3D Printing a More Tangible Idea

Creación_de_Adámhands

Creación_de_Adámhands

Why write another article about 3D printing?

The internet already offers an abundance of information on the subject. Mountains, in fact.

Everyone has been talking and writing about it. It seems like every other week there’s a new research program, a new project and a new supplier emerging. Also, democratized developments like RepRap and its spin-off’s have built a vast knowledge base in the peer production realm. All True.

But there may be more to be said…

Misprint?

These days we can print out 3D objects in plastic, metal, ceramics and even organic material. We can print in just about any shape we can imagine.

All this suggests that we will soon be able to print out trains, planes, automobiles and even complex body parts. We also hear claims like; “We will print our own phones” and “Conventional manufacturing techniques will soon be rendered obsolete”.

3D printing is the holy grail to manufacturing and the distribution of products.

Well…yes and no.

Talk is cheap and the web has a way of taking that to the next level. The internet flattens things out. Sure, truth has a way of eventually rising above it all. Only the most robust of ideas will move up through the ranks and prevail. Moving from perception to proof is what brings value to something. It, at the very least, makes it more reasonable and tangible to talk about.

But that process takes time.

In the mean time how does one separate what is real from what is rumor or just plain wrong?

Conceptually, 3D printing can produce anything. But at this stage the technology presents the ability to print out the shape of an object. It can do this in a certain material and within certain accuracy. By itself that’s incredible. And, for many types of products that may be enough to get the job done. Yet, for most, there is typically a lot more involved in the manufacturing and production of functional products. The Star Trek replicator?

Not just yet.

Engines of Revolution

Labeled with words like “disruptive” and “revolution”, additive manufacturing, or 3D printing technologies as they are referred to these days, are actually not that new. The concept is old, very old. In fact, many of the patents related to the latest core technologies over the past 25 years have expired or will soon expire.

What is actually new here is the recent accessibility of these technologies to the masses. At least to some level. Specifically, low cost 3D printers for home use and 3D print service providers. You can now own your own 3D printer. You can also use a 3D print service provider which can provide the latest and greatest technologies without having to actually own a high-end and costly machine.

The impact of 3D printing on industry is undeniable. Then again…just as it was more than 25 years ago. But the revolution? Well…it is not only the technology.

The real revolution is more about accessibility and, in particular, it’s about awareness.

More specifically, awareness about how we make things, how we think about making things and how we think about things that we make. No riddle intended.

A Revolution to Shape Ideas and Culture

Rapid prototyping, free form manufacturing, additive manufacturing and 3D printing. You could dispute the differences like the different flavors of ice cream. But they, more or less, melt down to reveal the same idea.

Technology aside, the significance here is the main stream “awareness” that this brings about. Again, that by itself is the revolution. How we convert an idea into tangible and functional form.

As the hype maxes out and the debris settles it starts to reveal this awareness in a deeper and more profound way. The technology starts to diverge, it diversifies. We start exploring how it might provide solution in areas from art to research and beyond. Areas we did not think of before. And, that is when really interesting things start to happen.

3D printing is now more tangible to us in our hands, minds and in society.

It typically takes about 30 years before a really new idea can move up from concept to culture. Exponential growth. Suddenly its there. It rises very slowly and then seems to jump the curve. Jump into view. Something that moves into our minds and effects the way we do things and the ways we think about how to make things.

Moving into our culture.

As a species distinguished as tool-makers it is awareness about these things, these ideas, these technologies that fundamentally inspire and empower us.

The reason these mean so much to us is because they connects us and our worlds.

If you think about it we live and interact in 3 worlds. The interaction between the world within our minds, the virtual world within our computers and that of the real world where will all live in. Something like 3D printing enhances our ability to connect and interact between these worlds. That means a lot to us as it relates to our individualism, our independence and our freedom. Liberating our imagination.

Rapid Prototyping 

It’s not that long ago that 3D printing was considered more of a prototype method only. Something that allowed us to prototype new things very quickly. The ability to rapidly convert something from our mind into the real world. Something we can then all touch. Rapid prototyping.

In many cases you could argue that it was only that. Convincing others that 3D printing can also be used to build real world end-products seemed near impossible. Those barriers have melted away and the situation has flipped as the idea becomes more clear, touches more people and the awareness grows.

Such “awareness” pushes and even catapults the development focus of a new technology. That is what makes it great. What makes it powerful. We have just witnessed it before with the PC industry. 3D printing is now laying down another infrastructure. One that allows these technologies to diversify and be applied to an ever wider and deeper range of uses.

3D printing technologies are rapidly advancing and diversifying in applications. True. But like any revolution, what is real and what is rumor become intermixed as things move toward a critical mass. Belief and perception typically precede objective observation and proof. Claims overshoot reality. Things can become confusing.

That’s fine.

