Reprinted from Business Weekly.
By Erin Negley
Watch a video of the 3-D printing process
The unusual pieces might look like artful jewelry, but Joceyln Kolb likes to call what she does body adornment, more Princess Leia than Elizabeth Taylor. The forms she creates have a backstory and are inspired by things such as the glow of deep-sea coral. To make these intricate pieces, Kolb traded her metalsmithing tools for a $30,000 3-D printer.
This Albright College professor now works on a computer-aided design program to create art that would be nearly impossible to make by hand. Tucked away in a former closet, the printer sprays 32-micron layers of plastic resin, about half the thickness of a human hair. “Builds” take hours and sometimes days, but the finished products are complex pieces with moveable parts.
The machine’s expensive and not perfect, but 3-D printing carries huge potential for art and design and business applications.
Additive manufacturing technology has taken hold in industries including defense, automotive and manufacturing over the past decade. Similar to a printer that prints two-dimensional files onto paper, a 3-D printer layers material (usually plastic) to create a three-dimensional product. Jay Leno has his own 3-D printer to create replacement parts for his collection of antique cars.
With this technology, the military can create components on demand, eliminating the need for large inventory in a remote outpost. Businesses, including several in Berks, have started using the technology to make prototypes or small-batch runs. Compared to today’s subtractive manufacturing, where parts are taken away, additive manufacturing has the potential to save a lot of materials and energy.
Tray-Pak Corp. has used 3-D printing for almost a decade to quickly make samples for customers. The Muhlenberg firm makes thermoformed packaging for the food service, medical industries and more.
Making a mold and then several samples used to take 14 to 16 days, said Marketing Manager Ashley Waszkiewicz. Moving the work to a 3-D printer allowed the company to save a few days, but still required secondary processing. The latest high-tech 3-D printer can produce a sample in just two to three days, with urgent samples rushed in 24 hours.
With faster samples, customers can push products to market quicker. And that makes Tray-Pak more valuable to its customers, Waszkiewicz said.
More than 80 percent of samples now are produced with the Fortus printer, which cost more than $100,000. The 3-D-produced samples aren’t perfectly smooth, so traditional tooling still is used for items presented directly to retailers, Waszkiewicz said.
“I can’t think of the last time the (Fortus) machine has been turned off,” Waszkiewicz said. “It’s been a great addition for us.”
Using 3-D printing for prototypes allows Teleflex Inc. to save tens of thousands of dollars on prototypes. The company was sending out so many prototypes to an outside 3-D printer, it spent between $50,000 and $100,000 on its own in October, said Chris Korkuch, a senior development engineer.
The medical device provider is based in Limerick Township, Montgomery County, and has operations in Bern and Spring townships.
Assembling a prototype used to take three or four months and now takes three days with the 3-D printer. New devices can go out in the field more quickly, and staffers hear feedback and incorporate those suggestions into another version as soon as the next day, Korkuch said.
Teleflex research and development engineers, designers and engineering techs come up with more parts for the 3-D printer, which speeds up delivery and frees up space in the machine shop for more difficult machining tasks. Toolmakers have created custom tools on the printer as well.
But 3-D printing does fall short in some ways, Korkuch said.
Output is quick for one or a few items, but slow for larger batches.
Also, printing materials are limited and tend to be less strong and more brittle. Teleflex still makes some prototypes with traditional tooling for flexible and silicone products.
Shortcomings aside, Korkuch and his co-workers still are trying to think of new ways to use 3-D printing technology.
“The ability of the machine is so different and robust compared to other processes,” he said.
It took Kolb, the Albright professor, a few years to embrace this new technology. As a metalsmithing major at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, she liked the tactile and romantic ways to make jewelry, like soldering. She resisted digital art and didn’t even like using AOL Instant Messenger. Yet professor Stanley Lechtzin would only write grad school recommendations for students who took CAD classes.
Learning the computer programs was tough, but soon Kolb realized the potential.
“I could do stuff in CAD that I couldn’t do with my hands,” she said. “There were just more possibilities.”
Also, it’s much easier to contribute something in a newer technology, compared to metalsmithing, an ancient art.
While her digital media students now make chess pieces on the printer, Kolb creates pieces that can be worn. It takes about four hours to print all 787 layers of a 3-inch brooch inspired by bioluminescent coral. Once it’s finished, she’ll add LED lights to shine outward and back on the wearer’s skin.
The 3-D printer at Albright simplifies production by making moveable parts and identical copies of multiple elements, such as links in a necklace. Kolb also tries to take advantage of the technology by playing with form.
“I want to make something on a computer that would be nearly impossible to make in any other fashion,” she said.
While most 3-D printers use plastics, the next frontier is printing with metal. Carpenter Technology Corp. is working with companies to develop new alloys and metal powers for additive manufacturing. The Spring Township specialty-steel maker also is supplying powder for developers to create processes for the material, said Dr. Tim Armstrong, vice president of research and product commercialization.
This is an early stage of an emerging process.
“This is one of those areas where you want to grow with your customers,” Armstrong said.
A key advantage to building something with a 3-D printer is the possibility to make a designer product on demand. Because the product is built with tiny metal layers, properties such as strength, density and surface finish can be manipulated.
Avoiding machining to make complex parts can improve time and costs and reduce inventory, Armstrong said. Items with multiple components can be made together as well.
There are size limitations, and because this is a new process, it’s not widely accepted, especially in critical areas, Armstrong said.
The 3-D polymers are revolutionary, but additive manufacturing will stay with highly specific niche components and prototypes, he said.
Yet, the potential market is growing, especially in the aerospace, medical and energy industries.
“We want to be proactive with our customer needs,” Armstrong said. “We want to be the supplier of choice.”
Contact Erin Negley: 610-371-5047 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A new collaboration to boost 3-D printing
A year ago, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute was created at Youngstown, Ohio, as the pilot institute of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation.
The institute is a public-private collaboration to help revitalize manufacturing by promoting additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing.
Specifically, the institute will:
- Foster a collaborative exchange of additive manufacturing information and research.
- Facilitate the development and evaluation of additive manufacturing technologies.
- Teach students and workers about additive manufacturing technologies.
The institute is the first of up to 15 manufacturing innovation institutes President Barack Obama has planned to create nationwide, a $1 billion effort.
The NAMII program is funded by $30 million in federal funding and $40 million from the winning consortium, which includes manufacturing firms, universities, community colleges and nonprofit organizations from the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia “Tech Belt.”
There are three membership tiers with collaboration opportunities, conferences and workshops, and access to the NAMII facility and infrastructure.
Program membership is open to U.S. industrial organizations, academic institutions, nonprofit agencies, federally funded research and development centers, and governmental agencies interested in advancing additive manufacturing technology and education.
The nearly 90 members include Penn State University, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Lehigh University and Northampton Community College.
For more information, visit namii.org.