Category Archives: production

3D Printing and the Army

Since my last post about 3D printing in the Navy garnered more likes than any other post to date, I figured we should continue the military trend and discuss how the Army uses the technology.

Actually, the Army has just as many uses for similar applications of 3D printing.

State-of-the-art 3D printers cut costs, turnaround time

Much like isolated ships having trouble accessing key components on the high seas, forward Army bases often find themselves weeks away from their supply chains.

Recently, a shortage of parts was delaying delivery of Harris radios. The radios required the installation of small dust caps prior to shipping to the customer. Finding and getting the part from a vendor could have taken weeks; so instead, Mechanical Engineer Eugene Haikes designed a 3-D model of the part and the depot printed 600 dust caps in 16 hours.

“If the depot wanted to produce the dust caps but didn’t have a rubber mold for them, we could have expected to pay anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 for the mold,” said Mead. “Because Eugene was able to come up with the model, we were able to produce the caps for only a dollar apiece while trimming days, if not weeks, off of our anticipated delivery date.”

Just like the Navy, advantages don’t stop there, as 3D printing can create objects too complicated for traditional machining and casting processes.

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Facial Reconstruction through 3D Scan, Print

UK Doctors are reverse engineering and reconstructing a man’s face, thanks to 3D technologies. Warning – some images could be graphic.

Eric Moger lost half of his face to cancer and as a result could no longer eat, drink or speak.  Doctors scanned his face and mirrored the “good” side over the “bad.”  The result is a model of the face very similar to how it used to look.  From that the team of doctors was able to develop a prosthesis that allows the patient use of his mouth again.

For the first time in five years, Eric Moger is able to speak clearly without holding his mouth, eat without a feeding tube, and hold his head high while going to the pub with his friends.

In the words of Mr. Moger, himself, “It is a great feeling to look in the mirror and see a whole face again. I am amazed at what they have done  – it just looks so like me. I also have something to look forward to, as Karen and I are planning to finally get married this summer.’

Mr MogerMr Moger

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RapidMade Speaking at the Northwest Machine Tool Expo

RapidMade, Inc. proudly invites you to attend a one hour seminar on 3D printing next Wednesday at the Northwest Machine Tool Expo starting at 9:30 AM.  Admission to the expo and seminars is completely free and the event takes place at the Oregon Convention Center (777 NE MLK Jr. Blvd., Portland OR.)

Erin Stone, president, and Matt Garrett, VP of Operations will give the presentation.  Topics covered include:

  • What is additive manufacturing (AM)?
  • Where has AM been and why is it getting so much attention now?
  • What’s new in AM technology & materials?
  • What does this mean for your business and how can you leverage AM for a competitive advantage?
  • Where does your business fit in the national and regional AM landscape?
If this topic is of interest to you (likely since you are reading this blog) and you can make it out (less likely), we would be happy to see you there!
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iRobot: All in One 3D Printing

iRobot has just filed a patent for the next step in 3D printing.  They are trying to offset one of the biggest problems with the technology, automated machine level finishing.  Though high end additive manufacturing machines can be quite accurate, they cannot hit the sub .001” tolerance that many mills can.  On top of that, most processes cannot make smooth surfaces like bearing holes or tap threads.

This patent is interesting because companies like Matsura have already created machines like this, and are much further along with prototypes rather than just the idea.  Also, iRobot is forbidden to use any technology but plastic filament extrusion, generally a lower quality printing process, with it’s machine because of other industry patents.

Still, it is an interesting and necessary idea because one must merge additive manufacturing and traditional manufacturing to expand the range of applications and industries, and as other manufacturers strive to make easy all-in-one machines, they will likely butt heads with this patent.

We as a company do post machining all the time, manually.  It is generally not a big deal or too costly, but it would be nice for machine we use to do all the post processing automatically.