Its part of the process of innovation to imagine that what we don’t have or can’t be done…yet. Necessity will do the rest.

Exponential Growth

The success of one industry is typically the result of the success of another. One is built on the other. The magic happens when their streams combine. The merit of one embraces the other and that can form the seeds to exponential growth.

For Rapid Prototyping, 3D printing, it was the PC that provided the means. The success of the PC was bringing increasingly more powerful computational power to the masses at increasingly lower cost. This opened the door for this 3D printing technology to emerge. And, like the PC, it then moves it from concept to culture as it is doing so today. 30 years in the making.

Like before, that process will repeated itself. 3D printing will form the basis, the foundation for other technologies to be embraced and rise. Robotics?…Maybe. 3D printing can provide incredibly rapid solutions here to a large and emerging audience. Certainly in the realm of democratized developers.

Hammering Things Out

You can 3D print the exact shape of an aircraft but that does not mean that it is also going to fly. 

Products are made using materials. Materials have certain properties which allow the product to work as it was designed to. These properties include things like strength, toughness and appearance. Its not just about the shape of a product. Its about the shape and how well the materials used in a product allow it to serve some function.

Use a hammer to drive a nail into a piece of wood. Depending on your aim you will hit the nail with hammer without bending the nail. In most cases, not a problem. A trivial, age-old process that most anyone has done before.

Now lets do the same with 3D metal printed products. But don’t be surprised if the nail and/or even the hammer dents, breaks or even shatters on impact.

3D printers can print a metal hammer and a nail. True. But creating functional products involves more than just creating the shape of an object.

There are very specific technologies involved in the manufacturing of something even as trivial as a nail. Nails are typically made of rolled, cold-drawn metal. The process involves rolling and stretching the nail metal and aligning its metal crystals in such a way that allows it to become more rigid, springy, tough or otherwise less brittle. The truth of the matter is, you never really hit the nail head on. But due to its forging it is forgiving and springs back in most cases. In the worst case it bends but won’t break, let alone shatter.

The slender high heels of women’s shoes need to be strong, allow some flex but be rigid enough for support. The heel should not break off at the slightest unevenness in the floor. The front fork of a motorcycle needs to be springy. It needs to allow slight bending when loaded yet instantly bend back as well. Like the nail it should not break. The tires of your car need to grip in a multitude of conditions, produce minimal noise and also have good wear resistance. Again, products must meet many demands in order fit some application. The materials used have been designed with certain properties using various manufacturing techniques in order to make the product work like it should. It is not just the shape of a product that matters.

Think about that for a moment the next time you hear about 3D printed firearms.

To many, 3D printing firearms is about freedom, individuality and independence. It is also about the building of perception that proves the merit of the technology. At least to some level. An incentive to prove something. But I’m not sure if a lot of engineers would want to wrap their hands around one to test fire just yet.

3D print a phone? Yes. The basic shell components only. Something to customize it to your taste. To represent your individuality. But only as a special production spin-off. Contemporary production techniques will remain pretty much the same. Unchanged. Print the chips and touch screen and a lot of its other components? Don’t think so. At least not any time soon. The CPU’s and other chips are manufactured on state of art machines which dial in to high nano-meter precision. Starting cost for such a machine…32 million Dollars.

What these examples illustrate is that while the 3D printed shape of an object may suffice for an application there are more factors involved in making something work than would seem. This does not mean that 3D printing technology is not applicable for real world products. Actually, in the case of of metal printing technology, the development and the properties of these metals are advancing rapidly. It simply means that the technology to induce certain specific and required properties in 3D printed materials might not be there yet. Or, there may be a lot more involved to get there. These property requirements can certainly not be overlooked.

It is not just about making something work. It is also about making it work well. Certainly in every sense you would expect the non-3D printed version to work. There are also many other factors involved in manufacturing and production. What about production time, cost and output?

3D printing offers amazing manufacturing solutions. With many more advancements ahead. This is just the beginning. Again, this is just the beginning.

There is still a lot to do.

Note: This post is an excerpt. The full article is available here

 

Posted in Culture & Technology Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Desktop 3D printers, the Next Phase

buildingblocks

buildingblocks

3D printing is often labeled with words such as “disruptive” and “revolution”. Actually the technologies are not that new. In fact many of the patents related to the core 3D printing technologies have expired or will expire soon. The technology has been around for some time.

What is new is the level of accessibility. 3D printing is now available for the masses. You and me. At least at some level.

Moreover, what is really new here is the awareness that has emerged for these technologies. And, that, in itself, can be considered the revolution.

As the level of awareness rises so also does the spectrum of applications widen, become deeper and more specialized.

It usually takes about 20-30 years before a truly unique idea moves from concept to culture. The introduction of one technology is also typically the result of the success of another. In terms of 3D printing technology it was the PC. The progressively decreasing cost of computational power effectively brought these 3D print technologies to industry. But it was communities on the internet that brought 3D printing to such a state of accessibility and awareness as it is today.

