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February 2017: A Month in 3D Printing

The world of 3D printing is, as usual, abuzz.  Innovations – as well as radical ideas – are always sweeping the industry.  So, what’s new this month?

Well…

Quartz reports on yet another shakeup at 3D printing company MakerBot, owned by Stratasys.  Jonathan Jaglom, who had been MakerBot’s CEO for the last two years, and “who tried to pivot the company away from an [as of now] unsuccessful push into consumer 3D printing, has resigned.”

Back “in 2013…the company was purchased by industrial 3D printing firm Stratasys for more than $600 million…MakerBot founder Bre Pettis stepped down as CEO a few months after the acquisition; he left Stratasys altogether in June 2015.  Interim CEO Jenny Lawton took over for less than a year, and in February 2015, Jaglom – at the time general manager of Stratasys Asia Pacific Japan, and son of the chairman of the board – was installed as MakerBot’s new chief.”

Once Jaglom had become established as MakerBot’s CEO, he pursued “new markets like education and professional services as it became clear [at least to him] the average consumer wasn’t going to buy a $1,000 personal 3D printer.”

So, “during his tenure, Jaglom instituted multiple rounds of layoffs, including everyone that actually built MakerBot’s printers in Brooklyn.  (They’re now built by a company in China.)  He also shuttered all of the company’s retail stores.”

Jaglom will be replaced as CEO of MakerBot by the company’s president, Nadav Goshen.  Goshen seems to be leaning towards a similar strategy to Jaglom’s: “I’m excited to continue working towards our vision of putting a desktop 3D printer in every classroom and on the desk of every designer and engineer.”

It remains to be seen whether MakerBot’s current strategy is indeed the right one.

Let’s move on to some brighter news…

Literally!

Wired UK reports on a startling new 3D printing-related development from a team of chemists at MIT.

The MIT team has developed a 3D printing technique allowing you to change an object’s color using light.  These malleable 3D printed objects can change colors by altering their polymers.  The team did this by utilizing Stereolithography – one of the most cutting edge forms of 3D printing.

For those who don’t know, Stereolithography works by “shining light onto a liquid solution of monomers – the building blocks of plastic and other materials – to form layer upon layer of solid polymers in a specific design or pattern, until the final shape is complete.”

Before now, “once an object had been printed these polymers were considered ‘dead’ – they couldn’t be extended to form new polymer chains, which would alter the printed object.”  However, with this process just developed by the team at MIT, polymer can be added to “alter the material’s chemical composition and mechanical properties.”

As Jeremiah Johnson, the Firmenich career development associate professor of Chemistry at MIT explains, “the idea is that you could print a material and subsequently take that material and, using light, morph the material into something else, or grow the material further.”

Back in 2013, Johnson and his team “demonstrated…they could use UV light to stimulate the polymers and add new features to 3D printed materials.  They experimented by using the light to break apart the polymers at certain points in a printed object, which created free radicals (extremely reactive molecules).”

These “free radicals would then bind to new monomers to form a solution surrounding the object and become incorporated in the original material.  Unfortunately, the radicals were found to be too reactive: they were difficult to control and could be damaging to the material.”

In order to work around this issue, “the MIT team designed new polymers that would react to light.  The polymers contained chemical groups known as TTCs, that are activated when turned on by light.  For instance, when blue light from an LED shines on the polymers, it attaches new monomers to the TTCs, which makes them stretch out.”  The 3D printed object is made from these monomers, which give the object’s material new properties.

Along with changing the color of a 3D printed object, the team also discovered “they could make materials become bigger or smaller using different temperatures by adding a specific monomer.”  This technique is still in its infancy, however.  It is “limited by the fact it requires an oxygen-free environment.”

The good news is that the team is “now working on finding different catalysts that can be used in the presence of oxygen.”

Elsewhere around the world, 3Ders caught wind of an exciting new device engineers at Stanford University have developed aiding in the detection of malaria.  Malaria is “an infectious disease spread by mosquitoes, [which] can cause fever, vomiting, fatigue, and – in extreme cases – death.  The condition is easy to diagnose with proper medical equipment, but, understandably, that equipment is not always available.”

When this is the case, centrifuges are the perfect solution for medical workers operating out of remote areas.  “By spinning a blood sample very quickly, different cell types in the blood can be separated from each other, making it easier to spot parasites.”

But how to get hold of a centrifuge?

This was a question Manu Prakash, professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, “asked himself…during a trip to Uganda, when he encountered medical workers desperately [in need of] a centrifuge” and one they could use without the aid of electricity.

Prakash elaborates on this worldwide dilemma: “there are more than a billion people around the world who have no infrastructure, no roads, no electricity.  I realized if we wanted to solve a critical problem like malaria diagnosis, we need to design a human-powered centrifuge that costs less than a cup of coffee.”

And so Prakash got to work.

His inspiration was the deceptively simple mechanics of children’s toys.  At first, he experimented with the spinning abilities of Yo-Yos, but found they were just too slow.  His team finally arrived on the appropriate toy for the task, which originated from the Bronze Age: the whirligig.

The whirligig “consists of a wheel in the center of a wire that spins by hand or wind power.”  The team eventually designed “an incredibly efficient whirligig, recording unprecedented speeds of 125,000 revolutions per minute.  Since the first version of the rapid-fire whirligig was made from paper, the engineers called their device a ‘paperfuge.’”

“To make a paperfuge, all that is required is paper coated with polymer film, string, and PVC pipe, or wood.  To operate it, blood samples are attached to the center disc, after which the user can pull on the string to commence the rapid revolutions.  This speedy spinning causes the cells to separate, just as they would in a more expensive electric centrifuge.”  Possibly the most startling asset of the paperfuge, however, is that it only costs 20 cents!

Where might 3D printing fit into this equation, you may be asking.

Well, 3D printing can aid these Stanford University engineers in the mass production of these sorts of devices.  “With this method, they were able to 3D print over 100 plastic whirligig devices in a day.”

The team concludes: “Using a desktop 3D printer (Form 2, Formlabs), we rapidly printed lightweight (20 g) prototypes of different ‘3D-fuges’ that spun at speeds of approximately 10,000 r.p.m. These further open opportunities to mass-manufacture millions of centrifuges using injection-molding techniques.”

While not as fast as their paper counterparts, these ‘3D-fuges’ are more durable and resilient – “a useful attribute in places where access to the source materials is limited.”

What’s in store next month?  Well, you’ll just have to tune in to Replicator World in order to find out!

Image Courtesy of Stanford University and 3Ders

Quotes Courtesy of Quartz, Wired UK, Stanford University, and 3Ders

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