Last night I tweeted a link to the Press Release from NASA regarding their success with testing a rocket engine injector made through additive manufacturing, or as we say these days, 3D printing. What surprised me was the reaction I got via re-Tweets, messages and people just saying ‘wow!’. I think what caught people’s attention was the potential highlighted by this success for NASA. Great science, great technology but I’m also heartened by the potential for manufacturing and for business.
Conducted at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland this demonstration may lead to more efficient manufacturing of rocket engines, saving manufacturing costs and radically changing the time to develop, test and deploy new or spare parts in an industry that demands the highest quality manufacturing imaginable. The tests, using selective laser melting manufacturing technology, a practice that uses high-powered lasers to melt and fuse metallic powders into strong 3D structures. illustrates the capacity to design, manufacture and test critical rocket components. Goddard’s problem long ago became NASA’s – the work required in trajectory optimisation for safe and reliable flight could even be reduced as stronger compounds are 3D printed into components capable of sustaining more and more G-force at time of launch.
I’ve been rambling on for a year or so about the success of YouTube in democratising entertainment and how it’s helped slash the cost of program making, given power back to creative program makers and provided a platform for those with something to say. Yes, there’s a good share of dross and inanity, mainstream media has it’s fair share also, but the potential is undeniable.
In a similar way, 3D Printing is about far more than printing Skylander characters for your nephew, although entertainment and consumerism will probably drive the price reduction of consumer 3D printers over the next three years, However, what’s exciting me is the prospect of prototyping and small scale manufacture for small businesses at a fraction of the cost once required. As a start-up owner, if your biggest concern is raising $10,000 to get a prototype of your new idea made, your business may never get off the ground. If though, you can 3D Print a prototype with different textures, colours or features you could prove a concept fast without a large outlay, and find yourself pursuing the end-goal quicker.
Sites like Shapeways, Sculpteo and Ponoko are already providing this service and yes, if you need 10,000 vases manufactured quickly you will find it cheaper to have them made in China, but if you need 10 vases to prove the concept, do PR and garner the opinion of your family, 3D Print Bureaus are the best, fastest and most cost-effective option. Companies like Irish based Mcor Technologies, and New York’s MakerBot with their Replicator 2 are two of the most interesting companies in this industry. Makerbot was was recently acquired for over $400 million by Stratasys, a maker of industrial 3D Printers who have now added a consumer line-up to their portfolio – putting them head to head again with old foe, 3D Systems.
MakerBot’s Replicator 2 is easy to use and, in its second incarnation, a true consumer 3D Printer that’s helping to power the ‘Maker Movement‘. Despite being essentially a consumer product it has a good sized build-envelope – or volume – available to build your models, almost 400 cubic inches using the plastic filament Polylactic Acid (PLA). Mcor Technologies’ Iris Colour printers, incredibly, use paper – really, the same paper you buy in a ream and put in your laser printer, to build remarkable and durable models, and given the source material, at a significantly lower cost than other 3D Printers and with a lower impact on the environment. In an announcement earlier this year, Mcor and Staples announced that the Iris printers will be used exclusively in Staples Experience Centre’s that will amongst other business services, make 3D Print services available to the public with the first Experience Centre recently opening in Amsterdam.
I bumped in to Mcor co-founder Dr. Conor MacCormack a couple of months ago one Sunday morning on my way in to do Technology in Business on Newstalk and Conor was on the way out, but he graciously took some time to show me the models he’d been discussing on air with Bobby Kerr. Radio could never convey the most remarkable quality of the models – the texture. In particular, I was enthralled with a skull. Printed in colour and brilliantly detailed I couldn’t get over how it felt, almost as if more than three dimensions were at work. Since then Mcor have demonstrated just how durable printed parts can be – have a look at the ‘paper’ bottle opener video on YouTube above.
When you consider the accessibility of printers from MakerBot, the durability and low-cost operation of printers from Mcor and the precision of NASA’s requirement you see that 3D printing is a technology that can liberate some industries, consumers and entrepreneurs. NASA’s Game Changing Division has a small budget, around $150 million last year – but they may just have completed a project of immeasurable value that could impact not only the space program but the world of business.
The ability for precision manufacturing has been proven beyond doubt by sharp minds at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, and wide-spread accessibility and cost-effectiveness has been proven by MakerBot and Mcor. Seldom wrong, technology investor and sage Mary Meeker said we need to re-think everything these days, these guys already have.