3D Printing ROV Thruster Housing
3D printing a new ROV thruster housing in the PIRatE Lab.

We often hear that this invention or that tech will be a game changer or birth some new industry or other.  These missives come so often we can become blasé about even the idea.  At the risk of being like so many other rah-rah overhypers, the technology we know as 3D printing is already changing the world.


A New Way To Print

3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file.  The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes.  In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created.  Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.

3D Printing.com


Our current default 3D printing technology involves a computer controlled emitter of stuff (usually primed with plastic, but metal, wood fiber + resin, plant-based polymers, and food such as chocolate are all possible options) that moves about over an X-Y plane laying down precise amounts of the printed material under computer control.  Once a given slice or plane of material has been laid down and hardened, the emitter is lifted up ever so slightly and repeats the process.  This is all under computer control with the printer creating in real space the target model held in the computer’s memory.

Leveling the Machining Playing Field

The array of 3D printers in our AARR laboratories allow us to print replacement parts or create new capabilities by generating new parts we have brainstormed.  Rather than sending some schematic off to the engineering department or a machine shop that would take weeks and weeks to produce something for hundreds or thousands of dollars, we can print our needed piece for a few cents over the course of a few minutes (or hour or two depending upon the size).

With this tech we have created, revised, and improved a whole host of underwater and aerial robots.  Our Lulzbot printer costs less than $3,000 and yet has brought an amazing amount of manufacturing parity to our program, effectively equivalent to having a well-equipped CNC machine shop that would have cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) only a couple of years ago.  We can now produce robotic units that rival or surpass those from much wealthier and better resourced programs around the country.  This is exactly the phenomenon we have seen with cell phone technology across much of the globe.  In the late 1990s the developed world boasted the best telecommunication systems in the world.  Now the developed world (especially the United States) has become the backwater with most developing economies having massively better, cheaper, and faster telecommunication networks.  Those countries often had essentially no landline phone networks to speak of.  So assembling their cell phone networks by a proliferating network of telecom service providers was easy and unimpeded.  Now every sheepherder I meet in eastern Turkey has a cell phone with signal reception usually better than what we are afforded in our brand-new laboratory building here in tech-centric Ventura County.  In the case of 3D printing, we here at CI had nothing before my program started down our robotic road and so jumping on the latest tech was easy.  At most of our more established university campuses across the U.S. and beyond, there is way too much investment in traditional machining and machining technologies to simply pivot to the new and improved world of 3D printing.  So they are staying with the so-called “AT&T model” of slow speed, insanely overpriced services, sloth-like innovation speeds, and crappy products.

The Next Wave

The future of 3D printing includes optically printed objects created at speeds much faster than our current tech, an ever-more diverse array of materials comprising the printed objects, and a much greater complexity of the tissues comprising the printed object.

And then there is this crazy idea.  I doubt this will ever work in the practical sense, but it really gets the idea juices flowing:

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