PORTLAND, Ore. — Three-dimensional printing has matured almost overnight from a novelty market for making knicknacks into a fledgling industry workhorse for making prototypes that could eventually displace the venerable manufacturing capabilities of injection molding or computer numerical control (CNC) subtractive machining, and the global tool-and-die supply chain supporting them.
Today companies like Stratasys Ltd. and 3D Systems Inc. are providing the necessary industrial-grade 3D printers, but they have yet to prove the mettle of additive manufacturing to the mainstream industry. That is one reason they recently lent their expertise to the Spring 2014 Additive Manufacturing Grand Challenge, hosted by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (a.k.a. Virginia Tech) and funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Defense University, Robotic Research LLC, and the Stiefel Family Foundation.
The Spring 2014 Additive Manufacturing Grand Challenge is hosted by Virginia Tech to demonstrate the utility of 3D printed vehicles.
Christopher Williams, a professor at Virginia Tech, told EE Times in an interview:
The whole point of 3D printing is to reduce the complexity of the supply chain -- thus instead of manufacturing all these pre-made parts and shipping them around the world to be assembled, you just send a 3D printer, an electronics kit, and a bucket of raw material to the place the device is needed. That's the vision.
The idea of the Grand Challenge is to prove that if you send 3D printers into the field, you can print a vehicle in a few hours that is perfect for a specific mission. Today we tend to build very expensive vehicles that have to be a jack-of-all-trades, but with 3D printing you can build an inexpensive vehicle that exactly fits the needs you have at a specific site, and then put it on the shelf until its needed again -- or just throw it away.
The first Additive Manufacturing Grand Challenge is open only to Virginia Tech students, but, if successfull, the hope is to duplicate it with competitions in which every major university will be able to participate.
"This is the first competition of its kind," Williams told EE Times. "But it's a pilot competition that we are hoping to open up to contestants from other universities starting as early as this fall."
The sponsors' motivations were twofold: first, to demonstrate that 3D additive printing is capable of more than just novelties and toys, but can produce usable industrial-grade devices that could eventually displace the whole subtractive manufacturing supply chain. Second, the sponsors want to begin creating a pool of talented engineers trained in how to make maximal use of 3D printing technology.
Williams told us:
We haven't finished our assessment of how much the students are learning, but the data we already have is overwhelmingly positive. The students are reporting a substantial amount of learning about mechatronics in particular and 3D printing in general. Almost all of them had minimal knowledge in these categories before the contest, and looked at the competition as a motivator, as a reason to go learn something they always wanted to learn, but never had time for. They decided, "Why not now?"