It used to be that you needed a large factory to produce things like bikes and cars. Now, you can do it with a printer. A printer? Yes, a printer. Every 3D object is a combination of 2D layers. Special precision printers build microscopic layer upon layer until the desired object is born. It sounds very sci-fi, but it’s a proven science that some people use today to build everyday objects.
How 3D Printing Works
3D printing was originally patented by Chuck Hull in the mid-1980s. Since that time, the technology has improved dramatically. Now, pretty much anyone with some space in their home can set up a 3D print shop and create production-ready items.
The first thing you need is a conceptual design. These are done on a computer with digital modelling (CAD program) or animation modelling software. If you don’t happen to be a designer, there are a few places where you can download ready-made designs. if you want a truly customised part, hire a designer.
Once you’ve got the design, it’s time to print it. The files types used for this type of printing are STL files. These files are “stereolithography” or “Standard Tessellation Language” files. They contain three-dimensional polygons, sliced up, so that the printer can easily process the information.
All 3D printing occurs through an additive manufacturing process. In other words, items are produced by layering materials on top of one another, and then fusing those materials together. The finished product is equivalent to something you would see made in a large-scale factory in some cases.
All 3D prints share a common element – they are built in layers. In fact, if you look closely enough, you may be able to see the layers on some finished products. However, high-end printers are often quite good at “hiding” the layers. For example, the Objet Connex can lay down materials at just 16 microns thick.
3D Printing Projects: A Bicycle
A lot of projects have evolved over the years to take advantage of this technology. The oddest is 3D printed meat. Yes meat. A start-up, called Modern Meadow, wants to solve the world’s hunger problem by printing meat on demand.
Other startups just want to make something as simple as a bike.
In Filton, two engineers have set out to create a working bicycle made out of a special powder designed for 3D printers. While most engineers understand just how awesome this technology is for solving manufacturing problems and creating parts “on the fly,” it has escaped the purview of everyday citizens because – well – who needs to be able to print a ball bearing for a wheel hub, a valve, or hinge brackets for an engine cowling? Answer: only engineers, really.
But making the printing process a commercial success depends on appealing to the retail market. If normal people can make everyday objects, it’ll be the greatest invention since the printing press or the personal computer. Imagine being able to make a new toaster at home if yours breaks – or even a new set of glassware.
Andy Hawkins and Chris Turner are the brains behind a new nylon bike made entirely with a 3D printer. Working at the Aerospace Innovation Centre in Bristol, UK, they are able to show the power this technology holds for consumers.
The first step in the process was the design. Special design problems included the ball bearings and a bike handle that turns.
Ball bearings are especially difficult to design, because they needed to be made inside the hub assembly. If the bearings came out too loose or too tight, the entire bike would have failed to function properly.
Fortunately, the team eventually got it working after a few failed attempts. The prototype is something that the two actually rode around a parking lot – proving that the technology has practical uses for making everyday objects.
A far more challenging project is creating a working automobile that can be driven on the public roads, but that’s exactly what Jim Kor wants to do. His vision is coming to life thanks, in part, to 3D printing. His creation is called the “Urbee 2,” and it promises to revolutionise the automobile industry.
Because the vehicle isn’t made on an assembly line, there are no employees to pay (except those running the printers). The “design in layers” means that there are fewer smaller parts and more large unibody-type pieces. This isn’t Kor’s first time up to bat either. He’s designed tractors, buses, and commercial swimming pools too. So, a car should be a snap, right? Not so fast.
While the printing process is “lights out” (all he has to do is start the printer and turn the lights out and walk away), the design process is intensive.
Once that initial designing is done, however, the process is easy to replicate. There’s not much in the way of assembly, since smaller pieces like vents, interior door panels, knobs, and levers can be constructed together. Some parts, like vents, can be constructed without visible seams, providing an excellent fit and finish when the vehicle comes “hot off the press.”
Another benefit to reducing the number of individual pieces is that the vehicle itself sheds weight. Coming in at just 545 kg, it’s one of the lightest vehicles on the road. Because it’s comprised of just 50 pieces, damaging a component might mean that an entirely new vehicle must be constructed. This hasn’t deterred Kor though.
For him, the standards for safety are high – “We’re calling it race car safety,” he says. Ideally, the car will pass a tech inspection required at Le Mans. However, it’ll be street legal. With just three wheels, it’s more of a motorcycle than a passenger vehicle. Also, it will have a metal tubular frame and a traditional diesel engine coupled to an electric motor.
Still, the shell of the vehicle will be at least as strong as its sheet-metal counterpart. Kor has 14 orders for his printed car already. The cost of the prototype is estimated to be about £33,000 – comparable to the cost of a traditionally constructed vehicle.