Top 5 Most Interesting Things I’ve Seen as a 3D-Printing Consultant
By: Gemma Downey
As a young professional in her early twenties, I have a lot of exploring to do in the working world. For four years, I studied biomedical engineering, enjoyed every minute of it (okay, maybe not around exam time), and received a degree from the University of Rhode Island. I was sure I wanted to be in the medical industry my entire life. The human body and the devices and technology that save it amaze me.
I saw a huge fit for 3D printing in the medical industry, so when I began working at R&D Technologies, I had big plans to inundate hospitals and top medical device companies with the best rapid prototyping equipment out there. While I do work heavily in the medical device industry, 3D printing opened my eyes to other industries I would have never otherwise seen as “just” a biomedical engineer.
Today, I choose to write about the Top 5 Most Interesting Things I’ve Seen as a 3D-Printing Consultant. I meet with companies in a variety of industries and get to tour their manufacturing floors, research labs, or display rooms—I consider myself very lucky to do so, because the learning process never ceases. Without further ado, I give you the Most Interesting Things I’ve Seen (so FAR) in my travels:
It was Christmas Eve 2013. I knew my fellow coworkers in the office were leaving at noon, but I was still visiting customers. I paid a visit to a Firearms development company that currently uses a Polyjet 3D Printer that they’ve had for years and just won’t die (I’ve been trying to upgrade them for over a year now!) They were looking at durable FDM for more functional prototypes. They told me about their design and manufacturing process. They design and print parts of firearm assemblies using the Alaris30. These parts are post-processed to mimic the final product realism. I showed up with six sample pieces printed from their files by our Fortus 3D printer, and didn’t know where to begin with the assembly. The design engineer pulled some springs out of a drawer and had a working prototype in minutes. Mind you, it wasn’t a gun that would actually lethally fire a bullet, but it exemplified the spring and kick-back mechanism.
As you can probably determine from my lack-of-firearm-using jargon, I don’t know guns. But I DO know 3D printing, and it was amazing to see how 3D printing helped the design team to determine what to send forward into the manufacturing phase. Definitely the most interesting meeting I’ve ever had (I learned a lot about the criminal justice side of things, too), and I’m pretty sure I spent about 3 hours there that day, on my own free will.
Ocean Engineering Industry
Another of our current Eden 3D printing users was considering upgrading their machine to a Connex (multi-material) capability. We discussed multiple applications that were a perfect fit for them—printing in durable, yet high-resolution “Digital-ABS,” printing rubber-like gaskets and seals within their rigid parts, and simulating overmolding.
The team showed me how they used the printer from prototyping and printing propellers for their underwater ROV’s. They took me into the back warehouse where they have a huge tank in which they test their prototype ROV’s. I was even lucky enough to see the type of vehicle that traveled to the depths of the sea and discovered the Titanic!
Have you heard of Dave Matthews Band, ?Ray LaMontagne, Eric Church, or Brad Paisley? Perhaps you've heard their music on the radio or maybe you've seen them live in concert….But have you ever stood in the same recording studio where their instruments have been played and worked on? I have.
I worked with Fishman Transducers, the leader in acoustic amplification, and recently diving head first into the Electric guitar market. They are now using a Polyjet 3D printer for prototyping. What in the world do they do with it? They print and finish housings for the transducers, mount them on instruments and the printer to tweak the “look” of the pickups or preamps after seeing them in 3D.
If the design needs tweaking, they simply go back and print another! After the parts have been sanded and painted, the prototypes look so real that they’re mounted onto instruments and brought to trade shows around the world. Everyone at the tradeshows can see the next big thing Fishman is working on before it goes into production.
I have many, many, MANY things I have learned in this industry, as it is probably the largest industry we work with. Medical Innovation requires the constant development of newer and better technology, so medical device companies are in need of multiple iterations for technological advancement in the health industry. As a biomedical engineer, my passion lies in the medical industry. To save you hours of reading, I’ll need to briefly summarize my experiences.
One of my first meetings ever was with a company that develops heart pumps that save lives in the event that your left ventricle cannot pump blood on its own. I was able to see start-to-finish, the process of design, printing, and functional testing of the part before going into production. As you can imagine, life-saving medical devices MUST be perfect—human lives are at stake and quick development of these products is truly a requirement.
My specific interest is in prosthetics and biomechanics. We’ve sold 3D printers to companies developing knee replacements. Knees aren’t one-size-fits-all, however. The ability to print a custom knee pre-production has revolutionized the world in this aspect. Check out a different replacement knee application here .
But everybody knows 3D printing for prototyping, but have you ever thought about the “Not-so Sexy Side of 3D printing?” (See "Not-So-Sexy Side of 3D Printing" by Ben Gardell). One company comes to mind who examines women’s genes, who are unsuccessful getting pregnant, that can determine why they can’t get pregnant, and if they do become pregnant, whether their children are at risk for genetic diseases. This company needs fixtures to hold vials of blood to go through a series of testing. But to get this fixture machined for each new iteration or design change? The costs would be through the roof, not to mention the long turnaround time. This company needed fixtures, and they needed them yesterday. The solution? Using the Fortus250 to print fixtures on an as-needed basis. These parts cost a few bucks and are ready for use in hours.
I’ve even dabbled in the educational side of the medical industry. I briefly considered medical school in my younger years, and got to see first-hand a lot of what goes into medical school—or the hands-on part, anyway. One medical school has their heart set on using Connex multi-material printing technology to print organs that simulate the feel or “shore value” of real human tissue. These organs, printed from real patient 3D scan data, would mimic exactly the shape and size of organs in the real world. When it comes down to it, wouldn’t you want to train the future doctors and surgeons of the world using realistic body parts?
The Equine Industry
Some of you may not know what equine means (horse), but as a fellow horse lover, when I saw a hoof care (hoof means foot) company come through our database with a need to prototype parts, I almost jumped out of my skin. OF COURSE the horse industry needs to prototype parts. Horses, like dogs and cats for many, are like family if you own one, and should be treated as such. Much like your dog or cat need routine vet visits, horses need routine farrier visits to have their hooves trimmed, the same way humans must trim their nails—except for horses, there are about 6 tools that are used throughout the process.
Seeing the 3D CAD files alone, I could tell just what this part was for. It occurred to me that there are engineers out there just as dedicated to our four-legged friends’ well-being as our own well-being.
By the time you’re out the door in the morning, you’ve probably touched ten things that have been rapid prototyped. It isn’t news that 3D printing has been integrated into many industries for decades now. I find it fascinating, and I feel very blessed to be able to continue with my life-long learning in industries I would probably otherwise NEVER cross paths with. Medical and horses? Personally, yes. Guns and deep sea investigation? Personally, highly unlikely. But, I enjoy every minute of it!