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3D printing: Do everything yourself

02 Mar 2015  | R. Colin Johnson

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3D printers were initially a tool to allow kids to make cool toys by themselves. Fast forward to a few years, this device has grown to become an industrial instrument that has the capacity to make production quality products, custom parts for laboratories and many more.

"The first question we ask when we conceive of new part for an experiment is if we can print it ourselves on the 3D printer," said Alex Millet, a visiting student from Puerto Rico who works with professor Andrew Zwicker, head of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).

According to Zwicker and Millet, 3D printers have become a crucial piece of laboratory equipment, allowing them to make one-offs of practically any piece of laboratory equipment (except lenses and other glass parts). 3D printers build up layers of plastic, metal, ceramic or organic materials. The piece is merely designed using a computer aided design (CAD) program that transfers instructions to the 3D printer—telling it when and what to "extrude" to form each layer of an object—with 100µ accuracy.

The biggest advantage—except low cost—is the speed at which experiments can be accelerated, since the 3D printer can one-off custom parts in a matter of hours—including the CAD programming time—instead of sending the plans off to a machine shop and waiting days to get the part back.

3D printed car

The world's first 3D printed car to appear this summer from Local Motors. Source: Local Motors

Before using the 3D printer, Zwicker's team tested its parts for resilience to heat, pressure, stress and strength, finding them adequate for most laboratory experiments—including dielectric insulators for electrodes. Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science under its Fusion Energy Sciences programme.

Local Motors

Beside labs, now even mass production is being switched to 3D printing, a capability not unnoticed by Chinese manufacturers, who are investing heavily in the manufacture of 3D printers. But is China's large, relatively inexpensive workforce working themselves out of a job by making 3D printers?

One company trying to short circuit the exploitation of cheap foreign labour is Local Motors, which is promising to open 100 microfactories to make its vehicles locally in every country where they will be sold, each customised to meet the needs of local residents.

They are also building a Mobi-Factory in the back of a semi-trailer so that vehicles can be produced in-place in remote locations that cannot support the expense of a permanent micro-factory. So far they are planning on three models, the Rally Fighter (pictured), the Racer and the Cruiser, all manufactured by the same 3D printer from different CAD files.

Physics laboratories

Physics laboratories, such as this one at Princeton, use 3D printers to quickly prototype objects that would otherwise have to be bought or sent to a machine shop. Source: Princeton

Local Motors U.S. factories will be introducing the Rally Fighter to the commercial market later in 2015 using the 3D printer to make both its body and chassis. The electric car will use motors and other drive train parts from Renault. The company also will allow engineers and partners—and eventually even consumers—to go online and use its CAD tools to produce customised vehicles with features that fit their particular application. Currently Local Motors has micro-factories in Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, with Washington D.C. next on the list.

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