You’ve probably heard of 3-D printing.
You may have seen videos of small plastic novelties produced by something resembling the inkjet printer sitting next to your computer. Have you ever wondered just exactly how it works, and what potential this innovation holds for everyday life?
Did you know that around 3-D printing – also called additive manufacturing – a whole world of industry and science has rapidly developed? GE Aerospace projects the field will expand by $100 billion in the next decade.
The process is so different than traditional manufacturing that it can sound farfetched. But it is revolutionizing everything from auto parts production and ship repair, to surgical operations and space exploration.
The Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology (SiMT) at Florence-Darlington Technical College (FDTC) has been at the forefront of additive manufacturing for nearly a decade, and beginning this fall, the institute will offer three new courses to meet industry demand for graduates with cutting edge skills.
FDTC machine technology students are so sought-after that the college has seen 100 percent employment out of the program every year for the past 11 years, says Mark Roth, vice president over the additive manufacturing program.
“There are only five facilities in the country like the SiMT,” Roth notes. “It’s a real boon to the Pee Dee area. Most of our students go directly into industry.”
“Now everyone is realizing what you can do with additive manufacturing, and everyone is jumping in. FDTC is the first school to offer a certificate in the state,” says Roth.
“The field is growing everywhere, not just in our region,” adds James Simmons, director of the additive manufacturing program. “Our department works with companies nationally and internationally, including in Spain, France, and Germany.”
Layer by layer
So how does additive manufacturing work? “Seeing is believing,” says Simmons, a leading authority in the region.
“Imagine I designed a potato,” he suggests. “If you imagine the design process in the past, you think of a designer taking a block of wood and cutting away pieces to carve a shape. They would carve the potato shape out of the block.
“Additive manufacturing is 180 degrees different,” he says. “We draw the potato on the computer, then slice that rendering into potato chips. The layers of chips, all stacked together, would consist of circles, with the one on the bottom the smallest, then the next one slightly bigger, and so on. We start with nothing and build from the ground up.”
That’s the “additive” concept – adding a substance layer by layer. The process is similar to printing a document, but the output is a 3-D product.
While seemingly more complicated, additive manufacturing can be much more efficient. “Traditionally, if you cut away metal, you have to turn it a lot to cut away,” says Simmons. Every cut and turn take time and can introduce errors.
Additive manufacturing uses “freeform geometry,” says Simmons. A complicated sculpture that could take days to produce in the traditional way could be built in a matter of minutes with the 3-D layering method.
The SiMT resembles a medical laboratory more than a factory capable of producing industrial parts.
“You can eat off the floor in our machine shop,” Vice President Roth jokes. “It’s designed like a fish bowl so everyone can see the machines, and it’s super clean. It’s a knowledge-based field now.”
He doesn’t exaggerate. Classrooms are small and modern, offering video views of the machines at work in the lab. One classroom features 12 printers, one at each desk. Students make parts their very first day in class, and learn every technique in the field.
Students progress through three 16-week certificate programs that teach design using computer-aided drafting; how to be a lab technician to operate and repair machines; and project management that ties theory with application. The three certificates are tied in to an associate’s degree in engineering.
“It’s very hands-on,” Roth explains. “You’re going to know the process no matter what business hires you.”
Retooling, and redefining
Agriculture might not be the first place you’d look for the application of such cutting-edge technology. The peach industry in Florence, however, has already been the recipient of additive manufacturing’s advantages.
One long established peach farm in the area relies on equipment that was made decades ago, notes Roth. “It’s such an old business that their newest machine was built in 1964. The companies that made these machines are long out of business, so they had no way to fix them when they’d break down.” he says. “But now the peach producer can bring the pieces to us, and we can manufacture an exact replacement in an hour.”
Have an old car in need of a “new” part? If there’s a drawing, the SiMT can make the parts.
This technology was called stereolithography when it was first developed some three decades ago. “Like most technological advances, it took about 15 years to catch on,” Roth explains. Computer innovations have converged with the 3-D printing world to open up new possibilities.
Like just about everything else, the machines have gotten smaller. This put 3-D printing into the realm of small business possibility. Got an idea for an invention? It can be built, layer by layer.
Bigger things are on the horizon, says Simmons. “There are large-scale machines that are capable of printing cars – in hours, not days.”
Navy ships have been equipped with machines so they can replace parts without having supplies brought in by air.
“They’re already doing that in space. NASA teamed with a company in South Carolina to develop methods to print tools in the International Space Station. Can you imagine how much it would cost to deliver supplies to astronauts? Now they can print a wrench in space.”
“For big companies,” says Roth, “these ‘little things’ add up to saving literally millions of dollars.”
“This changes everything”
The “little things” can also save and improve lives.
“People hear about the technology and they think, ‘that sounds expensive’,” Roth states. “But think of it this way: if a child loses an arm, he needs a $20,000 prosthetic. He grows. A year later, that arm may be three inches too short.
“Now we can build that child a new arm each year for less than $1,000, to ‘grow’ with him.”
Medical applications know no bounds. In the SiMT lab, Simmons built an implant for kidney dialysis that will improve bloodflow for patients and prevent the need for amputations that are common consequences of the treatment.
“After starting dialysis, a patient normally has six years,” Roth states.
“This changes everything.”
- Naomi Sheehan