The way of the future: 3-D Printing

Titanium hip cup printed with random porosity to facilitate bone growth. (Photo courtesy of Dan Christlansen)

By Dan Christiansen
Class of 2013

Moving to a college city has been a great experience. I love venturing to new bars, seeing shows and meeting new people. But something has been bugging me ever since I started grad school. It happens to me at least once a week, and I’m getting damn tired of it.

Inevitably when you are meeting new people the question arises: “What do you do?” Since moving to Pittsburgh, I have probably gotten this question over 100 times, and I dread it. My response: “I am researching metallic additive manufacturing” which, unless it is a Carnegie Mellon party (oxymoron), always draws a room full of blank stares. “3-D printing,” I clarify, and then, without fail, someone will say, “Can you print a gun?”

Thanks to the media’s portrayal of additive manufacturing, this is the only question I ever receive from the average college student, and it is shameful.

This technology will become a part of every single thing you touch not 30 years down the road. It will completely reshape the way our society and economy function. It will become a part of us, literally.  Could I print a gun in my lab that fires flawlessly and is completely invisible to a metal detector?  Absolutely. Am I on a government watch list because of my access to said printer? Probably. But there is so much more to this technology that people need to understand if they are to be a part of, rather than a victim of, this wave of change.

The reason plastic guns are more of a concern now is also the best part of this new technology. It is not like it would have been impossible to make a plastic gun before 3-D printing, it’s just the costs and expertise were prohibitive. You needed large pieces of plastic stock, milling machines, lathes and several other tools in addition to the know-how to run them all. But now, with simple access to a $1,300 3-D printer and a free software package, it is possible to produce the same product in a fraction of the time. This is the beauty of 3-D printing. No longer is the average person excluded from the world of manufacturing by large start-up costs and difficult learning curves. With a few online tutorials and a thousand dollars anyone can invent! There are dozens of websites dedicated to the exchange and sale of homemade parts and technical drawings made by average people in their downtime (check out Shapeways.com, it is my favorite). This is the one extreme of 3-D printing. It is cheap, fast and anyone can do it. But the really exciting stuff is happening on the high-end of the price curve.

My research is in metallic additive manufacturing using electron beam melting. I print metal. More specifically, NASA and the Department of Defense give me money to research ways to make their printed titanium alloys stronger. They are already successfully testing this technology in rocket nozzles for spacecraft and missiles, as well as in lightweight turbine blades for aircraft. In the near future, rather than bringing an entire machine shop to a battlefield across the world or waiting for a part to be shipped, the military will be able to simply bring one printer, the size of a mid-sized sedan, that can make any replacement part out of titanium with absolutely zero waste material in a fraction of the time. Likewise, astronauts will have one of these printers in the space station or on the moon to make parts for spacecraft and living quarters instead of having to wait for new ones to be launched from earth.

On the domestic front, these printers will be used to make highly efficient and significantly less expensive blanks for plastic and rubber injection molding. That red solo cup you drank out of last weekend? That will be made using 40 percent less energy and in half the time, cutting costs dramatically and raising profit margins for fraternities across the nation. These printers will be used to make cheaper custom titanium medical implants containing random porosity to allow the bone to grow directly into the implant, making it a part of the recipient forever. Scaffolds for kidneys, cartilage, skin and arteries can be printed and impregnated with the recipient’s own cells that will grow into an implantable body part. There are even new technologies being developed to allow homes to be printed from the ground up to user specifications, insulation and all. You will be able to design your own home exactly how you want it and a crew will show up and print it for you in a weekend. A new level of customization is being made available to the average consumer. Additionally, rather than outsourcing manufacturing to other countries, more companies will be able to produce parts in-house due to reduced costs. This printing will completely revolutionize and revitalize domestic manufacturing.

The bottom line is this: 3-D printing is here to stay. You are doing yourself a favor by becoming educated on it and should try if at all possible to get in on the ground floor of this technology because it is going places. And when you’re sitting at the dinner table during Thanksgiving with you family, and the topic of 3-D printing arises, maybe you can take some time to let them know that not everyone who is interested in this technology wants to print a gun. Some of us want to make the world a better place with less waste, healthier bodies and more individuality for the masses.