Additive Manufacturing: The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

Emma-WREX-3D-Printer_YouTube Screenshot

Additive manufacturing – it’s used everywhere today, from dental crowns to Michael Phelps’ goggles. But it’s fascinating to watch as this same technology becomes available to the masses and across previously untapped disciplines.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is the process of making 3D objects from a digital model. A solid object is literally printed by laying material over and over again. It’s different from traditional machining techniques which subtract material by drilling and cutting from a solid.

Designers and manufacturing engineers can render pretty complex geometric shapes and features with the high-performance polymers and metal-based systems that are available nowadays, and for the inventor and do-it-yourself enthusiast, the relatively low-cost (under $10,000) of a 3D printer means you can theoretically design and manufacture customized products cheaply and easily from an at-home factory.

The benefits are obvious. Your car breaks down and the part you need is out of stock. No problem. Find the blueprints online and print the part yourself. The United States Air Force already prints up replacement parts for older aircraft, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine military units in war-torn regions printing up their own equipment Iron-Man-style.

Exoskeletons—which can be worn by soldiers to allow them to carry extra loads—have been of interest to the military for some time. The Human Universal Load Carrier exoskeleton from Lockheed Martin and the (way cooler) wearable robot XOS 2 from Raytheon are good examples.

Exoskeletons can be made well with a 3D printer. A four-year-old named Emma with a rare muscular condition was recently fitted with a Stratasys 3D printed exoskeleton to help her move her arms.

This all seems like pretty positive stuff. But what about the recent escapades of Wisconsin engineer Michael Guslick, who, after experimenting with paintball gun design and printing, decided to up the ante by producing an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle?

Guslick used a Stratasys 3D printer and blueprints downloaded from the Internet to first produce a custom-made, 3D printed .22 caliber pistol from which he successfully fired 200 rounds. He then created the lower receiver of the AR-15 rifle—the same make of gun used in the Aurora shootings. He utilized commercial off-the-shelf parts for the rest of the rifle.

Guslick documented his journey in a personal blog, creating a heated debate between firearm enthusiasts and the anti-gun crowd. Clearly there are ethical and legal concerns when anyone anywhere can download blueprints and produce weapons on a whim.

And if that doesn’t get you thinking about the implications of 3D technology, what about printing off your own steak for dinner?

Yeah, you read right.

The cloning of Dolly the sheep is old news. We’ll soon be able to print her from a CAD model. The printing of organs for transplant and meat for human consumption is a brave new world full of fabulous and frightening possibilities.

Missouri-based start-up Modern Meadow just received a $350,000 grant to develop an edible cultured meat prototype that can be used as a humane and sustainable source of animal protein for humans around the world. Think of it as similar to in-vitro meat, but rather than growing cells in a test tube they’re layered through printing. Yummy! (not).

And we’re already using additive manufacturing to print body parts. Ten years ago Luke Massella received an engineered bladder, and he’s still going strong. In February, a transplant patient in the Netherlands became the first recipient of a printed jaw, and there’s currently lots of work being done toward printing a transplantable kidney. For trauma surgery patients, not too far in the future, it may even be possible to print out new limbs.

A decade ago we were on the cusp of unraveling the mysteries of the human genome. And now here we are again, on the verge of something huge, exciting, and maybe just a little scary. How long will it be before someone tries to print an entire human being, or maybe a nuclear warhead?

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One thought on “Additive Manufacturing: The Good, the Bad, and the Weird”

  1. Excellent post. This begs the question of the role of PLM and collaborative product development systems in a world where CAD models are the new MP3s, and Windchill is the new iTunes.

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