Micro 3D Printers: Building the Future at Home

By T. Lucas McCarthy, University of Pittsburgh

I found the information on M3D that I read during my research, and subsequent reading, to be fascinating. The point of the paper was to discuss innovations in our world and in particular within the field of engineering. [...] I see a huge segment for this product and can easily visualize the technology as a household device as much as the traditional printer, with major corporate implications as well.

-T. Lucas McCarthy

Laying the Groundwork

3d printing as a whole sounds like a space age process from a science fiction movie, but it has actually been in development for over 30 years. In 1983, Charles Hull invented stereolithograph process, which is when models, patterns, and in many cases parts for larger scale assembly are constructed layer by layer while a UV laser cures, or hardens the layers enabling further layers to be laid, in rapid succession[1]. Since then many innovations have been created to move this technology to the next level, but 3D printing technology has always been prohibitive to consumer hands, due mostly to pricing. That is until now. Recent innovations of the efficiency of the 3d printer have come in a less than traditional way. A Kickstarter.com funded campaign has led to the production of a product that is 7 inches tall, weighs about 2 pounds, and is 10 times more efficient than current 3d printers[2]. Dubbed the Micro 3d Printer for its reduction in size, it is definitely not for its reduction in innovation. The micro 3D printer has two unique innovations that have accounted for its reduction in size and energy usage, potentially allowing it to become a much more widely used tool. These improvements are the advanced ceramic print head and enhanced motor.

Why Do These Innovations Matter?

How 3D Printing Works:

Before explaining the importance of the previously listed innovations it would be counterintuitive to not first explain how a 3D Printer works. The 3D Printer uses a template created on a computer that represents the intended final product. This template is converted into the standard tessellation language that the printer can use as a guide while operating. 3D printers use many different kinds of filaments and polymers, which are heated by the print head, to create each layer. Thus, before the machine can operate, it is imperative that it is fully filled with the appropriate filaments and polymers. This is very similar to the way that one would ensures that a standard printer has a full ink cartridge before operating. After the printer has been prepped, the pre-loaded template is used to direct the machine layer by layer on the specifications of the model. These layers are sometimes composed of a less than .1mm thick heated polymer, contributing to the accuracy of these valuable tools. Finally, after each layer has been set the final product should match the template precisely[3].

Increased Efficiency:

The advanced ceramic print head is such a note worthy innovation because of its lower operating temperature. The three main positive outcomes that result from the lower levels of heat during operation are a smaller global energy footprint, lower local emissions of fumes, and higher precision when it comes to the final product.

Lower heat levels go hand and hand with the impressive precision that the Micro 3D Printer guarantees. When the filament is heated, so that it can be laid as the next level of the product, it is going to rapidly cool after leaving the head, the part of the 3D printer that heats the filament and sets it into place. With a reduction in the change in temperature from the heated filament to the ground temperature, a more uniform layer will occur increasing the precision of the final product[4].

The new ceramic head also aids in mitigating the total energy used by the Micro 3D Printer, thus, contributing to the claim that it will be at least 10 times more efficient than current competitor’s printers. The conservation of energy can be attributed once again to the lower operating temperatures. If the head does not have to be kept at as high of a temperature then it would not have to use as much energy as the printers currently in use. The regular industrial 3D printers that are used are anywhere from 50 to 100 times less efficient than traditional injection modeling, a form of creating products via inserting melted polymers into molds. This fact is one of the main reasons why traditional injection modeling is typically used during the mass production of consumer products, but now on a smaller scale production the Micro 3D Printer will result in being more efficient than traditional methods[5].

The final main benefit from the reduced heat of the advanced ceramic print head comes in the form of reducing the 3D printers risk to one’s health. As was already explained, 3D printers work by heating what are mostly plastics and light metals. This process creates a large amount of noxious gas that could most easily be compared to that of smoking a cigarette indoors[4]. With the heat reduced the same level of fumes will not be emitted, and some potential health risks could be minimized even if it is ever so slightly.

Most of the remaining increased efficiency can be attributed to the new motor that the Micro 3D Printer is speculated to use. The exact specifications of this motor system have yet to be released, but it is hypothesized that it will likely be a less power thirsty stepper motor of some sort. This allows for extreme precision all while keeping operating costs low[4].

Personal Importance and Interest:

A 3D printer that one can store next to his or her computer on a standard desk will always amaze me. To the untrained person it would seem as though it operated through pure magic, turning rather insignificant objects into fantastic finished products. As a consumer this opens up a whole new world of options and avenues that can be explored all because it allows anyone to create something.

