3D printing for sweet tooths

One of the niche applications we’re seeing in 3D printing is in chocolate printing.

ChocEdge was the first company to enter into this domain. The technology was developed in the UK at the University of Exeter before the new venture was created. It has developed an extrusion-based printer, the Choc Creator V1, that allows for the customisation of chocolate elements. Initially, the target market for this printer are those in the commercial domain that want to improve their offerings to their customers, with its price of £2,888 (ex VAT) reflecting that. In the long-term, the company’s strategy involves selling to retail units “so that everyone can print their own chocolate designs in their local chocolate shop”.

We’ve seen from history that in the early stages of an industry there’s a lot of experimentation, in terms of technology, the target customer group, and the business models adopted by companies. This is becoming evident in the 3D printing of chocolate as the second company to enter the market, the Australian start-up ChocaByte, has taken an entirely different approach. It’s aiming at the home consumer with a $99 3D printer capable of producing individual chocolates of 2x2x1′, as well as selling the consumable – chocolate refill cartridges – at $2.50 each.

Another common element of industrial emergence is that new entrants usually pave the way, with more established companies following once the potential of the technology has been demonstrated. So it’s no surprise that in January 3D Systems and Hershey announced a partnership to explore the 3D printing of chocolate and non-chocolate confectionary.

The partnership was the second piece of food printing related news from 3D Systems in January as it also launched the ChefJet printer at CES. The entry level ChefJet will retail at under $5,000, with a larger pro model to be sold at under $10,000. Although its target market is similar to that of ChocEdge, the final printed objects are sugar-based crystalline structures. So while the results aren’t pure chocolate, they can also be one of a number of different flavours other than chocolate, including cherry, mint, sour apple, vanilla and watermelon.

Another start-up with a product that can print chocolate is the Spanish company, Natural Machines. It’s launching a multi-purpose food printer, the Foodini. The full details of this are as yet unavailable but the ambition to print a range of different foodstuffs is certainly grand.

Image source: https://chocedge.com/choc-creator-v1.php

Where’s 3D printing now?

There’s an excellent interview in the November 2013 issue of TCT Magazine with the founder and CEO of EOS, Dr Hans Langer. For us as researchers it’s a great look into the history of one of the pioneering AM equipment manufacturers.

One of the things we hope to do during this project is to gain a realistic perspective on how 3D printing will affect manufacturing. There’s been considerable media hype around consumer-grade 3D printing, something that Dr Langer addressed in the interview.

“Consumer 3D printing is still at the peak of the inflated expectations, whereas industrial 3D printing has already been through this and is now climbing the slope to ‘enlightenment’. Consumer technologies are very interesting because they introduce people early on to the thought processes behind layer manufacturing. In the early days a lot of our work with customers was changing their expectations and teaching them how to design for the layer-by-layer process. Nowadays more engineers are familiar with the benefits and the constraints and in future we hope this won’t be an issue for us!”

As he comments, education is an important element in gaining acceptance for a new technology, both in terms of educating customers as to the potential of the technology, as well as how to use and get the greatest benefits from the technology. The shift from rapid prototyping to direct manufacturing has also meant a need to gain production acceptance . It’s now less about the freedoms that additive manufacturing delivers and more about meeting the benchmarks set by other manufacturing technologies and then doing something extra. As EOS CMO Dr Adrian Keppler comments:

“In the past a user of an additive manufacturing system would look at the parts from their machine and say ‘this part looks nice, I can use it.’ Now they want the right material, mechanical properties and even microstructure that is available from their existing techniques with the freedom of the AM process as well. We now have to combine something known, such [as] casting, forging, milling with the characteristics only available to AM”

What we’re seeing is something that the Kano model helps explain. The design freedom that a 3D printer can provide is a delighter feature – but to be adopted in a production environment then it’s also got to be able to satisfy the basic production requirements and be comparable in terms of performance (ie throughput).

Image source: http://www.eos.info/about_eos/history

Bit by Bit Advisory Network

The need for input and guidance from academics, industrialists and policymakers has led us to create an ‘advisory network’ for the project.

A first meeting involving members of this network was held in December at the Institute for Manufacturing, including representatives from the BSI, the Centre for Science and Policy, Dyson, the IET and Nesta. Participants contributed their perspectives on the specific challenges that we should investigate within our overall project plan.

Those with an active professional interest in the impacts of 3D printing are invited to contact the research team and join this growing community.