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3D Laser Scanner Phone App

I have not checked out the accuracy of a scanner like this, but compared to the multiple thousand dollar price point of most 3D scanners out there, this could make many more reverse engineer-to-print jobs economical where upfront scanning costs ruined the profitability of the product.

Click here to read more about the 3D laser scanner with the 10”x10”x4” scan volume and only requires a tripod and lazy susan.

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NASA and 3D Printing

NASA and 3D Printing

Though not an original equipment manufacturer, NASA has been one of the foremost innovators for 3D printing design and application.  Using Selective Laser Sintering or SLS on metals NASA is able to more quickly make more optimally designed and mechanically robust components, while cutting out the majority of the weight. They feel that their, “team’s innovative work here at Marshall and the NASA National Center for Advanced Manufacturing is just one example of how NASA is helping to reinvigorate America’s manufacturing sector.”

The goal is for these parts to help us reach a familiar goal:

The emerging technology will build parts for America’s next flagship rocket, the Space Launch System or SLS, which is designed to take humans, equipment and experiments beyond low Earth orbit to nearby asteroids and eventually to Mars.

The main reasons NASA sees an advantage in Additive Manufacturing are pretty simple:

There are two major benefits to this process, which are major considerations for the Space Launch System Program: savings and safety.

“This process significantly reduces the manufacturing time required to produce parts from months to weeks or even days in some cases,” said Andy Hardin, the integration hardware lead for the Engines Office in SLS. “It’s a significant improvement in affordability, saving both time and money. Also, since we’re not welding parts together, the parts are structurally stronger and more reliable, which creates an overall safer vehicle.” It turns out these 3D printed parts can handle more stress from the launch than any other welded part.

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Huge and Obstructive Patents in 3D Printing


This article covers the main reason why we are still quite far from inexpensive AND quality consumer level machines for hundreds instead of tens of thousands of dollars: Intellectual Property and Patent Law.

Companies like 3D Systems and Stratasys have thrown millions into RnD and have patented many of their ideas.  Though some of the patents do seem to be as reasonable as patenting the rectangle, while others make a little more sense, they all prevent outsiders from coming in and producing the same great machine for much less until the patents expire, which in some cases are as late as the mid 2020’s.  In the meantime, expect the most affordable printers with any quality to cost thousands while Stratasys and 3D Systems make very high margins on equipment and “ink” that is not terribly expensive to produce, because they really have no incentive to lower their prices.

One serious competitor to the two giants is Formlabs and their $3200 dollar SLA machine.  They created a system based on an expired 3D Systems patent, but patent law is so murkey they are being sued anyways for violating some other patent, the specifics of which I have been unable to locate.

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GE Agrees with Me

GE Agrees with Me

Just as I was posting the below article, I found out I have some like-minded company.  Jeffery Immelt went into less detail because, well, as head of GE his reputation carries a little more weight than an unknown blogger.

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Additive Manufacturing: The Hype and the Haters

There are many well written articles floating around discrediting the promise of Additive Manufacturing and its “print anything” hype.  Because expectations are so high, they feel the industry and its development will be analogous to failed technologies like virtual reality where outsiders jump in to try to avoid missing the next big thing only to lose big.


Though there are certainly large issues with the hype and the absurd idea that within 5 to 10 years every consumer will be printing everything they previously purchased, 3D printing does not immediately have to be the next personal computing sized revolution to help entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes quickly create new ideas, tackle new approaches to design, reduce tooling time and investments, and maintain a nimbler, more flexible supply chain.

Though some may be disappointed and therefore turned off to Additive Manufacturing when it does not live up to the promise of becoming a low cost, all purpose Star Trek Replicator for household use, the hype is still quite a positive thing, because many more savvy entrepreneurs easily recognize the benefits to their personal businesses that they had not seen when they had never heard of the technologies.