I am so inspired by this product and all of the innovation that comes with it for one primary reason. Imagine if there was nothing preventing anyone from creating anything imaginable (assuming that the individual could afford to spare a few hundred dollars) on an innovation that will one day likely be as available and cost-efficient as the average house hold printer. Ideas could come to life and science would enjoy the benefit of many new privateers trying to stake their claim to what they hope would be “the next big thing.” The lack of complexity, push a button and wait, would appeal to the mass markets. Additionally, with the ease of use, one could process or use something that was previously made and combine it with some other object or idea to construct something completely new and different.

One concern however, is that this technology is growing so quickly that ethical concerns may result from these ground breaking machines. People may fear that eventually future versions of the Micro 3D Printer’s family could allow individuals to “play God” and construct cellular life. Fearing that possibility is the same as fearing progress. Current limitations on these machines exist in their incipient stage, but when given time to grow it is the dawn of a new technological age where the consumers are the scientists, inventors, and engineers because the means that allow them to be those very things were finally brought into the everyday household.

Potential Applications to Engineering:

The list of possible applications for the Micro 3D Printer for engineers is seemingly infinite. What has been created is a more efficient user-friendly device that allows the engineer to be his or her own parts manufacturer. Hypothetically speaking, if an engineer was working on a project and needed a simple piece to continue with the project, that engineer would have to make an order to get the piece. A process like that may take a few days to be ordered and shipped, but now that engineer can filter through thousands of printable options and be almost guaranteed assuming that the part was of relatively small size that his desktop 3D printer could make exactly what he or she needs within minutes[6].

This database that the engineer can peruse is another innovation that the team that is constructing the Micro 3D Printer is currently working on. Their goal is to revolutionize the interface through a touchscreen that would allow for convenience and diversity within a library of printable templates. USB port equipped once the Micro 3D printer is released, its co-founder David Jones has stated that, "The possibilities are really unique to each individual and we can't wait to see what they do with it. One thing is for sure, they'll do things with it we never imagined[2]."

Conclusion

Innovations are made every day in the modern world in which we live, but not all of those innovations are as spectacular as those that the team that is working on the Micro 3D Printer has made. Taking into account efficiency, size restraints, and arguably most importantly, price, this team is about to release something of similar magnitude in many peoples opinions to that of the first simple computers. The original personal computer was nothing like it is today and originally many people had difficulty realizing the opportunities that it had made available, but shortly after, innovations were made and now those computers are connected and are part of something that no one of 100 years ago would have thought possible. That is very well how the masses will view the Micro 3D Printer. It will bring anything to any household at the touch of a screen once the next great innovation is made for it.

REFERENCES

[1] (2014). “The Jouney of a Life Time.” 3dsystems.(online article). http://www.3dsystems.com/30-years-innovation

[2] L. Gilpin. (2014). “3d Printer Raises $1 Million Dollars In 24 Hours, Proves There Is Massive Demand.” Techrepublic.(online blog). http://www.techrepublic.com/article/3d-printer-raises-1m-in-24-hours-proves-there-is-massive-demand/

[3] S. Crawford. (2014). “How 3d Printing Works.” How Stuff Works.(online article). http://computer.howstuffworks.com/3-d-printing4.htm

[4] S. Taylor. (2014). “The Micro 3d Printers’ Massive Crowd Funding Campaign.” 3d Printing Industry. (online article).http://3dprintingindustry.com/2014/04/10/micro-3d-printer-crowdfunding/

[5] L. Gilpin. (2014). “The Dark Side of 3d Printing.” Tech Republic.(online blog). http://www.techrepublic.com/article/the-dark-side-of-3d-printing-10-things-to-watch/

[6] M3D LLC. (2014). “The Micro: The First Truly Consumer 3D Printer.” Kickstarter. (online article). https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/m3d/the-micro-the-first-truly-consumer-3d-printer

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank all the wonderful employees of the Hillman Library on the University of Pittsburgh campus for allowing me to have a clean, quiet work environment while accomplishing this paper. In particular there was one custodian, that I did not happen to get the name of, that came up to me while I was working late at night on this and other homework for mid-term week. When he came up to me he joked about the how late it was, but then continued to just further engrave within me how important school is and the work that comes with it. This short conversation gave me a very needed break and some energy allowing me to further push along on the assignment. Lastly, I want to thank my mom. This wonderful woman has always been my biggest supporter in life and if I ever have any questions concerning college or my future I can turn to her for a conversation that I will leave feeling like I have gained something from it. Specifically on this assignment, after frustrated about the amount of time that the research and actual writing was taking, she said to me, “This assignment may have nothing to do with your job or future. It is not even necessarily designed to pertain, but what it does do is it teaches you that there will be hard work and long hours put into any job that is done right. College is more than gaining academic knowledge, it is about learning that you are a force that when pushed can yield the desired result.” She is a very smart woman and gave both motivation and support for a time consuming paper when needed.

http://www.pitt.edu/~tlm87/assignment3.doc

Posted in Guest Writer on Apr 03, 2017

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