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Scientific American’s manufacturing special is worth a look


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This month’s Scientific American magazine has a collection of articles on emerging manufacturing technologies. I had a few laughs. Overall, though, the May 2013 Scientific American is a compulsory read for anyone with a genuine interest boosting per-capita economic growth.

Larry Greenemeier reckons a 3D-printed hydraulic hand “looks like something out of medieval times”. The cybernetic hand’s pixellated titanium finish very loosely resembles that of a sandcastle. But close up, it’s like nothing anyone has ever seen before. 3D-printed titanium will be the new woven graphite. I wonder who’ll be first to put it inside a car. I’d very much like to hear what Jeremy Clarkson has to say about James May’s reaction. Trouble is, NZ TV channels are a bit inconsistent about keeping up with Top Gear. I hope we don’t have to wait for 3D printed titanium drink-holders to come up on the “Best of Top Gear”.

I read Sci-Am mainly because the magazine looks at areas of science and technology I would not otherwise follow. This month’s issue has features on 3D computer modelling and simulation, shop-floor robots, nanotech, and of course 3D printing. As usual, the articles are best treated as a rough guide. Sometimes the writers get a little carried away.

I’m especially interested in metal and plastic processing, and 3D computer simulation. I have worked in both of those fields. It’s clear to me that 3D-printing is ready to move into serious manufacturing. It’s a new addition to the rich tapestry of established casting, moulding, and machining technologies for plastics and metals. 3D printing can make parts that would otherwise be very difficult or impossible. Titanium components for that cybernetic hand came off the 3D printer with built-in hydraulic fluid channels. Try doing that with high-pressure diecasting. (Actually, this is only a little bit impossible. I can show you how to do it.)

I was also interested in something these articles barely touched on. Every manufacturing technology presents often-conflicting issues for the manufacturing engineer. A high-pressure diecasting is cheaper than a CNC-machined part. High-pressure diecasting has a higher set-up cost.

3D printing is no different. Making a metal part on a 3D printer can take hours, compared with seconds on a high-pressure die-casting machine. Set-up involves building a 3D model, a costly exercise in its own right. You might find 3D-printed titanium drink-holders in a Bugatti, but don’t expect to find them in a Korean-made family SUV.

Manufacturing engineers in future will need a pretty good handle on their market. That’s nothing new. Critical design decisions affecting the profitability of any new product hinge on a good estimate of likely production quantities.

That said, new manufacturing technologies will open the door to previously impossible products. The future is an exciting place.

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