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3D Printers Are Adding a Whole New Dimension to Design

3D Printers Are Adding a Whole New
Dimension to Design
by Grant Buckler
We tend to think of printers as devices for producing
two-dimensional paper output. In this March 8, 2010
Globe and Mail article, Grant Buckler surveys Canadian
research in 3-D printers and their global applications.
Joint replacements, like artificial knees and hips, are
increasingly common. They’re a boon for people with failing joints, but the replacement parts aren’t as durable as
the originals. Usually made of metal and plastic and often
cemented to the bone, they can deteriorate and come
loose, and usually need replacing after 20 to 25 years.
But what if implants were made from materials that
would actually allow bone and cartilage to grow into them
and eventually replace them? A University of Waterloo
research lab, with Toronto’s Mount Sinai hospital and
University of Toronto, is working on it.
It’s one example of the innovative things Canadian
researchers are doing with rapid prototyping, also sometimes referred to as three-dimensional printing.
Printers work by depositing toner or ink on the surface
of paper. Three-dimensional printing doesn’t stop at one
layer. These machines lay down layer after layer of material
— it may be in liquid or solid form — to build up an object.
As the name rapid prototyping implies, 3D printing has
mostly been thought of as a relatively quick way to make
models of products in the design stage. But 3D printing is
good for more than prototyping, says Dr. Ehsan Toyserkani,
a Waterloo associate professor of mechanical and mechatronics engineering, director of Waterloo’s Rapid
Prototyping Laboratory and one of the researchers in the
artificial implant project.
For an artificial implant to really become part of the
body, it must be made of material that the body can
absorb without harm and be porous enough that tissue can
grow slowly into tiny cavities in the artificial part.
It’s one thing to machine the outer shape of a part out
of suitable material, says Mr. Toyserkani, but “we cannot
actually control internal structures.” That’s where 3D printing comes in. Because it builds up the part in layers rather
than carving it out of a block of material, this process can
easily leave openings, or pores, throughout the part.
Implants produced this way have been tested in animals, Mr. Toyserkani says, and the researchers hope to
move on to human trials soon, with clinical use possible in
three to five years.
Researchers in Montreal have put 3D printing to an
entirely different use.
Philippe Lalande and Martin Racine are associated with
Hexagram, the Institute for Research/Creation in Media
Arts and Technologies, which is supported by Concordia,
Université du Quebec à Montreal, Université de Montreal,
McGill and commercial sponsors. Mr. Lalande says he was
interested in rapid prototyping, while Mr. Racine was
exploring sustainable design.
So they embarked together on a series of projects linking rapid prototyping and sustainable design.
The first was PRéco, which explored the idea of making
consumer products last longer by using 3D printers to
make replacement parts on demand. Too many household
gadgets are thrown away because replacement parts are
hard to find, Mr. Lalande explains. If there were 3D printing
machines in hardware stores and parts carried code numbers allowing a store employee to download the design for
a part, people could get replacement parts at local stores
much as they get keys copied today.
“We found that basically it was a practical scenario,” Mr.
Lalande says, “but to be really effective, products would
have to be designed from the outset with the idea of their
being replaced with rapid prototyping.”
So in their Metamorphose project the researchers
moved on to designing products that could easily be
repaired and adapted to other purposes. Using rapid prototyping, they created a series of light fixtures able to be
altered to fit different locations and lighting needs, or even
turned into other objects — a lamp shade becoming a fruit
bowl, for example.
After seeing how difficult these adaptable designs were,
Mr. Lalande and Mr. Racine decided to launch an adaptable
design contest. Their year-old Metacycle contest has
brought more than 130 entries, some produced using
rapid prototyping.
Rapid prototyping plays a role in other research work. At
University of Calgary, Dr. Simon Park of the Mechanical and
Manufacturing Engineering department uses it to create
larger-scale models of nano-scale designs such as tiny
pumps. Carleton University set up a rapid prototyping lab
several years ago with machines available for student and
researcher use.
The Waterloo lab is also exploring the use of 3D printing
to manufacture tools with embedded sensors that can
measure factors like heat and impact. Today such sensors
are usually placed on the surface of the tool, Dr. Toyserkani
says. Readings would be more accurate with the sensor
built in, but that’s hard to do with traditional manufacturing methods. Three-dimensional printing could be the
Discussion Questions
1. Can you think of other uses for 3-D printers?
2. Do you expect 3-D printers to eventually be included
in home computer systems?