“No one owns 3D and additive manufacturing,” says Timothy Gornet, the manager of Rapid Prototyping Center Operations. “We could own this.
“Louisville could become where people go for this technology.”
This isn’t hyperbolic bluster fueled by pride or school spirit or what-have-you. The University of Louisville Rapid Prototyping Center’s facilities are second to almost none. Gornet says there may be one or two organizations that equal the RPC’s capabilities … in the world.
So “owning” additive manufacturing? Being, essentially, the Silicon Valley of 3D Printing?
It’s absolutely achievable.
Of course, it’s tough to “own” something that the rest of the city barely knows exists.
For just that reason, local consultant Deborah Boyer arranged a tour of the Rapid Prototype Center last week for some interested parties, including Elizabeth Rounsavall, Jeremy Burtel, Derek Fricke and David Jones Jr., of Chrysalis Ventures, and Suzanne Bergmeister, Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Louisville.
Before you explain how hard it is to keep up with the newest technologies, know that additive manufacturing has existed since the mid-80’s and the RPC has been on campus since 1993. There’s very little new-fangled about additive manufacturing.
The most important “new” 3D printing news is that many of the patents on the complicated bits and pieces that go into printers and printing materials are now starting to run out, and there’s been a bit of a boom, as a result, in the production of smaller, cheaper models.
Smaller, cheaper, and Gornet would say, crummy. “Makerbots are horrible, horrible pieces of equipment,” he says, “but they’re the ones getting all the press.”
To be fair, we checked with the guys at BEAM Technologies, who use two different models of Makerbots in their tooth brush production. They said when you consider the cost difference between the RPC’s $15,000 – $1million machines and their $2,000 table-top versions, the Makerbots work “well enough if you’re patient.”
One of the biggest limitations faced by 3D manufacturing is feeding the machine. According to Gornet, there are exceptionally few engineers who know how to create the data needed to run the designs. And the raw materials are also in limited supply and are available from only a very small number of manufacturers. Last year, there was an explosion in a German plant; the explosion destroyed a full 20 percent of the world’s nylon powder. This blow impacted the additive manufacturing business for several months.
With additive manufacturing, you can make products and parts you can’t make any other way. You can make titanium balls that bounce, for example. You can make a honeycomb the size of a deck of cards that is strong enough to hold the weight of a car.
3D printing is ideal for medical purposes. “We are living longer,” explains Gornet, “people who need hip replacements, for example, need them to last longer.” Each artificial hip is made individually and can be crafted to fit the patients exact contours.
Plus, the artificial part can be manufactured with intricate grooves and channels. Medicine tells us that the body is less likely to reject something like an artificial hip if osteo-integration is allowed to occur. The grooves and holes and channels encourage the bone to grow into and around the artificial part.
3D printing is revolutionizing reconstructive surgery as well. Imagine being able to replace a shattered kneecap with an artificial kneecap that is an exact replica– right down to variations in density– of the busted one.
Imagine being able to do that with facial bones.
“How much money will this save in OR and surgery costs?” asks Gornet. Instead of a facial reconstruction, for example, taking a bunch of surgeries, 3D implants can whittle that down to just a couple.
That’s much less taxing on the body, lessens the risks associated with repeated exposure to anesthesia, and is way easier on the pocketbook, or the insurance company, or the state.
Dentistry is already at the vanguard of 3D printing, using the technology to print implants as you wait.
RPC sustains itself by working with companies, institutes and organizations all around the world to create prototypes and products. Emerson, GE, Boeing, Nike, Walter Reed Hospital, Formula One Racing (whom Gornet says is their most secretive client) and Toyota are just some of the bigger names on their client list.
In aerospace engineering, Gornet says, 80 percent of the material purchased “does not end up in the air.” There’s much less waste in 3D manufacturing. Like, almost no waste at all. So while the materials may be– and often are– pricey, the economics still may work in favor of additive manufacturing.
You can check out websites like Shapeways for a ballpark. Shapeways, suggested to me by Rounsavall, is “like Cafe Press for this kind of stuff.” Or like Etsy. It’s a “3D printing marketplace and community,” and you can buy fancy buttons and pendants and iPhone cases and kitchen goods all of which have been designed, uploaded and printed by members of the site. There are works of art on the site that cost in the thousands. You can also buy a wee bird clip for four bucks.
Just looking at the different kinds of buttons on the Shapeways site, it’s easy to start imagining how 3D printer manufacturing could change the world.
Shapeways doesn’t have an inventory. When you order a bird clip, Shapeways prints it then ships it to you. So Shapeways doesn’t need a warehouse. John Deere’s single largest warehouse, says Gornet, houses only spare parts. The company is dedicated to having every part for every machine it has made over the past 20 years. The inventory includes more than 550,000 part numbers (not parts– just types of parts). That’s many millions of dollars in parts just sitting in a warehouse waiting for some repair person to call and request part #457988.
“Why are we shipping parts from Detroit to Louisville?” asks Gornet. “Why aren’t we shipping data?”
Or, why is John Deere housing 550,000 different pieces and parts in a warehouse, when they could be storing the 3D printing data for all of those parts?
If Bob from Louisville needs a pick up belt for his John Deere tractor, he doesn’t need to send off to Moline, Ill., for it. Moline can send the 3D printing data to a printing station here in Louisville, and Bob can get it pretty much on the spot (well, it can take hours, even days, to print big things, but you get the picture). Doing so drastically reduces the carbon footprint of manufacturing with cutbacks on shipping, port traffic, truck rigs.
Or sometime in the not-so-distant future, Moline could send the data straight to Bob. Jay Leno has a 3D printer in his auto garage; why not Bob?
Currently, none of the manufacturing-grade 3D technology is made in the United States. Most of it hails from Germany and Sweden. Who’s going to print the printer that Bob needs?
Why not Louisville? As Gornet says, we could own this.