If you work is the design or engineering fields, chances are high that you are familiar with, and have extensively used, 3D printing technology. The technology dates back to the 80’s, but is only recently coming into its own as a commonplace fabrication and prototyping technique. What you may not be aware of is some of the fringe 3D printing technologies being developed in universities, basements and garages across the world. Here’s a few of the more interesting ones.
Unless you work on the assembly line at Hostess, you probably don’t associate robotics with confectionaries. The “Froststruder MK2”, aims to change that. This device, which is an add-on to the “Makerbot” 3D printer (a hobbyist level printer aimed at the DIY crowd) is basically a pneumatically operated syringe which can be filled with, you guessed it, frosting. Actually, the device can print any paste like substance, from food items to engineering resins. Finally, cupcakes can be decorated with computer precision!
If CNC decorated cupcakes don’t satisfy your sweet tooth perhaps you want your parts made from sugar. Such a thing is entirely possible with the CandyFab project, a selective sintering machine that uses sugar as the build material. The method of operation of the CandyFab is the same as many high end 3D printers, in which layers of granulated material are hardened to form a part. After a layer is hardened, a new layer is added and bonded to the layer below it, and this process repeats until the part is made. The expensive machines use lasers and light sensitive resin, however, this machine uses off the shelf components and manual labor (each new layer of sugar is added by hand) to keep the price of the device around $500. According to the creators, the final parts are edible, even if they aren’t technically made to food handling specifications.
Lastly, research at the Vienna University of Technology is bringing new meaning to the term “micro-machine”. They have developed a traditional laser sintering 3D printer, which can print a 285 µm F1 car in 4 minutes. While printing on such a small scale is not new, doing it that quickly is record-breaking. They did so by refining the control mechanism that directs the focused light, as well as developing a new resin that reacts and solidifies more quickly. The creators envision their technique being used to print implantable medical devices or nanotechnology components.
So what do these strange 3D printers mean to an engineer right now? Not a whole lot, unless your clients tend to spec their parts as “edible”. What it does mean is that people are finding creative ways to advance rapid prototyping technology. I don’t need to rattle off all the successful technologies that started with two guys tinkering in their garage. It’s not a stretch to imagine how the lessons learned from these devices could help to influence commercial technology. Perhaps the inexpensive delivery system of the FrostStruder will pave the way for cheaper mechanisms to dispense build material. The CandyFab project may alter perceptions on the types of materials used to build prototypes. Sugar might not be the next big thing, but will this inspire researchers to investigate other organic print media? And while no-one really “needs” a micro level F1 car, pushing the extreme limits of the technology will reveal how to be more efficient at the scale we typically work at. So keep an eye out, tomorrow’s 3D printer engineers may currently be spending their time printing 3D sugar cubes.
Gerard Libby – Mechanical Engineer GTI Inc.