Image source: http://www.3dsystems.com/files/cubify_robots_zprint.png

3D printing: the shape of things to come?

If you ask the proverbial man or women in the street what they understand by the terms ‘stereolithography’, ‘selective laser sintering’ and ‘fused deposition modeling’, you’re likely to be met with a blank expression. Say the words ‘3D printing’, though, and you’re likely to be met with an entirely different response.

Over the last couple of years, 3D printing has attracted significant media attention. Stories about 3D printed Stradivariuses, undetectable plastic guns, novel building designs, personal miniatures, medical devices and a variety of other 3D printing objects, have become an almost daily occurrence in the mainstream press. 3D has been heralded as a technology that will transform the world, with commentators claiming that it could be “bigger than [the] internet” (Financial Times) and “the PC all over again” (The Economist). Even Barack Obama has added his voice to the clamour, stating in his 2013 State of the Union Address that 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost anything”.

While 3D printing is now attracting significant attention and associated expectations, the process of ‘additive layer manufacturing’ (the academic term for 3D printing) can be traced back to technologies that were first developed and commercialised in the 1980s. Two of the leading 3D printing companies, 3D Systems and Stratasys, were founded in that decade based on innovative stereolithography (SLA) and fused deposition modelling (FDM) technologies. Between their founding and the present day, the technologies have been used for many years to help prototype development and create custom tooling moulds. The present excitement stems from the increasingly use of 3D printing for the manufacture of final products.

Alongside the development of high performance industrial 3D printers such as those developed by 3D Systems and Stratasys, the ‘maker’ movement has spawned a plethora of lower-priced, lower quality consumer-grade machines based on FDM technology, such as those offered by RepRap, MakerBot, Ultimaker and PrintrBot. The result of these two parallel developments is an industry that is now worth an estimated £1.3 billion.

Although the origins of the largest 3D printing companies lie overseas, the UK is home to a number of leading research institutions that are investigating the potential of 3D printing. The potential importance of the technology has been recognised by the UK government and is reflected in the investments it has made into the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Additive Manufacturing, and the Centre for Additive Layer Manufacturing.  Such research is important and necessary. Historically, the UK has been good at such experimental research and development, and novel technologies are expected to emerge from research institutions. However, where the UK has often been less successful is in the commercialisation of technologies from these institutions. It is here that research at the IfM comes in.

Led by Dr Tim Minshall of the Centre for Technology Management, ‘Bit by Bit: Capturing the Value from the Digital Fabrication Revolution’ is a project that seeks to understand how value is being created and captured in the 3D printing industry, and how UK firms will be affected by 3D printing technologies. The project is jointly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) under the ‘New Economic Models in the Digital Economy’ theme. The need for cross-disciplinary approaches is reflected in the make-up of the investigating team, with Professor Ian Hutchings, Dr Chander Velu and Dr Finbarr Livesey bringing their knowledge of digital fabrication science, business models, and economic policy respectively to bear on the project.

Under their leadership, the research team of Dr Letizia Mortara and Dr Simon Ford are currently engaged in the first part of the project: investigating the industrial emergence of the 3D printing industry. Such an investigation is necessary at the beginning of the project as it is only through an understanding of historical patterns and processes that we can hope to gain insights into how current events are unfolding and how they will shape the future. This historical study involves analysis of supply and demand in the industry; supply in the form of equipment manufacturers, and demand in terms of the early users of 3D applications such as prototyping, in the aerospace and automotive sectors, and in the development of hearing aids and orthodontics. Later in the project the researchers will explore the different business models companies are using to capture value from 3D printing, and how 3D printing enables new business models to be adopted in the digital economy.

During the course of the project, the team also hopes to welcome a number of visiting researchers to the IfM. The first of these was Dr Christian Sandström from Chalmers University whose study into the adoption of 3D printing in the hearing aid industry was provocative in that it indicated that while 3D printing had provided some efficiency and cost benefits to hearing aid manufacturers, its adoption had caused very little impact on the competitive position of the companies operating in the industry.

So, while 3D printing is certainly big news, there is still a long way to go. As with all disruptive technologies, uncertainties abound. ‘Bit by Bit’ will help both industry and government better understand and benefit from the undoubted opportunities to create and capture value 3D printing will provide.

Image source: http://www.3dsystems.com/files/cubify_apps_3dme_startrek.png