The hype aside, the technology becomes part of our culture. This in the sense that it allows us to think about manufacturing in a new way. How we convert our ideas into something more tangible and functional. It brings manufacturing a step closer to us with less reliance on a centralized system elsewhere. It customizes what we want and the way that we want it.

There are many 3D printing techniques in existence. Not just one. But the Fused Deposition Modeling technique (FDM) was probably the most responsible in forming the entry point for this revolution. At least a good part of it. It’s not the best 3D printing technique. There is no such thing as best. What is best depends on how well something fits an application.

The working materials for the FDM process are widely available, inexpensive and the resulting prints can be durable with little to no post-processing. The concept and workings of the FDM process also require only a simple, relatively low-cost design setup to get started. Together these factors imply accessibility. Accessibility for all. That sparked a conversation which grew bigger and bigger. This formed large communities, developing the technology and, most of all, building awareness. A viral marketing process emerged. One that continues to grow.

But what’s next? What could we expect to be the next evolutionary phase in desktop 3D printers?

There are several candidates to choose from. Some of the most popular include Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) which uses sheets of material and SLS type techniques that use powders.

Each technique has its own merit and limitations. But if the recent past tells us something about the near future then Stereo Lithography (SLA) would seem to be the choice. At least, it seems to be the best fit.

Stereo Lithography for home and even small business use? This would be hard to imagine 15 years ago and it would have been met with a lot skepticism. But don’t get me wrong. The historic SLA process, patented in the late 80s, formed the foundation of 3D printing as we know it today. The technique has gone through a long process of development and it has some serious merit to offer.

But, traditionally, the technique also had some serious limitations as a desktop or home use device. Apart from the printing device itself, probably the most apparent is that it relies on photo-cure resins to build 3D models.

The process is sound, it works. In fact, it works very well. But the resins involved are typically toxic, messy and costly with limited shelve life. All in all, too cumbersome, complex and costly for many let alone the average consumer.

But recent changes in design approaches and, in particular, the resins involved are making a difference. The development and diversity of photo cure resins and suppliers are creating a better fit for this process on our desktop.

More of us are now more aware of what’s involved in 3D printing. What it can do, what it can’t do and how it should be done. The collective view of 3D printing is becoming more realistic and tangible as the hype debris settles and our experience grows.

More on the past, present and possible future of 3D printing.

Posted in Culture & Technology Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Crowd Funding. More than just a conversation

phonescope3d

phonescope3d

Trying to raise money for your idea? Crowd funding might be the answer. Not just as an alternative to the traditional investment mechanism. But as part of a bigger plan in the process of liberating your idea. A plan that enhances the social-bond between people. And, that may actually make the difference between a successful project or not. 

Back to Basics

What is Crowd Funding?

We have probably all heard about it by now; Crowd Funding. In case you haven’t, crowd funding is a mechanism that allows you to fund a project through contributions. Typically, you place your project on some type of internet crowd funding platform. This platform provides the means to expose and find contributors for your project. But that’s a very simplified explanation of this mechanism.

You have created something interesting, useful or just plain cool. People may like what you are doing and want to contribute to it in some way. Their incentive may be as simple as that. Their support may be by sharing it with others, spreading the word. But some may even go as far as sending you money to help finance your project.

It should be obvious that crowd funding is not something new. It’s been around for as long as we can remember.

What is new is what the internet brings to this mechanism. More specifically the web of digital connections that links most all of us together. Social media in particular. Our global village. Being connected within such a vast inter connected network resembles some form of pseudo-consciousness. A mass awareness. And, when stimulated in the right way things can go viral in this global village of ours.

“Hello World?” The world might just say “Hi” back and even support what you are doing in a very big way. Within that process crowd funding bypasses some of the traditional funding and development mechanisms. What’s more, it puts you and your idea in direct contact with the most important part of your project; your backers, your fan-base, your audience. It’s a dream scenario for any creator.

“While the ownership of the idea may be in the hands of the artist its the interaction between the artist and a community which can make something truly unique”[B.J. Rao]

Yet, to many, the crowd funding idea and workings may be a bit confusing. The reason for this is that it’s not exactly an investment mechanism. At least not in the traditional sense. In addition, the reason why certain projects find funding and others do not may not be immediately apparent as would seem.

Crowd Funding vs Venture Capital

You probably know the situation. You have got a great idea, an inspiration. You have worked it out and its merit is clear. A new product or solution and even a new business or industry could unfold from it. Or, maybe you just want to get something organized that makes change in the world. The objective now is gaining the means to do that, sharing it. Liberate that idea. Yet, in most cases you’ll be needing investment, people and money. Those that participate get a stake in the business somehow.

