Be sure to join us March 7 at 1:00 p.m. for a webinar led by attorneys from Husch Blackwell on 3-D printing security. Watch your email for the invitation to the webinar. In the meantime, read this article, then follow the link to the Des Moines Register’s page and watch the short video on the process. It’s fascinating.
From the Des Moines Register
Deep in the basement of an engineering building at Iowa State University, a tiny laser pings back and forth from the guts of a gargantuan 3-D printer, striking a thin layer of metal dust on a metal plate at precisely the right spots.
Within seconds, the outline of a pair of scissors begins to emerge as the laser continues its path back and forth hundreds and hundreds of times, melding the thin layers of dust brushed over the plate with an automated roller. Hours later, a perfectly formed pair of scissors is ready for snipping.
And scissors are one of the least interesting things created by this 3-D metal printer, which, experts say, is limited only by the imagination of its operator.
The $900,000 metal 3-D printer recently installed at Iowa State isn’t all that different from the plastic 3-D printers that have swept through the worlds of traditional manufacturing and high-tech entrepreneurship. In fact, 3-D printing is becoming so ubiquitous that researchers have printed everything from edible pizza to models of human hearts to prosthetics for amputees.
But experts say metal 3-D printers like the one at Iowa State are poised to alter the manufacturing process, since the mammoth machines can help companies build prototypes and line-ready parts more quickly and cheaply. And without the traditional constraints of machinery encumbering the design process, 3-D printers can create parts that would be impossible with popular manufacturing methods.
“I spent 25 years learning how I can’t make a part. There are a lot of limitations,” said Chris Hill, who, after building consumer appliances, now works with the new 3-D printer on Iowa State’s campus. “This particular process eliminates a lot of those limitations.”
New tech in play in Iowa
Plenty of shared knowledge exists about the best ways to operate common machines such as lathes and mills. But when it comes to still-emerging technologies like metal 3-D printers, much of that knowledge remains proprietary within the small group of big companies using those machines, Hill said.
That’s why ISU’s Center for Industrial Research and Service bought the machine, to help Iowa’s manufacturers learn more about what the industry calls additive manufacturing. While plastic 3-D printing has been all the rage in manufacturing and popular culture, Hill said much less is known about the metal versions.
Aside from speeding the design-to-market process, metal 3-D printers can create intensely intricate parts, such as molds with swirling cooling channels or parts erected in honeycomb patterns. Parts can be hollow, or include labyrinthine chambers because no drilling is needed.
“You simply cannot machine that,” Hill said while holding up one part with curved cavities that was made on the machine.