s additive manufacturing emerges from a long infancy, the industry is grappling with a key challenge: A file format and design tools from the 20th

century are being asked to do 21st century jobs. “The industry was a hobby industry

for 25 years and it’s starting to grow up,” said Kirk Rogers, technology leader at GE. “You made a 3D model and it had a cool factor—Mick-

ey Mouse or a little chess piece—it was awesome to look at,” said Kenneth Church, CEO of the R&D engineering firm Sciperio, as well as the 3D printing firm nScrypt. “What if I made it function- al? Then the niche was rapid prototyping—get something out there and see how it fits. Then we moved from rapid prototyping to small- lot manufacturing.” But to fulfill what indus- try leaders say is its destiny, the technology involved must mature. “We’re using old technol-

ogy,” Church said. “From a hardware and mechani- cal point of view, it’s a very mature, stable technology in how we extrude, dispense and laser process. But it’s not so mature from a functional side that moves beyond me- chanics and structure. When you start talking quantity, 3D printing is not the answer.” For centuries, dreamers

have designed things that could not yet be built. Think about Leonardo DaVinci’s helicopter on paper in the late 1400s, more than 400 years before the first suc- cessful flight. Three decades after Chuck Hull invented the 3D printer and founded 3D Systems, that paradigm has


“For the first time in history, manufacturing is more advanced than design. With additive manufacturing, you can make almost any shape you can imagine. The challenge is the software design tools are not keeping pace. We can build anything but we can’t design it.”

Columbia University Prof. Hod Lipson

shifted—at least in additive manufacturing (AM). “For most of human history, we could design crazy shapes but there was not a way to make them,” said Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University and chair of the AM data interchange committee for ASTM, one of the largest international standards develop- ment organizations. “For the first time in history, manufactur- ing is more advanced than design. With additive manufactur- ing, you can make almost any shape you can imagine. The challenge is the software design tools are not keeping pace. We can build anything but we can’t design it.” Today’s high-end 3D

printers have the capability to be more precise than the software and format used to design printable objects. AM has been in dire need of audacious and monumen- tal thinking—the sort that would land problem solv- ers’ visages on a 3D-printed Mount Rushmore. Fortu- nately, key people involved in multiple aspects of the industry are responding. “If you get down to two

microns and you find the er- ror is in your STL model, then in a sense you’re defeating yourself by making the ma- chine tools better,” said Jim Williams, chairman of ANSI’s American Makes Standards Collaborative (AMSC). He is also the former president of Paramount Industries and for- mer VP for AM in aerospace and defense at 3D Systems. On the front end, AM relies on CAD software, invented in 1961. That software is paired with the STL file format, invented in the mid-1980s to enable CAD software to trans- mit files to print 3D objects. AM has evolved from its

gee-whiz stage to an indus- try that aspires to move to

Fall 2016

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