How 3D printing is spurring revolutionary advances in manufacturing and design

HARI SREENIVASAN: Whether it’s with plastic,
metal, or even living tissue, 3-D printing has been around since the 1980s. It’s been used mostly for prototyping. And, so far, it’s still cheaper to make most
large-volume consumer goods like bottle caps using traditional methods. But, as Miles O’Brien reports, recent advances
could launch 3-D printing into a new era. It’s the subject of tonight’s Leading Edge
story, which airs every Wednesday. MILES O’BRIEN: Just another day in an office
park near LAX. No clue to the travelers above that a whole
new approach to manufacturing is under way beneath their feet. It’s happening at a young startup called Relativity,
a team of for-real rocket scientists pushing space technology by pushing 3-D printing technology
to its limits. Here, they are printing rockets, nose cone
to nozzle. TIM ELLIS, Co-Founder, Relativity: Rockets
are the lightest-weight, most expensive, largest, difficult-to-make thing, that really 3-D printing
is the optimal solution for. MILES O’BRIEN: Founders Tim Ellis and Jordan
Noone both realized this while working at large established aerospace manufacturers,
where 3-D printing has been used for decades to make prototypes or a few parts here and
there. They figure technology now makes it possible
to think bigger. But to do this, they first had to build something
bigger, the largest metal 3-D printer in the world. TIM ELLIS: We made our own printing head,
where we have aluminum wire fed in by this nozzle here. And then we’re using 11 kilowatt fiber lasers
to actually melt the aluminum. As you feed in material on the right, then
the laser melts it. So, it’s a very, very powerful laser. It can actually blind you from over 50 kilometers
away. MILES O’BRIEN: Good thing they aren’t evil
geniuses. Their mega-printer is called Stargate, a three-armed,
15-foot-tall robot. It hasn’t made a whole rocket yet, but it
has printed out a fuel tank and an engine. Relativity’s full-throttled thrust into 3-D
printing is just one milestone on the long road from prototypes and small parts to mass
manufacturing. Mechanical engineer John Hart is director
of the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity at MIT. JOHN HART, Director, Laboratory for Manufacturing
and Productivity, MIT: I’m certain we’re in early stages. I think that the things that we do with additive
manufacturing, in the end, say, 10, 20, 30, 50 years from now, are in some part beyond
our imagination. MILES O’BRIEN: Hart is not talking about consumer-grade
3-D printers, a passing fad that peaked in 2014. He and his team at MIT are developing new
materials and machines to help make 3-D printing more practical for manufacturers. They’re grappling with familiar obstacles. JOHN HART: 3-D printing is slow. It’s expensive, right? There’s few things that you can 3-D print
and then use right away. You often have to do post-processing and finishing
and painting, et cetera. But we’re getting there. MILES O’BRIEN: Hart and colleagues founded
a company called Desktop Metal to develop a solution. Traditionally, 3-D printing works by fusing
metal powder together layer by layer with a laser. It’s a single-point process limited by the
speed of the laser. At Desktop Metal, they alternate layers of
metal powder with a glue-like binder. The layers are sprayed with multiple print
heads, inkjet-style. After the part takes shape, it is placed in
a furnace, where the blast of heat fuses the metal while cooking away the binder. The company claims the process is about 100
times faster than the single-point laser technique. Based outside of Boston, Desktop Metal is
growing fast. CEO Ric Fulop gave me a tour of his factory
for factories. This is the main event right here, right? RIC FULOP, CEO, Desktop Metal: This is our
production system. This is the world’s fastest metal printer. This machine can make a 150 metric tons of
metal per year, 150 metric tons. There’s nothing else like it. MILES O’BRIEN: The production-scale metal
3-D printer is slated for its first delivery to customers early next year. The machine is well-suited to make higher-end,
lower-demand parts like this. RIC FULOP: This is a part made in our production
system. This is for BMW. MILES O’BRIEN: And that’s — it looks like
some kind of cooling fan or something like that or… RIC FULOP: That’s a water impeller that goes
inside a water pump. MILES O’BRIEN: But 3-D printing is also spurring
another revolution, in industrial design. The technique enables the creation of objects
unimaginable using traditional tool and die techniques. The company is designing with software made
smart by the artificial intelligence technique called machine learning. And here’s the ironic twist. The machine is designing parts that appear
to come from nature’s playbook. Check out these two parts, on the left, a
sleek human design, on the right, the rootlike handiwork of a smart computer. Andy Roberts is a software engineer. You have tested this, and what happens. ANDY ROBERTS, Desktop Metal: What we find
is that the parts have been self-organized so that they distribute the strain evenly
across the parts. So, there are no sort of hot spots where you
get a crack forming, for example. MILES O’BRIEN: So, this is better than a human
could do? ANDY ROBERTS: Oh, yes. It is better than a human could do. MILES O’BRIEN: It may be some time before
organic-looking parts take root. But, in the short-term, some big players,
like BMW and Caterpillar, are anxious to try new ways of manufacturing their current designs. JOHN HART: A lot of customers for industrial
printing do get it. They have been working with the technologies
for many years, studying them, prototyping with them. And there’s this urge and thirst for mass
production. I wouldn’t have said this three to five years
ago, but I’m convinced of it now, because you see more demonstrated applications. MILES O’BRIEN: If 3-D printing delivers on
these promises, it will do much more than upend the process of manufacturing. The ripple effects are far-reaching. JOHN HART: From how the designer or the engineer
goes about their work, to what the factory looks like, to how business agreements are
structured, to where factories are placed, to what production workers do on a daily basis,
it’s all going to happen. And I like to think the goal is to get ahead
about the understanding and the vision and help make it happen. MILES O’BRIEN: At Relativity, they are still
developing designs and printing processes, but they have reason to believe they have
launched a good idea. They printed this giant, 14-foot-tall fuel
tank in a matter of days. A traditional manufacturer would have taken
a year. But, for Relativity, the real proof is in
the testing, and they have successfully fired their printed rocket engine 85 times at NASA’s
fabled rocket testing center in Mississippi. TIM ELLIS: So, that’s like a fully printed
design would normally be almost 3,000 parts, but we have gotten it down to three, and really
shown that that’s robust and that it works. MILES O’BRIEN: By the end of 2020, the team
hopes to be delivering satellites and other payloads to low-Earth orbit with fully 3-D-printed
rockets. They predict they can cut the cost of even
the cheapest flights today by more than 80 percent. A game-changing number like that would destine
manufacturing for a tectonic retooling layer by layer. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Miles O’Brien.

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