I have been fascinated by 3D printing since it was first shown to me in HP Labs in San Diego in 2007. Voymesh Joshi, the then VP of Imaging and Printing, showed me a bicycle chain that was printed in one piece. I really couldn't get my head around the applications of 3D printing or what it could do for a printer. Six years on I had the invitation to visit HK Rapid Prototyping in Rugby (www.HK3D.co.uk). These are the distributers for Stratasys the worlds leading 3D machines. I was like a child in a sweet shop, they had every kind of prototyping and additive manufacturing you could imagine–and even some I couldn't.
For those who don't know what 3D printing is, it is the use of inkjet style printers that, instead of printing ink down onto paper like your home printer, they print down tiny layers of polymer which sets immediately and then they print down another layer. Eventually this “builds” the object. The process takes some time but the ability to create an object from a digital file is revolutionary. I suggest you take a look at their web site as there is so much information regarding these devices.
I was aware of the process and that you could use different materials to print but one limitation was that you could only print one material at a time but one of the most fascinating things that HK showed me was that you can now print two materials simultaneously.
This enables rigid and flexible materials to be combined, which means that you can create hinges, springs and all sorts of mechanisms within a single printed item.
Here is a picture of some of the Items I was shown: Item 1 is a flat sheet of rigid and flexible materials which form a flexible sheet. Iit was highly flexible and strong. Item 2 was a working interconnected gear system that was printed in one piece – there were no joints!
The object No 3 was fascinating. It demonstrated that by blending just two materials (the rigid white and flexible black) during manufacture it is possible to create a range of hardness from Shore of 30 up to Shore 100
Here is a link to a video which shows the two objects with combined materials
The final object I would like to show and talk about is object number 4 in the picture.
This was the most fascinating object. This is 3D printing out of Titanium. It is a process that is quite established using powdered metal and a laser to fuse the layers of powder together. It is a process called sintering. Today the accuracy and strength of these products is amazing. The object below was so light because of its honeycombed type structure; it was 3 inches long and the strength to weight ratio and its accuracy was incredible.
These systems are now used for making aeroplane parts, for building medical parts, jewelry, components in Formula 1 cars and a whole range of complex applications. Admittedly, the titanium printing is probably beyond the budget of most organisations but I believe that these systems will become common place fairly soon.
But what does that mean for printers? There is great debate as to whether it is relevant to the Graphic arts industry just because it has “Printer” in its title. It is undoubtedly interesting but is it relevant?
In my view it is. Printers have always offered service bureau-type offering to its customer base. They take an expensive machine like a printing press and its associated finishing equipment and offer it to a number of customers. They effectively share an expensive and complex machine. Printers are also skilled at scheduling and workflow to get maximum utilisation of this expensive equipment. So why not 3D devices? These machines range from £5K to £100K and beyond but that is not that expensive compared to a printing press or a binder. The key question is are there sufficient customers within the vicinity that could take advantage of such a machine?
In some circumstances I do believe that 3D printing could be relevant to us, but we must understand it requires a whole new mindset and skill set/understanding including CAD/CAM, material science, engineering and a whole host of other workflow and skills that are different to our graphic arts skills.
I do believe that many new technologies offer an opportunity to expand offerings and service new sectors of the community. 3D printing is growing in many sectors and is an exciting opportunity for some. I believe the decision to invest in 3D is an entrepreneurial one and advise printers not to purchase it as a lifeline or simply because it has printing in the title.
Finally I must thank HK Rapid Prototyping for their generosity and time spent at their offices - perhaps we can persuade them at some time to bring some devices to the Hall for further investigation into this exciting new technology.
Note of interest: There is soon to be the worlds largest 3D printing retail store opening in London. Check out www.imakr.com
John Charnock is owner and director of Print Research International a consultancy network that helps businesses adapt to changing landscapes. His customers include HP, Landa, FFEI, KBA, MEGTEC, Color logic, Label Traxx and many more print service providers and creative companies. Prior to running his consultancy John was Group Technical Director of St Ives Plc a post that he held for 19 Years. He is always looking at how new technology can help brands and organisations develop their service offerings. John is a Liveryman of the Stationers' Company.