Printing’s Next Dimension

When UT researcher Carl Deckard began developing a way to create 3-D objects by melting powder with lasers, he hoped it would help manufacturers produce quick prototype parts. Now, 25 years later, his and related technologies have taken off, spinning into a dizzying array of applications—from saving jet fuel to straightening teeth and even creating gun parts.

Deckard, BS ’84, MS ’86, PhD ’88, and his UT colleagues were among the pioneers of additive manufacturing, popularly known as 3-D printing, a group of technologies in which a machine uses a digital file to “print out” a tangible object using materials like metal, plastic, or nylon. Similar to the way an inkjet printer lays text by sweeping across the page repeatedly, a 3-D printer creates new objects by stacking layers of material, sometimes in dazzlingly complex shapes.

Though 3-D printing has been around in various forms since the 1980s, it has garnered a lot of attention lately. Unexpected applications of 3-D printing keep popping up, including Invisalign orthodontic braces, artificial blood vessels, and even parts for Jay Leno’s classic cars. And price points have dropped so printers are now within reach of hobbyists: A low-end 3-D printer runs about $1,500, and enthusiasts are printing everything from lamps to lipstick cases. More than anything, these low-cost machines have surprised Deckard.

 “[Additive manufacturing] is cool,” he says. “AM that hobbyists can afford is a whole other level of cool.”

One of the most promising applications of 3-D printing is in aerospace engineering, a field that uses many parts in small production runs. Printing them on demand eliminates the major expense of molds; it also uses lighter materials and combines parts that are normally separated, advances that save assembly steps as well as tremendous amounts of fuel over the lifetime of an aircraft.

Architects have also embraced these technologies, including assistant professor of architecture Danelle Briscoe, BAr ’95. With the School of Architecture’s ZPrinter 350, students and professors can print out models of innovative structures in cellulose.

“Incredibly complex geometries can be achieved very simply and very efficiently,” Briscoe says. “It’s opened up this new understanding of what we can do with architecture and form, because we’re no longer limited to what our hands can do.” Briscoe expects that in the next few decades we’ll see full-scale buildings built from strong, lightweight printed components.

Despite all the positive buzz, 3-D printing has also attracted controversy. Some worry the technology will catch on for making illegal key replicas or devices to scam ATMs. According to Deckard, it also raises intellectual-property questions. One could circumvent copyright by putting a Barbie doll into a 3-D scanner, then using the resulting file to print out bootleg Barbies.

And then there are printable guns, the passion of UT law student Cody Wilson. Inspired by the free-information ethic of WikiLeaks, Wilson and his online collective Defense Distributed have drawn scrutiny from the media and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms for working to design a gun anyone can modify, download, and print at home. On Jan. 11, Wilson printed a magazine for an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle—then used it to successfully fire 89 rounds.

At the moment, Deckard says he doesn’t see Wilson’s gun magazine as a game-changer, in part because making metal gun parts is still beyond the capabilities of a consumer-ready printer—and because a determined gunsmith can make a gun by other means. But it starts an interesting conversation. “AM will have some unanticipated consequences and raise new questions,” he says, adding, “I am optimistic … I have always seen these processes as transformative technologies.”

Below, watch a Longhorn Network video about 3-D printing innovation at UT.

Top, A 3-D printed structural component designed by UT grad student Arman Hadilou. Photo courtesy Danelle Briscoe.

Bottom, A 1,000-year-old Viking belt buckle is laser-scanned and 3-D printed to create an exact replica of the archaeological artifact. Photo courtesy Creative Tools/Flickr.


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