Company profiles: high-end additive manufacturing and design

An excellent PBS Newshour video on current developments and directions in additive manufacturing and design. Examples include rocket engines that can be used more than eighty times. AI-designed parts for strength and light weight. Faster, stronger printing technologies.

The video refers to consumer-grade 3D printers (mostly FFF technology) as “a fad that peaked in 2014” but that is not quite correct. “Matured” would be a better term; enthusiasts began to explore economic uses of consumer-grade printers while the making of tchotchkes lost its novelty.


How big do 3D printers get? (Updated)

Check out the Stargate printer at Relativity; it’s made for building rockets.

Stargate rocket printer
Stargate printer for rockets saves two to four years in development and manufacture of rockets








Then there’s the Aeroswift 3D printer in South Africa:

In both cases, we’re seeing a public-relations effect, in that neither of these are remotely the largest 3D printers in existence. There are 3D printing concrete-extrusion cranes that make buildings, after all. But these are extremely large platforms for printing in titanium alloy. There may be similar and even larger examples at Boeing and Airbus… not visible to the media. In any case the technology won’t stay confined to these examples.

Cheap prosthetics change lives

3D printed hand
Toyota engineer makes these hands available at no cost

“It costs about 90 cents to make…”

While laser-sintering 3D printers make a lot of news, there is still much to be said for inexpensive Fused Filament Fabrication making just what people need when they need it.

Photo links to article.

Historical effects of new manufacturing methods on an economy

Why are manufacturers working so hard to develop additive manufacturing? Because history shows us that even just improving an existing manufacturing method can be world-changing. This 13-minute video starts out mind-boggling and just gets bigger and more fascinating from there:

Additive manufacturing is poised to make even more pervasive changes. Any company that makes anything has to pay attention.

PLA – the printing material we use

PLA is PolyLactic Acid, a bio-plastic derived from corn or tapioca. It prints best at about 205 degrees c, on a warm print bed that shouldn’t exceed 55 degrees c.

Over time we’ve tried several brands of PLA, but problems with either quality or freshness have taught us the following:

  • Buy in small batches, because PLA absorbs moisture and becomes too brittle to print. It breaks off in the tube between spool and hot end.
  • Purity problems result in clogged nozzles, which are a service problem.

A frequent question is: “How much does the filament cost?” We pay about $42/kg, which is at the upper end of the price range for premium PLA. This is not to say reliable suppliers of $20/kg PLA can’t be found, only that we have had to weigh class time against those experiments.

Here’s a good video from Matter Hackers about printing in PLA. Of course this is a commercial site and they prefer their own products, but the information is sound. There are a couple bed-preparation methods mentioned, but we print on heated beds treated with a binding medium (usually glue stick).

And more technical information: How To Succeed When Printing In PLA.

How big can a 3D printer be, bridge edition

3D printed bridge
Thoughtful of Aliens to deliver nice bridges before the invasion

The first 3D printed steel bridge looks like it broke off an alien mothership

I’m often asked; “How big can a 3D printer be?” Also, “Can you print in metal?” This Gizmodo article answers the metal question, but there’s no upper size limit for a 3D printer. If we ever build a Dyson sphere surrounding our sun, it’ll be with a 3D printer.

Making designs active: ideas for microprocessor control

In 3D Printing  forums you will see a lot of discussion about “Arduino boards”. This is simply a microprocessor (tiny computer) mounted to a special circuit board that can accept plug-in modules and be programmed to control things. Their low cost allows people working on the kitchen table to experiment with industrial design to create prototype and even marketable products.

Here’s a 12-minute discussion of a basic Arduino, introducing concepts and terms. The video author also markets his own line of Arduino clones, and basic kits.

Imagining solutions

Learning a new technology begins with play; building simple robots and devices to grasp concepts of digital or analogue inputs, outputs, pinouts, component names, and machine code.

Now imagine some real-world problems. Think of a restaurant with a window that faces East, and at certain times of year you see customers squinting in the glare of morning sunlight. They can’t read the menus and your waitstaff is suffering from eyestrain. It is impractical to reach across tables to close blinds for the 45 minutes in certain mornings of the year that this is a problem. But an Arduino board could be programmed to sense the sunlight glare, and use servo motors to close the blinds.

