Today I got a tour of the Loughborough University Rapid Prototyping area. It was very nice to see the machines up close, and I even learned a few things. I saw a Stratasys plastic extrusion machine up close, as well as several others, including a direct tape laying machine which welds the metal strips using ultrasound to produce solid metal parts in almost any metal material with about 99.6% density of the metal block, and very high strength. The stereolithography machine was very smart, and was running a job as we watched. The laser sparkles quite beautifully, and moves faster than the eye can follow! The tour and chat was about two hours long, and we got to handle some great samples, like plastic chainmail made seamlessly, transparent centrifuge parts, a rather neat Mobius strip, and some very solid pieces of aluminium and steel. One neat technique that I had never seen before, which is apparently now very common, was a steel tool mould for aluminum casting made up of many layers of laser cut stainless steel. I also saw a powder deposition system in action, using polymer granules melted by CO2 laser, which was neat, as I had previously only seen samples.
I am very taken with the whole thing. If I can get hold of a high powered ultrasound horn, I might give it a go at home. It really makes me wish I had built that UV pulse laser at school, as with a raster scanner I could be turning out resin parts already.
A large part of the discussion was about how these systems would impact on smaller suppliers, copyright issues (you should see the reverse engineering with an autoclave!), product liability (Who sues who if a car is dangerous because a part you designed makes the car crash, when the manufacturer made it on the spot!) and so on.
I have previously written about the dangers a naturally violent society faces when it relies on prohibition to keep it safe, and what I saw today only further reinforces this. As I said to the Professor, what do you do when someone wants an Uzi, and can just press a button?