Last month I was invited to attend the SolidThinking Converge 2016 Conference in Los Angeles hosted by Altair. The topics sounded fascinating, and the speakers included the head of design for Fiat Chrysler, a thought leader on Biomicry, architects, artists, academics, and engineers. I went with high hopes to learn something and get a glimpse of the future. My expectations were greatly exceeded.
When I first heard about 3-D printing I thought, there’s another neat idea that’s not going to actually happen. Obviously I was wrong. But before the conference I still thought of this technology as useful for building prototypes, but manufacturing was years away. What we learned about was how it’s already being used for high-value, low-volume parts in aerospace. For instance, a part for a NASA mission that would have cost $200,000, was built using Additive Manufacturing (AM) for $20,000. Artists are using AM to realize their vision. Architects are using it to design buildings that couldn’t happen otherwise. The technologies discussed open up a world of possibilities to designers and engineers.
The topics covered were varied, but four themes kept coming up:
- Advanced simulation and optimization allows one to create better designs quickly, by replacing rules of thumb and physical prototypes with math.
- Additive Manufacturing (i.e. 3-D printing for production) isn’t just for prototypes anymore; it’s for moderate volume production (up to 50K).
- Additive Manufacturing (AM) is about much more than not needing tooling, it’s about allowing new designs that aren’t currently possible (e.g. multiple materials in a single part, shapes that injection molding can’t provide).
- Biomimicry combined with AM and optimization software can provide design solutions that are much better than anything we can create using our current tools.
The value proposition of these new techniques is so large, it’s a matter of when, not if, they become standard practice. I can’t wait to see what happens!
Nature has had 3.8 billion years to solve a myriad of engineering problems. For many of the problems we solve there is an analog where natural selection has found a great solution.
One of the best speakers was Janine Benyus of Biomicry 3.8, who wrote the book on biomimicry. Many of the later speakers referred back to her talk, which covered lots of ground, and included lots of examples:
- Reducing the mass of our buildings, cars, and everything else saves energy, money, and the environment.
- Organic looking structures can be lightweight while increasing strength
- Make it look like a skeleton, a tree, coral…
- The ideal organic system to mimic depends on the problem. Look for one where nature needed to solve a similar problem to the one in front of you.
- Composites can be much stronger: abalone shells are 3000 times stronger than the materials by themselves.
- Color can be achieved through structure rather than pigment (e.g. peacock feather).
- Many of these ideas aren’t possible without optimization to settle on a solution and AM to build it.
- OptiStruct by Altair (the hosts of the conference) was the optimization tool the speakers used.
is a consultant with a focus on AM who presented a fascinating overview of the state of the industry. He spoke of AirBus’s effort to reduce weight and increase strength by combining optimization with AM: often the new part weighed 45% less, while the strength increased by ~30%. In an industry where weight=fuel=$$, this reduction is huge. Airbus is on track to processes 30 tons of metal a year using AM by December 2018.
GE just invested $1.4 Billion to buy two AM companies, a sign of their commitment to the industry. The future holds amazing possibility:
- 3-D printing PCBs, strain gauges, antennas, and other conductive elements directly onto/inside structural components
- Using color to denote wear (the outside is black, middle layer yellow, inside red).
- Conduit or tubes built into the structure of the part.
- Strong composites/laminates directly printed
Legacy Effects combines AM and other modern tools with makeup and other practical effects to build props for movies, TV, and ads. One of their strengths is exoskeletons like the Ironman suit, Robocop, and robots. They do amazing work on masks that look like they’re out of Mission Impossible. His lesson was that by using the modern tools for what they’re good at, they have more time to achieve amazing results with the traditional tools.
Robot Bike company is a new company that can build a unique bike for each customer: a BeSpoke bike, if you will. Their value proposition is that “One size fits all doesn’t fit very well”. When you buy a Robot bike, you enter your dimensions (e.g. leg length, arm length, weight) and your style of biking and they calculate the ideal frame shape for you. The frame consists of carbon fiber tubes cut to length connected by AM manufactured brackets. A few weeks after you order your bike, it arrives in the mail. They’ve only been on the market for 4 months, so we don’t yet know if people are willing to pay £8,000 for a bicycle built for one.
Jet Propulsion Lab
Raul Polit-Casilios from JPL talked about how optimization and AM is changing space travel:
- Lighter probes, which can do more science with a given amount of mass, volume, and money
- Lower risk by reducing part count by combining multiple parts into a single AM part
- Lower cost, since you don’t need to build molds and fixtures that are only used to build a small number of parts.
- There’s already a 3-D printer on the ISS.
- In-situ resource utilization with AM could build habitats out of regolith (Martian or lunar soil).
Most of the speakers showed at least one OptiStruct image, where an out of the box solution was shown to be preferred to a more standard one. The tools allowed designers and engineers the freedom to try new ideas and allow the tool to find the optimum solution in the new space.
- Shibo Ren showed an architectural tent supported on cables. The brackets connecting the cables started at 20 kg, reduced to 15 kg after a constrained optimization, and down to 5 kg after unnecessary constraints were removed. The first two solutions looked like brackets, the third looked organic.
- Eric Long showed drawings from buildings where they’ve solved structural issues in unorthodox ways, reducing costs, build time, or improving views.
The future with AM is bright, but how should we use this technology today? I see two paths:
- One can design a product for standard production techniques (e.g. injection molding), but initial production use AM rather than the standard technique. This may allow you to start a clinical trial sooner or test a market with low volume production at lower cost. When the product is ready for mass production, standard molds and tools can be created and production can quickly ramp up.
- A product design can fully engage AM, allowing greater freedom to designers and engineers. This approach requires a significant investment in training and tools and is not appropriate for all products, especially those where the production volume is large (> 10,000), since AM is unlikely to be cost effective at these volumes.
The future is going to bring amazing designs, enabled by advanced tools and new thinking. Right now there are few companies pursuing this approach (e.g. Airbus, GE), but joining these ranks will get easier over time as costs drop and the tools improve. I look forward to be part of the revolution and seeing what amazing things these tools enable.
Andy Silber played an integral role in building the project management team at Product Creation Studio. An engineer without the title, Andy has worked in many fields throughout his career, including: astrophysics, medical devices, industrial equipment, and consumer electronics. In his spare time, Andy regularly blogs about sustainable energy.