West Virginia: The State of 3-D Printing

Posted on December 4, 2014
by Jens Kiel

Looking at the current state of 3-D printing makes science fiction almost relatable. Who wouldn’t want an ice cream sundae on demand via a food replicator like those used in “Star Trek?” While it’s not quite a reality yet, a Barcelona-based research group, aptly named Robots in Gastronomy, already uses cream cheese, cake dough, eggs, pasta, honey and fruit or vegetable puree to print culinary creations—and they recently added ice cream to the list. For now, these foods are loaded into the machine and used as “ink” for printing the edible 3-D models. The synthesis of food is in development, though. According to the U.K.’s Daily Mail, just last year, NASA gave the 3-D printer firm Systems & Materials Research Corporation a six-month, $125,000 grant to focus on developing a universal food synthesizer.

The Ins and Outs of 3-D Printing

A look at common technologies to create objects will reveal what makes 3-D printing such a promising method and why it has such potential to revolutionize the manufacturing industry. Die-casting, which creates objects from metals or plastics melted to a liquid state, needs a mold. CNC routing, or computer-controlled cutting, is a precursor technology to 3-D printing and uses a 3-D model and computer control to cut an object from a solid piece of a hard material. The technology of 3-D printing, however, allows the designer to produce revisions of an object without wasting a lot of solid materials or the need for additional molds. With 3-D printing, the object is literally created from an immaterial plan—the 3-D model—and has not existed before.

This model, whether it is a simple dimensional shape or an intricately designed and functional machine part, is digitally constructed using engineering skills and computer-aided design software like AutoCAD. In the process of 3-D modeling, the designer combines elements from a library of existing objects and shapes or imports elements via 3-D laser or contact scanning.

Chris Figgatt, a production engineer at RCBI, working with electronic operating systems for 3-D printing.

Chris Figgatt, a production engineer at RCBI, working with electronic operating systems for 3-D printing.

In 3-D laser scanning, single or multiple objects are scanned by a laser using a rangefinder, reference points and multiple scanning positions. Contact scanning is used for smaller objects or simpler shapes. Both scanning methods note the position of all the object properties like length, height, depth and shape in the three-dimensional space, and this information is digitally stored.

To prepare the scanned information for 3-D modeling, the usually extensive scan data is reduced to its significant elements and modified to fit the application. This process is called the design and engineering phase, and it represents what makes 3-D technology so attractive. The resulting model is like a blueprint, and it outlines the object or objects that will be printed.

The 3-D printing process itself is comparable to ink jet printing, although the machines and materials used are generally more intricate and expensive. Generally speaking, the base material is deposited in thin layers until a solid object forms. In some printers, it is fashioned from a plastic or metal powder then fixated by heat while in others, a plastic filament is heated to a liquid state then expelled through a nozzle, becoming the final intended product as it cools to a solid. There are other printers that deposit a binder material onto a bed of gypsum powder, solidifying the powder into a full-color, sandstone product that is removed from the print bed once completed. As the materials are specially manufactured to match the corresponding 3-D printer specifications, they are quite expensive, and the machine manufacturer often regulates their supply.

3-D Printing in the Mountain State

To learn about this innovative technology, one does not need to venture very far: the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI) utilizes a vast array of 3-D printers and provides access to the leading-edge technology to educational, industrial and government organizations, as well as individuals and entrepreneurs. Marshall University, West Virginia University—through the West Virginia Robotics Technology Center in Fairmont—and NASA are only a few strategic partners who help RCBI enable manufacturers to build a stronger economic future for West Virginia.

Visiting RCBI at any of its Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centers in Huntington, Charleston and Bridgeport, one can learn a lot about the practical application of 3-D printing. RCBI supports industries and entrepreneurs across West Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic region with revolutionary additive manufacturing technology. In this role, RCBI helps engineer, design and 3-D print prototype parts for the research and development departments of companies, as well as apply reverse engineering to replace machine parts that have become unavailable because the OEM, or original equipment manufacturer, no longer produces the part. With its added CNC capabilities in more traditional subtractive, or material removal, manufacturing coupled with its extensive staff expertise, RCBI combines 3-D printing with traditional applications that offer solutions in advanced flexible manufacturing.

It is fascinating to experience the flexibility in material use firsthand: depending on the final application of the 3-D printed part, the cell size of the printed structure does vary from an airy, thin-walled honeycomb pattern that uses filament sparingly and costs less to a high-density, weighty substance pattern that feels seemingly solid, like a CNC-cut or die-cast object that is more expensive to manufacture.

An advantage of 3-D printing over traditional machine tooling, especially during the development stage, is the ease of modification with minimal financial effort. For example, a quick way to create a metal machine part for a prototype is to 3-D print an object with plastic or wax, then create a ceramic mold from it by wet-dipping it in a slurry of binder and coating, hardening the shell and die-casting with liquid metal.

Mountain State 3-D Specialists

St. Albans, WV’s ZDS Design/Consulting Services is a specialist in 3-D laser scanning. ZDS provides a service that collects survey data points, which can be used to capture pictures, make drawings and record measurements of a structure. The resulting data is paired with 360 degrees of photographic imaging, which can then be measured with astounding accuracy or imported into structural design software. Not only do architects and engineers profit from such a service, but it helps with communicating information to fire marshals, inspectors, engineers and facility operators.

One company that uses 3-D laser scanning frequently is WYK Associates, Inc., an architectural planning firm out of Clarksburg. Specializing in historic building restoration, WYK uses original architectural plans and scanner data to assess wall strength, static and overall building composition and typology. Once they have modeled the building on the computer, they print 3-D building details and building solutions for their clients. This supports the decision-finding process for their clients, as well as their fundraising efforts, making the updated building literally tangible.

The 2014 Building Conference, held in cooperation with Create West Virginia this year, discussed the use of 3-D printing in green building design and sustainable urban revitalization. The 2013 conference featured a Maker Lab, which helped a lot of individuals find access to and applications for the 3-D printing technology.

West Virginia Leading the Way

The in-state progress made in this technology, especially in the aspect of application in new arenas and the integration into existing work processes, creates an exciting expectation for the future in both the industry and the consumer.

West Virginia is often mentioned trailing the statistics within the United States, but closer examination reveals the spirit of explorers, makers and doers—the hacker mentality that makes change possible, catalyzes it and even demands it. The entry cost to this exciting technology will be lowered in the coming years, and access to online communities, local co-working and co-creating maker spaces and maker fairs like the West Virginia Makes Festival in Huntington will procure a legion of innovators.

Can West Virginia be the motor to a resurgence of American manufacturers, for once leading the economic recovery? The Mountain State’s activists, dignitaries and industry leaders are highly invested in the premise that 3-D printing technology will help us make—and buy—American again.


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