ordinarily, materials can be molded into the correct shape but sometimes additive fabrication isn't the easiest or most efficient way of constructing something. The other set of techniques is subtractive fabrication, or taking a block of base material and machining it down into a final form. This is something that, I am given to understand, is most often done by skilled machinists with very expensive and difficult to use equipment. CAD-CAM has been around for over twenty years but until now it's always required a significant amount of manual intervention on the part of a machinist. Sometime last year the Japanese company Daishin Seki demonstrated a five-axis automill that carved a funky motorcycle helmet out of a block of solid aluminum without any human assistance as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. The helmet has no welds, no joins, and no seams whatsoever. The precision of the machine, both in its finished product and how it operates is nothing short of amazing. The cutting head is mounted on a waldo that pivots around the base block (which is bolted to a mobile platform) and the two swivel in concert around one another in ways that a human machinist operating a lathe is simply incapable of due to a lack of limbs and ambidexterous coordination. Also, I'm willing to bet that all of the slivers of aluminum were flying at velocities sufficient to pose a safety hazard, and the protective gear that would be necessary for a person would encumber the manufacture process to a large extent.

Last and certainly not least, a little something from the field of biotechnology. At the University of Hasselt in Belgium an 83 year old woman suffering from a bone infection that was destroying her mandible recieved a perfect replacement manufactured with a 3d printer. Ordinarily reconstructive surgery using pieces of bone harvested from other parts of the body and shaped to fit would be employed, but the woman's advanced age resulted in the traditional option being considered too risky. The 3d printing company Layerwise was contracted to construct her prosthetic. An industrial 3d printer using laser sintering and powdered titanium feedstock constructed a perfect replica of her lower jaw which had been scanned earlier; the data was sliced into horizontal layers, 33 layers to the millimeter, and a laser fused the powdered titanium into a solid piece of metal over the course of just a few hours (your average day at work, I'd say). The resolution of the original scan was so fine that even the attachment points for the patient's facial muscles and the articulation were replicated. Cam Bioceramics BV was called in to coat the titanium replica with a biocompatible ceramic to facilitate surgery. As it turns out it took longer to run the titanium mandible off on the 3d printer than it did to surgically implant it (time under the knife: four hours, down from twenty hours for conventional reconstructive surgery). Recovery time for an 85 year old woman? Mere days.

Guess what? The future is officially here. As William Gibson so cogently observed it's not evenly distributed yet, but the operative word here is 'yet'. Right now 3d printing is most commonly found in the lab or in industry, but that's rapidly changing. Fab labs are starting to catch on, and this technology is becoming cheaper and more accessible. Open source fabrication technologies are still, by comparison, primitive, but you also have to take into account the fact that the open and closed source sides of the fence are busily cross-polinating one another, and there is a certain amount of personnel overlap these days.

Keep an eye on Thingiverse and The Pirate Bay for new and interesting things that you might be printing in your basement or home workshop one day soon.