Thursday, 6 October 2011

Introduction to printing in another dimension

Mankind, it would appear, owe a great deal of their evolutionary advantage to using tools. This ability appears to have been massively amplified by our creation of machine tools.

A machine tool is widely defined to be a machine where the movement of the tool (the tool path) is not directly controlled by a human. One of the first known examples is a late 15th century lathe used to cut screw threads . The Industrial revolution was intimately interconnected with the creation of new machine tools and arguably by the mid 19th century all the distinct subtractive machine tool types had been discovered.

I ought to explain the word subtractive in this context, it is a pretty simple and rather arbitrary distinction (but important for this discussion). Traditional machining removes or subtracts material to obtain a finished item akin to a sculptor revealing the statute from within a block of stone by using a chisel and hammer. The corollary to this is, unsurprisingly, the additive process where material is added to create the finished item.

The machine tools from the 19th centuary were primarily single use devices controlled by gears and link mechanisms. Although the Jacquard loom was well known, because of the physical engineering difficulties, combining the concept with a machine tool to create a programmable tool path was not fully realised until the opening of the 20th century.

In the late 1940s electrical motors and punch cards/tape made machine tools Numerically Controlled (NC) and when computers arrived in the 60s we gained Computer Numerical Control (CNC) and the opportunity to completely screw things up with software became available.

With the advent of CNC additive systems became practical and by the late 1980s these machines were being widely used used for Rapid Prototyping.

The first additive systems generally used was the simple pen plotter which added ink on top of paper and became popular in draughting offices for producing blueprints etc. Though more generally thought of as computer printing technique plotters owe their heritage to CNC machines.

Next came prototyping systems based on layered object manufacture which cut shapes in a thin flat material (paper or plastic) and glued them together. These systems were expensive compared to casting processes (use a subtractive machine to make a mould and cast the part), extremely wasteful of source material and the results can be of variable quality. Systems based on this process are still manufactured and used.

Then came the stereolithography approach which scans a focused UV laser to cure resin and build up an object. There are several commercial machines available and even some home built systems but the costs of the resin have not yet made this approach generally cost effective.

Currently the most common commercial rapid prototyping additive systems are selective sintering processes where either an electron beam or a high power laser melt a layer of powdered material on a bed, the bed is lowered, more powder added and the process repeated. This process can use many different types of material and is very flexible as the power used can be plastic or metals. The quality is very high and high resolutions are available. Unfortunately these machines are expensive and generally start around £20,000 which puts them out of most individuals reach.

If anyone is still reading here is the summary of what we have covered so far:
  • Humans have used tools since they stopped being monkeys.
  • More than a century back we figured out how to make machines control the tools.
  • Fifty years back we made computers control the tools, before this all tools were subtractive.
  • In the last twenty years we have discovered several expensive ways to make objects with additive methods.
Now we get to the promise of the title, in the last few years Fused Filament Fabrication has become a viable option for a hobbyist. This method extrudes a thermoplastic through a nozzle and constructs an object one layer at a time from the bottom up.

The RepRap project at Bath university helped kickstart development of a plethora of practical operational 3D printers that can be built or bought. These machines are relatively inexpensive (starting from £400 if you build it yourself) and the feedstock is also reasonably inexpensive.

In another post I will discuss the actual practicalities of building and running one of these devices and looking at their software.


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