by Luke Jones
Posted 2/4/2013 12:00 am
Updated 10 months ago
Sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Placing a blank square into a metal box, then pulling out a fully formed three-dimensional object certainly sounds like magic, but it’s most assuredly real, and it’s changed the way the manufacturing world works.
The technology is, of course, 3-D printing — an unfortunate name for a fascinating process in which thin layers of precisely placed plastic filaments are built up one at a time to create an object from what was just an idea designed on a computer. (Click here to read how it works.)
One of the first companies in Arkansas to use it was NAMJet LLC of Benton. Since buying the printer, the company has shaved off hundreds of hours of labor by replacing handmade molds and parts with printed ones.
Len Hill founded the company in 1986 after purchasing the rights to some water jet products from the Jacuzzi family.
The company then went on to design a slow-speed jet with high pulling power, now called the Traktor Jet. NAMJet sells this and other products mostly overseas and in Alaska, typically to fishermen to use on high-powered skiffs. Hill said sales were close to $3 million last year, and the production schedule for 2013 is already full.
About eight years ago, Hill started looking into 3-D printing to simplify the company’s manufacturing process. At the time, test models were made by hand out of aluminum.
“That would eat up the time of the most experienced craftsman we had in the fabrication area and take him away from production,” Hill said. “When we found out we could make models by drawing and printing them, rather than doing them by hand, it opened up all kinds of possibilities.”
Back then, the technology was barely known.
“When we bought it, the only one we could look at in state was at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville’s engineering department,” he said. “We bought one of the same model they had.”
The machine cost about $24,000. The cost, however, was quickly recovered in production time. A model of an impeller — essentially the propeller in a water jet — for example, had vanes twisted at a certain angle that normally would need to be beaten and bent precisely, then welded to an aluminum test piece.
“To machine that, you could be taking 40 hours from your best-skilled man,” Hill said.
But the same part could be printed in several segments over about a third of that time, and if any of the segments came out wrong, it could easily be re-printed.
“We’ve made impeller blades that we’ve used to make molds off of,” Hill said. “Then we’ve actually made molds for impeller blades, and molds for sleeves, and parts that are hard to fabricate. Other than just making parts to make other stuff out of, we make parts to test as well.”
On a smaller scale, 3-D printers can make manufacturers out of individuals. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, for example, also has a 3-D printer, which is used both for study and business.
George Tebbetts, chair of the engineering technology department at UALR, said the machine was purchased about two years ago with some startup money for a faculty member in system engineering. The faculty member has since left, leaving it to the devices of the engineering department.
Since then, fellow engineering professor David Luneau started using the printer to manufacture part of a special wireless bird-watching camera he designed that fits into tree cavities. Luneau, who famously shot the 2004 video that Cornell University experts declared to be of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, sells the cameras from his website for about $500 each and sends them all over the country.
Tebbetts said he and Luneau had also printed and sold parts to Cameron of Houston’s process valve facility in Little Rock and Avionics & Systems Integrations Group of North Little Rock. The money they make then goes toward buying more cartridges for the school’s 3-D printer. Tebbetts said the cartridges cost about $250 each.
The technology does have some limitations. Creating an object can take a long time, and if the process is interrupted — say, by a power outage — the machine shuts down and has to start the project over.
“If you’ve got something that takes 140 hours, about 110 hours in you’re puckering, hoping that doesn’t happen,” Hill said.
A 3-D printer can make a working mechanical object, usually by “tricking” the machine into thinking the object is a solid piece but leaving tiny threads of plastic between the moving parts. But machine parts made of plastic are usually not terribly useful.
“One of the things you see typically is a wrench,” Tebbetts said. “They are good demos, but plastic won’t carry heavy loads. It does show what kinds of intricate things you can make.”
Additionally, most 3-D printers are limited to opaque ABS plastic and can’t make an object larger than the space inside the chamber.
“We would really like to have the ability to put different kinds of material in,” Hill said, noting that he’d like to be able to produce bigger objects made of stronger material to withstand more vigorous testing.
Tebbetts said 3-D printers will be — and are — revolutionary in the manufacturing world.
“This used to be the traditional path: You would design, make a prototype, then go back and change your design, test it, then go back again, and so forth,” he said. “This allows you to speed up several steps.”
“I think you can optimize your product a whole lot more economically,” Hill said. “When you’re out there designing something that hasn’t been made before, you can eliminate a whole lot of problems by building the model of it.”
NAMJet’s printer is also still in great shape after eight years. Hill estimated that, based on how often it’s used, the machine will likely be obsolete before it breaks down — he said the printer might be used a couple of times a month, then go two months without being touched, and then might be active for three straight days.
“It just depends on when we’re coming up with a new design,” Hill said.
NAMJet’s next printer might be light-years ahead of what it has now. UALR’s model cost $40,000 when it was purchased two years ago, but a brand new MakerBot Replicator, a personal 3-D printer that can make an object as large as a loaf of bread, can now be had for less than $2,000. One group is making a machine called the Filabot Reclaimer that breaks up plastic waste to make new build material.
Guns, iPad mounts, prosthetic limbs, buildings made of printed blocks, even human tissue — all of these things, in the near future, could be cooked up in the magic box. Anyone could be a manufacturer. All one needs is the box, a design and a bit of plastic.
See also: 3-D Printing: How It Works