So what if 3D printing will likely not live up to the hype?  Firms involved in 3D printing don’t care.  We are just happy for the exposure.  If these machines never reach every household, there is still room for ample growth.  Just ask the museum curators who can now replicate priceless artifacts, the automobile and airline executives who are working to create components that weigh up to 90% less and therefore create vehicles that have amazing fuel economy, the medical and dental professionals who can now make inexpensive and ultra-customized implants with lower rejection rates, the aspiring entrepreneur who knows a quick, inexpensive and functional prototype will likely garner him much more attention than just a pitch and napkin sketch, the car restoration enthusiast who is able to inexpensively replicate parts that are the last of their kind, or even the large scale fabricator able to quickly create custom fixtures to meet the demands of any job.  The applications are endlessly growing and not just because of technological innovation.

Thanks to the hype, my sales force tells me that since this time last year, they get half as many blank stares when speaking with potential clients about Additive Manufacturing.  That means in just one year twice as many people are able to look at the same hundred year old engineering problems and find new solutions through tools previously unknown to them.  There is the heart of the growth and it is more than enough to get excited about, especially considering that five to ten years ago most of the types of users listed in the previous paragraph did not even exist.

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Green Printing and the Filabot

Plastic extrusion printing, or squeezing hot plastic out of a toothpaste tube until you’ve drawn a 3D object is one of the oldest and most disseminated technologies in the diverse field of additive manufacturing. Because the thermoplastic filament can be melted down many times over, it is one of the printing processes in which materials are recyclable. This type of new technology should excite both the environmentalist and actuary inside all of us. Recycling plastic makes one feel good about his or her environmental impact, but also a pound of waste plastic costs less than the price for which many companies sell even a cubic inch of filament. Can the newly announced Filabot change the current dynamic for filament supply to extrusion printing?Image

I would love to see widespread on-site filament production, and encourage all who would further the cause, but there are currently some very serious hurdles for the plastic extrusion technology to overcome before this becomes mainstream.

1. With the old 2D paper printing business model of low margin hardware and high margin “ink” as the standard for many 3D printing technologies, most plastic extrusion manufacturers make it near impossible for the end user to add his or her own filament to a machine. People have always found ways around the barriers the OEMs put in place, but then are almost immediately countered with new fail-safes on the filament cartridge.

2. The range of available materials for extrusion printers is still too narrow. Although manufacturers are making huge strides in this area, most recycled plastics are not yet compatible with extrusion printers. Granted, turning old ABS cell phone housings into filament is pretty revolutionary, there is not a printer on the market that could use the PET filament made from most water bottles or other common materials used in packaging. If my next cell phone upgrade comes in two years, I could use up to 700 water bottles in that time.

3. Quality control always adds a harsh dose of reality which all the warts on any new, unproven idea. If my print fails currently, I can either blame the “ink” or the printer, but in either case the same company supports my issue (if I use a manufacturer that offers support at all.) With that responsibility, manufacturers put thousands of hours making sure their filament works in their machines. When we look to mix and match with homemade material, these issues compound while the responsibility for error disappears, not to mention the voided warranties. Most computer users understand the frustration when their software company technical support blames the hardware for an issue and calling the hardware vendor only leads to shifting the blame back to the original party. Separating printer and filament vendors creates the exact same circumstance as software hardware compatibilty. Until filament production can be proven consistent from machine to machine, user to user, waste material to waste material, and even batch to batch, then that standardized filament can be used interchangeably in the same model of printer, then those final parts can be subject to tests and proven to have similar properties and failure points, this technology will still be unreliable.

With all that accounted for, the prognosis looks pretty grim for widespread use of low-cost recycled material changing the landscape of filament printing any time soon. The most likely scenarios where green printing comes into effect in the near future would be either a new brand of extrusion machines released which couples recycled filament creation with the printer as a single, tested product or centralized recycled filament manufacturers working with printers to offer new cartridges of proven material. In the latter case, the environmental benefits are clear, but the cost savings are not likely to be passed on to the consumer given the very lucrative current market rate of between $1 – $5 per cubic inch for plastic filament.

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