Chemical sciences in the 21st century: the role of 3D printing workshop
Today I went to a chemistry event on 3D printing up in the prestigious University of Nottingham, held in their new Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Additive Manufacturing. The line-up of speakers was a real who’s who in materials science, chemistry & 3D printing across the UK (and some from overseas too), including Prof. Mark Miodownik from the Institute of Making (UCL), Dr Phil Reeves (Econolyst), Prof. Ricky Wildman (Nottingham), Prof. Steve Christie (Loughborough) and a host of others and there were some clear messages coming out. Perhaps the strongest message to fall out of the presentations and discussions is that the materials that are used for 3D printing are still not mature enough. The properties of these materials still fall short of their equivalents when used in traditional manufacturing techniques. In fact the fundamental question was posed: “why are we trying to replicate these materials anyway?” Clearly they have been developed for other processes and are not so fit for this purpose. The example of ABS “like” materials that are sold – often for extortionate prices – demonstrates that while some materials may well resemble their well established big brother’s properties (e.g. stiffness), others fall well short (e.g. fatigue strength which is a huge problem, or something that’s often overlooked – surface finish!). The problem is compounded because the big players in the industry, the Stratasys’s and Objets (now the same beast) are seemingly not interested in the additive manufacturing side of things. They want to make machines that make great prototypes – not great finished products – meaning the people who are left to come up with the new materials suitable for this wonderful technology were in that room today – the academics, the chemists, the material scientists and they really seemed to get that this is now their challenge to take on.
There’s also a mismatch between scales, with the nano scale promising world beating material technologies such as carbon nanotubes or graphene, yet the macro scale equivalent (i.e. carbon fibre sheets or wound filament strands) still isn’t capable of delivering these benefits in a scalable way – certainly not when produced using 3D printing technologies, and certainly not for anything near mass production.
The terminology used in this field was also a point of discussion, with 3D printing seeming to be the term used for when considering prototyping, or experimentation, or more specifically for the makerbot-style “hot snot” machines (that did make me laugh! Although I should say that I do use these machines a lot and I do really like them!), while AM (or additive manufacturing) being used more for industry ready machines, the ones that are capable of making end use products; these technologies lie further up the T.R. (Technology Readiness) scale.
Often the “dirty secrets” of 3DP or AM are overlooked too. The ability of waste or unused material to be recycled (or as Mark Miodownik preferred to call it – “un-making”) is something that needs to be addressed and is often an afterthought of all the hype (which is absolutely enormous – everyone agreed with that). It’s good to know that the funding bodies are on the case with this though. As Phil Reeves told me in the coffee break, the TSB in their call for AM related bids in 2013 were explicit in their keenness to fund proposals which addressed some of the industry’s “dirty secrets”. For me there’s also the issue of the expectations that have been set by such hype, and this is something that we will never actually be able to deliver. The hype surrounding 3D printing, Additive Manufacturing, Rapid Manufacturing (although again it was agreed that this is clearly a misnomer – it’s definitely NOT rapid when it comes to manufacturing products especially if you compare an 8 hour 3DP build time to a 30 second open and close heat up and cool down cycle time for an injection moulding machine). Whatever you want to call it, this kind of hype has set us up for a fall. It’s not a solution to everything. It’s not the panacea that’s going to solve all manufacturing issues. It’s not the only “go to” solution to prototype or mass produce products – despite what we’re told in the media.
As an educator, designer and engineer I cringe when I see things like the world’s first 3D printed bike (parts of which were on show today for Renishaw – and the bike itself I saw in the flesh at the London bike show this year), or when I see students jumping straight onto a CAD terminal to prepare a model for printing when it would be 10 times cheaper, 20 times quicker, and 100 times better to make a foam, or card equivalent.
In summary I feel very privileged to have been able to attend such an event (I was told I was the very first person to register!). I’m excited by the enthusiasm and the sheer brilliance of the people who are at the forefront of this exciting industry driving it forward from a technological and research standpoint. But I’m also worried, because while they’re doing amazing work, these guys are still in the shadows – dwarfed by a PR engine that is steering society’s understanding of this wonderful field down a completely wrong path – one that we’ll never be able to live up to.