Here’s a related situation: suppose you had a building with a thousand watts of fluorescent lighting built into the soffits of the center hallways on each floor. Most days there is plenty of natural light in the hallways, even direct sunlight. The fluorescent lights are a waste of energy and even unattractive. But on very cloudy days, or at night, the lights are necessary… except after 11 pm when the building is closed. Most people do not know where the light switches are. An Arduino could be used to control the lighting automatically, so it is only turned on when necessary.

Suppose you want to carry fewer keys: an Arduino plus servo motor could be used to unlock a door at your approach, by reading an RFID tag in your wallet. Now imagine a system like this for an elderly person, so that they never need to fumble for keys to enter their apartment.*

In each case the Arduino board needs a physical and mechanical context that can be designed for and printed on a 3D printer.

Many more business possibilities exist. Think industrial processes, traffic management, security, pedestrian safety, adverse condition detection (water where it should not be, temperature out of range, gas leakage to name three), customer checkout line length detection, crane overload detection…

What real-world problems could you imagine that could be solved by 3D printing and microcontrollers?


  • 3D printing blog on AdaFruit is chok full of examples
  • MakeUseOf has a great article of 10 Arduino Projects
  • Raspberry Pi page on Thingiverse
  • Arduino page on Thingiverse
  • *This is a real-world example, in wide use for industry and residential. The application is so large-scale that after development on prototype boards the locks now have made-to-purpose boards.
  • Here’s another 15-minute video explaining Arduino boards. It may sound complicated because there are unfamiliar terms and concepts, but a little playing around can make them familiar. That is the purpose of building little robot kits and such. Play is essential to learning.

SLA printing explained

SLA printing is one of nine distinct types of 3D printing apparatus. It works by photopolymerization, which is to say that light, focused on a particular spot in a vat of photo-sensitive resin, binds monomers and short-chain polymers into long-chain polymers to make a layer of a physical object. Watch engineering professor Bill Hammack of the University of Illinois describe how the SLA printer works, putting it in context of industry and other processes:

SLA printers make fantastic-quality prints. Why don’t we use them in the lab? Because, frankly, they’re messy, and stinky, though not necessarily toxic. But they are used in many ways in industry, from rapid-prototyping to lost-polymer metal casting (jewelry or medical appliances).

Fun fact: SLA printing was inspired by the movie Terminator II. The video below was made in 2015, and refers to 3D printing as a ‘niche industry’. In the three years since it was made, Nike shoes has a whole line of 3D printed custom footwear, Airbus and Boeing are making major aircraft components by 3D printing, and medical prosthesis has been revolutionized among other inroads. Technology information is like fruits and vegetables; freshness matters.


  • The VOX video was made in 2015, and refers to 3D printing as a ‘niche industry’. In the three years since it was made, Nike shoes has a whole line of 3D printed custom footwear, Airbus and Boeing are making major aircraft components by 3D printing, HP and Canon are involved, and medical prosthesis has been revolutionized among other inroads. Technology information is like fruits and vegetables; freshness matters.
  • A monomer is a  molecule with a non-repeating structure, like ethylene. Polymers are (usually organic, which is to say carbon-based) molecules with repeating structures, like… polyethylene.


Bugatti brake caliper

Bugatti brake caliper
Bugatti brake caliper in 3D printed titanium. Nearly every manufacturing process is first applied at the high end, then filters down to everyday objects. Click picture to read the article in Road & Track magazine.

Here’s a perfect example of high-end integration of manufacturing techniques.

The caliper is laser-sintered from titanium (additive manufacturing), mating surfaces precision machined (subtractive manufacturing), mechanical and chemical processes (tempering, annealing, and probably shot-peening and chemical bath), and tested. Using these techniques solves a crucial weight problem with large-scale calipers to keep the rubber on the road.

Look for this technique to be used for brake calipers in aviation, another field where weight and strength compete as a manufacturing priority. And then ordinary cars, where weight is still important but casting (formative manufacturing) currently reigns as the cost-effective solution.

3D printing a competitive edge for… snow machines?

3D printed snow machine nozzle
“Casting was not possible since the nozzle’s inner geometries are too complicated for anything but 3D printing. Paul started looking for a solution that matched the project requirements and that he could use himself on-site.”

Snow Business makes high-end snow-making machines, and as you might imagine the design of nozzles is crucial. 3D printing helped them speed up development and cut costs. Read this business case (downloadable pdf on the page) for a small business that took in-house to the next level.