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3D Printing: Looking to the Past, Looking to the Future

It’s always exciting to bear witness to the constant development of the 3D printing industry.  To the ways in which it upends older industries and the way in which it changes lives.  But every once in a while, it becomes necessary to become reflective and look back into the early days of 3D printing – to the pioneers who patented several of its various proto-forms.

This is why this month in our feature, we begin at the beginning…

Ozy has written a ‘flashback’ concerning the very early days of 3D printing.

Bill Masters demonstrates an idea, which crossed his mind back in 1976, when he was looking up at the night sky: “what if those stars stuck together like spitballs stuck together?  Then you can build something out of it – but you need a seed point.”

This became a launch pad for Masters, who eventually developed a 3D printing patent in 1984 – “before some of the most celebrated pioneers in what has become a $6 billion industry filed their own 3D printing patents.”

These days, however, Masters is far more well known for his kayak creations, which he sold under his Perception Kayaks brand.  Masters sold his first professionally crafted kayak back in the 70s, and since then Perception Kayaks “rapidly expanded and grabbed ‘the lion’s share’ of the U.S. market in white-water boating in the 1980s.”  In 1998 Masters sold the company for an undisclosed sum.

At the same time, Masters also attempted to commercialize his 3D printing concept.  He launched “a dedicated company to work on its research and development.  He worked with a team to test a process, which successfully used one of his Rotary Club lapel pins as inspiration to produce a small gear made from plastics.  But when investors got involved, Masters says, they went in their own direction and wanted to use a more complicated method that didn’t have enough computing or software power.”

There were other problems too.  As Masters explains, “I got diluted and lost control of the patent.  For eight long years, the company was plagued with ongoing technical problems and a lack of strong management and direction.”  This led, inevitably, to that company closing its doors.

And the rest, they say is history.  Chuck Hull, the founder of 3D Systems, who was dubbed ‘the father of 3D printing’ by The Guardian began making huge inroads in the industry, while S. Scott and Lisa Crump founded Stratasys.  Both these companies now rule the roost when it comes to additive manufacturing.  Other entrepreneurs such as Ross Housholder and Hideo Kodama also filed proto-patents for 3D printing-like technologies.

As Intellectual Property law firm Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner partner John F. Hornick concludes, however, figuring out just who invented 3D printing is a murky business: “Three-dimensional printing is an umbrella term for several types of additive manufacturing technologies.  Comparing patent-filing dates may be like comparing apples and oranges.”

But of course, the 3D printing industry has moved well beyond the patented techniques of Bill Masters.  For example, this month, 3D printing was utilized in order to replicate a fascinating aspect of the natural world.

3Ders reports on exciting new 3D printed ultra-silent turbine blades developed by a team of researchers at Iowa State University.  Bharat Agrawal, Andrew Bodling, and Anupam Sharma looked to owl wings as inspiration for their blades.

Owls have incredibly quiet wings, due to their nocturnal hunting habits.  Sharma, who is an Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering and a Walter W. Wilson Faculty Fellow lays out the three mechanisms by which owls fly so silently: “fine, comb-like structures on the leading edge of the wing; a pliable and porous fringe on feathers at the trailing edge of the wing; and a downy coat on the bird’s flight feathers.”

In order to investigate further, the team 3D scanned “various owl wing specimens, turning them into digital 3D models that can run through simulation software.  This has allowed them to figure out how those three wing features affect air flow, turbulence, and pressure to produce a virtually silent motion.”

“By 3D printing airfoils with a serrated leading edge – designed to replicate the fine comb-like structures on the owl’s wing – the [researchers] found that noise was reduced significantly when compared with airfoils with a flat leading edge, also reducing the unsteady pressure on the back end of the blade surface.  So even though there’s a big material difference, copying the subtle form of the owl wing has produces a comparable effect.”

As Sharma explains, these 3D printed turbine experiments “could have a big impact on the design of things like wind turbines and aircraft, which could reduce their noise emissions by implementing these owl-inspired features.  The results of this research could have an impact on the design of silent air vehicles with applications in national defense, commerce, and transportation.”

The National Science Foundation is supporting these experiments further with a five-year, $500,000 CAREER grant.  The Iowa Space Grant Consortium has contributed an additional $100,000 boost to the experiments as well.

A bridge to the past.  A bridge to the future.  And now 3D printing is providing a bridge to the present as well.  Literally.

For a while now, we here at Replicator World have been monitoring the conception and development of a stainless-steel 3D printed bridge in the Netherlands’ capital city of Amsterdam.  The company MX3D, who are building that particular bridge, say it is a third of the way done.

However, an entirely different 3D printed bridge elsewhere in the Netherlands has been causing quite a stir.  In fact, The Guardian reports that this bridge, located in the southeastern town of Gemert, has just had its grand opening.

This eight-meter (26 foot) bridge “spans a water-filled ditch” and connects two roads.  It was created by researchers from the Eindhoven University of Technology in conjunction with the BAM Infra Construction Company.

Its creators say it was “printed from 800 layers of concrete and is able to withstand the weight of 40 trucks.”  However, this bridge was designed primarily to be used by cyclists.  Work on the bridge “took about three months after starting in June and it is made of reinforced, pre-stressed concrete.”

As the researchers responsible for the project explain, “one of the advantages of printing a bridge is that much less concrete is needed than in the conventional technique in which a mold is filled.  A printer deposits the concrete only where it is needed.”

Marinus Schimmel, the head of the BAM Infra Construction Company, concludes: “we are looking to the future.  We are constantly searching for newer, smarter approaches to addressing infrastructure issues and making significant contributions to improving the mobility and sustainability of our society.”

This is what 3D printing has always been about.

Image Courtesy of Ozy

Quotes Courtesy of Ozy, 3Ders, and The Guardian

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