Securing investment through traditional means can be a daunting undertaking. It’s no walk in the park. The process of finding, communicating and convincing investors about investing in your idea can be very challenging. Finding the right investor at the right time tends to be a hit and miss tactic. Most of the time you may miss and your time is precious. Investors are looking for ideas that are tangible, workable and make sense to them. Its got to be a sure thing in the mind of the investor. You need to build that business plan and build that perception. Hammer in a vision that they can relate to and understand. And, that can take time, a lot of time.

In 2005 I introduced the first ultra-low cost 3D scanner after a year and a half of development. My vision was simple; capture and consolidate the upcoming 3D market. More importantly, build a community. Achieve this by providing a wider audience access to these technologies by reducing their cost and complexity. Provide just about anyone with the means to capture 3D content, visualize it and even print it. My idea was to make the start, build the perception and bring people together. Empowering others was at the center of what I was doing. Build a conversation.

Yet, convincing potential investors in early 2000 that 3D scanning/printing would have revolutionary effect on the market in 3-5 years was a futile task. “It’s too niche” was the response that I received. It did not matter how I explained it nor did it matter what type of tangible technology I placed on the table. I felt like Jobs trying to get funding for the personal computer.

That was my story and I am sure that many out there can relate to this situation. It became clear that getting your idea off the launch pad would require some other approach. Finding investors is simply too futile a path to follow for most new start-ups.

But why try to convince just a few investors at a time? Crowd funding can bypass this and put you and your project/product in direct contact with a very large audience. You get to test your idea and its value on the market. If it works, well, sky is the limit. And, many have proved that it can be an effective way to find incredible levels of funding in a very short amount of time.

We are not talking about just thousands, we are talking about finding hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in support.

Yet, what’s confusing to many is that those people who contribute to a project typically do not get a stake in the business! You are not buying into the business. There is no traditional ROI (Return on Investment) in the form of cash. To the contributors the investment is in making the project happen. Being part of the solution. They are making a statement. Typically the project creators will reward their contributors with the actual product or souvenirs or some other type of recognition for their support.

It should be stated that the reason for this construct has, for a greater part, to do with legislation. Yet, President Obama has recently made changes to this legislation and we can expect things to change.

This new legislation would make it much less difficult for entrepreneurs to find funding through crowd funding. More specifically it would make it less difficult for most anybody to invest in a business or product. Buy into an idea. IPO at the idea stage. This is part of the JOBS act. But that’s another story.

It would all seem that crowd funding will displace the traditional means to finding investment. Actually this is not entirely true. For one thing, crowd-funding is not for everyone nor is it for every idea or creation.

Crowd funding should not be seen as a replacement for the investment mechanism. Rather, it can, in some cases and for some people, actually supplement the process.

A successful crowd funded project can serve as a stepping-stone, a prelude to achieving greater chances for finding investment. Crowd funding allows you to prove yourself and your idea to others. It can be a powerful means to build perception about you, your team and capacity to create.

Good Conversation can be Worth Millions

Marketing = communication. It’s conveying a message. But just illustrating the merit of your product and/or service is in many cases not enough. Marketing used to be, more or less, a one way street. Not so today.

Air time on TV or radio, an ad in the newspaper or magazine? Once effective ways to deliver your message. But that mechanism is breaking down. Today, marketing is an interactive process, a two way street between you and your audience.

The most important relation for most any business is its relation with its customers. A great idea? That’s great. Yet, its the interaction and relation between you and your customers that can make for great solutions, products and business.

“They say it takes a community to raise a child. Nurturing an idea to successful product is much the same” [B.J. Rao]

We have seen how important it is for many businesses to start a conversation about what they do. More specifically “why” they do what they do. And, build a community that surrounds that.

Most all of us are connected one click away. Our connections mean that we can seed a conversation which can grow very rapidly. Something that propagates your message like never before. Products and services that people will talk about. These have the greatest potential for spreading the word and delivering the message.

Crowd funding works in a similar manner. Crowd funding projects are also referred to as “conversation projects”. The idea is that they are special enough to talk about. The question is, will the conversation spread and will it spread fast enough for you to find support.

But a good conversation is not just about your product or project. Letting your product or project speak for itself is not enough. It’s in many ways about your story. Does your story make for good conversation?

Sure, many crowd-funded projects have become successful because they clearly fill in some need and/or solve some problem. Yet many others seem to be equally or more successful for their conversation merit alone and the story that seeded it. Reviewing the many successful projects out there will reveal this. At the same time there have been many really good projects which did not succeed  They could not find support. They could not seed enough conversation.

But what makes for good conversation material? More specifically what makes for good conversation products or projects? There are a plurality of answers and these may depend on a multitude of situations. But probably the best way to answer this is how your story will empower others. More specifically, how will your story, product and/or project leverage and even empower the social bonding between others.

“A great conversation is that which contributes to enhancing our social bonding” [B.J. Rao]

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