It was her days as a cross-training athlete that led Nikki Kaufman to an inventive solution for an annoying, if mundane, problem: Her earphones kept constantly falling out of her ears.
Custom earphones can solve this problem, but they normally require a bit of sacrifice on the part of the purchaser—you have to show up at an office, have silicone deposited into your ear, clench your jaw for 10 minutes, and then wait around for a month or more for the molds to be made into bespoke ear gear. But Kaufman took a different route, first with a MakerBot in her own apartment, and then with a suite of industrial-size 3D printers.
Now Kaufman’s two-year-old startup, Normal Earphones, runs 11 printers from inside a factory in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, and is able to create custom-fitted plastic earphones in a few hours based on 3D files made from photos of customers’ ears. This month, she partnered with fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff to create a line of earphones plated with 14-carat rose gold.
The futuristic hype over 3D printing has outshined applications that are already transforming the manufacturing world. While the media speculates about 3D printed guns, organs and food, firms are using 3D printers to overcome a less ‘sexy’ challenge: replacement parts for aging production lines.
In a typical factory, unplanned downtime is extremely expensive. In a survey conducted by Nielsen Research, automotive executives reported that downtime cost an average of $22,000 per minute — some respondents put the figure as high $50,000 per minute. Not surprisingly, most manufacturers invest in predictive maintenance and aim to replace worn down parts before they cause a breakdown.
Industry is, of course, completely centered on supply and demand. And while there are many facets to manufacturing and business, few areas are as fast-paced or as fickle as the fashion industry. Our simple, and often (ironically) unattractive vanity promotes an entire economy based on greed and speed–as well as seeing who can replicate and wear Kate Middleton’s latest navy-blue dress fast enough.
Most often focusing on want rather than need, the ‘fast fashion’ industry encompasses the complete opposite of originality or creativity, as it’s about getting copies of quality and runway fashion into stores like H&M at breakneck speed. And up until recently not much care was given to the how of making these piles of clothes, but more so to the how fast. As the horrors of sweatshops have come to light in one sensationalized story after another, consumers–especially the younger ones–are becoming more discerning–and concerned. The millennial generation is making it more and more clear that they would rather look for alternatives instead of having the trendy clothes on their backs made by someone suffering overseas and being paid pennies, if anything at all.
Current advances in 3D printing are making it an integral part of manufacturing, including electronics manufacturing. It can cut down processes from weeks to days and costs from thousands to hundreds. The 3D printed option is not only more efficient and economical, but actually better in terms of performance, as well as carbon footprint.
“We make your factory run better” is the tagline for the maintenance services offered by ATS.
ROBO 3D recently conducted a Survey with Northrop Grumman. In it, engineers, analysts, and product support staff were asked if they would prototype more often if 3D printing were more accessible and easier to use. 85% said YES. The respondents were also asked if they saw any additional applications for 3D printing (other than prototyping) within Northrop Grumman. 48% said YES.
Now, we might debate where and how they should get access to 3D printing, but one thing seems clear. Access begets innovation. People who have access to 3D printing think about using it to solve big problems.
3D printed guns and firearms have once again become a hot-button issue within the 3D printing industry, as the world’s first 3D printed revolver has just come to light while the New South Wales government has implemented a law that specifically makes owning a 3D printed gun illegal. Yet even if firearms aren’t your cup of tea, if you either design or create 3D printed products, you could be infringing on IP law, copyrights, or a host of other legal issues without even knowing it.
As a topic that easily generates a lot more questions than answers, we could probably all use a little brushing up on the legal aspects surrounding 3D printing. Luckily, Dutch law firm De Clercq Advocaten Notarissen has just issued a brief yet educational white paper that covers everything from intellectual property law (IP) to copyright law, to the especially murky waters of product liability, all within the new reality of the 3D printing industrial revolution. Though written based on Dutch law and regulations, these are generally implemented based on the European Directives, and thus will be consistent with many other European countries, and in some cases perhaps not so far off from US or other nations’ policies.
While some companies are succeeding at producing high-quality molds, tooling, and manufacturing aids with 3D printers, others are still scrambling to figure out how best to incorporate the new technology into their systems. That’s according to this infographic recently published by PTC.
The majority of companies now have access to 3D printers, but not all of them are confident they are making the most of them.
That’s not surprising. Often the machines aren’t seamlessly integrated into the product development cycle. And to make matters worse, the journey from CAD design to printed artifact can require data to pass through multiple steps and often multiple applications before reliably building on the 3D printer tray.
Despite the uncertainty with this new technology, most agree that 3D printing is already transforming the way we manufacture products. That’s because it’s an approach that can offer more design freedom, faster time to market, lighter weight options for parts, waste reduction, and, best of all, cost reductions.
And the good news is that we’re quickly overcoming barriers to efficient design for additive manufacturing. Technology is beginning to connect printers directly to CAD systems, and as a result it’s becoming easier to find and correct problems in the digital design before they become problems in the physical product.
3D printing increases efficiency and reduces waste, making it a valuable tool in efforts to make manufacturing more sustainable. Its applications range from medical devices to aerospace — and possibly even drinking water.
Earlier this month General Electric announced a project with the Department of Energy that uses 3D printed turbines in a process that could make desalinated seawater 20 percent less costly to produce.
The environmental and economic benefits of 3D printing have the potential to transform traditional manufacturing through cost reductions, energy saving and reduced CO2 emissions, according to a paper published last month in the journal Energy Policy. 3D printing can potentially reduce manufacturing costs by $170 billion to $593 billion, energy use by 2.54–9.30 exajoules (EJ) and CO2 emissions by 130.5 to 525.5 metric tons by 2025, the paper says. The range within the savings is due to the immature state of the technology and the associated uncertainties of predicting market developments.
Why marry 3D Printing with Topology Optimization?
3D printing gives engineers the freedom to design products that cannot be manufactured any other way.
The process of adding material, as opposed to subtracting material, allows for more intricate shapes. This has given engineers an unprecedented chance to design lighter, more organic looking products.
Historically, the way we make objects has influenced the way we design them. “When we use a traditional CAD to design a part, the CAD is based on Boolean operations or subtractive design,” said Jaideep Bangal, senior application engineer at solidThinking.
I recently took a trip to my local big box electronics store, and saw a 3D printer on display. I asked what they were printing, and the response was “plastic components”, which were being sold in the store. The salesperson was busy, so I did not have the chance to find out exactly what those plastic components were, but I thought, wow, they can make parts for sale right there in the store. Retail is changing for sure. I then decided to do a little more checking on 3D printers when I got home. I learned about biofabrication, a recently created word that means the convergence between technology and medicine, to print items to be used in the human body. Living cells are used as the “printer ink”. Visions of the Terminator came to mind. I also discovered, from an article the Guardian that the U. S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the first 3D printed drug, called Spritam (levetiracetam). It controls seizures coming from epilepsy. The drug manufacturer, Aprecia Pharmaceuticals, uses 3D printing to create a more porous pill. This means the pill dissolves more quickly with liquid, making it much easier for the patient to swallow higher doses.