2003-07-24 – The way of the Future – Rapid Prototyping to a final solution

I got a phone call this week, from a company called Stratasys. Stratsys make some very interesting machines, including one called the FDM Titan, which is capable of making ABS and polycarbonate plastic things from, well, ABS or polycarbonate. This non-sequiter is the truth, but it is the way in which it uses what is effectively a 3D printer to produce any closed CAD model you can think of (or rather, design in AutoCAD!) and very quickly produce a working model, which is surprisingly tough. Yes, I said working model. ou see, the patented \”WaterWorks\” system that the Titan uses allows the use of a water soluble \”plastic\” that can be used to fill and create gaps in use, whilst providing support in the construction phase. After construction, the support structures are dissolved, and so the working parts are no longer stuck together. A one piece plastic adjustable wrench was the sample part supplied to me.

The process id called FDM, or Fusion Deposition Modelling, and works like a dye sublimation printer, but using a thin layer of plastic, which rapidly builds up into your part.

Very soon, 3D printers will be available to the home. For example, currently, the machines cost from $30,000, but, as with most things, the prices will drop as more units are bought. Eventually, we will se these things on desks in most offices that do design, and in the homes of the rich. Want a new table decoration? Download the CAD model and hit print. Want a 30ft banner for a welcome home party? Make a nice plastic one that won’t dissolve in the rain. Fancy a new Nokia phone facia? To your personal spec?

Other machines exist, including stereolithography machines, (but they require curing in an oven afterwards, and the ingredients go off after a short time) and \”Direct Metal\”, which produces the part in a steel alloy, from a fine metal powder, sintered by laser (though this lacks the ability to make moving parts in one go i.e. without an assembly step).

Having held the parts from each of these technologies, I can tell you that the future of them is bright. Stereolithography can produce transparent objects in shapes that would be imposible to produce by any other method, the Fusion Deposition Modelling process makes parts from plastic that have about 70% of the strength of the final part, if it was injection molded, complete with moveable parts, and so has been used for short to medium production runs already, and the Direct Metal systems, although still experimental, allow the production of a suitably heavy lump of steel, bronze, etc. which can have internal hollows, etc. in the same way as the stereolithography process.

Soon, it will be very possible for anyone to produce anything they want in their own homes, from a variety of materials. Sony music gets upset about people copying an artists’ CD as an MP3 tracks, but what will they say when people can copy the T-shirt, the lunchbox and the DVD recorder too? Expect to see massive lawsuits and dodgy copies gallore, as well as the giant companies pushing for a much stronger claim on \”Design Rights\” such as the shape of a thing. Expect, also, that laws banning things will become even more pointless!

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