Robots, multidimensional printers, sci-fi-style polymers and other new technologies are beginning to shape the future of manufacturing. Google is testing self-driving cars. Scientists are working on bio-printers that might create usable human tissue. And traditional manufacturing workers are losing jobs as high-tech automated processes replace familiar assembly lines.
It’s all part of a new era in manufacturing, with possibilities for expanding what U.S. manufacturers can produce, the role of the worker and the types 0f products consumers can use in their daily lives.
A major player in the new world is something called additive manufacturing — better known as 3-D printing, because the process involves putting plastics, metals or some other material into a device that works much like a printer. The device extrudes a thin layer of the material onto a flat surface. Then, it extrudes another layer, then another, until it has built a three-dimensional object. One advantage: The precise addition of substances at any point ideally makes an object stronger or more flexible exactly where it needs to be stronger or more flexible.
“I think additive manufacturing in general is going to get bigger and more important,” said Carl Bass, chief executive of Autodesk, a developer of tools for computer-aided design.
It might sound futuristic, but 3-D printing is here: Some cutting-edge dentists are printing permanent crowns for damaged teeth. Japanese company FASOTEC is using MRI scans to give expectant mothers a 3-D model — instead of the familiar wedge-shaped ultrasound printout — of their developing fetuses. And doctors can take a patient’s CT scan and create a 3-D model of human bones to better plan the individual’s treatment.
As those examples show, a lot of this technology is aimed at the lucrative health-care market. “Looking 10 years out, I do believe that when you start to look at . . . the ultimate machine, it’s the human body,” said Jeff DeGrange, vice president of direct digital manufacturing for Stratasys, which makes 3-D printers and supplies.
For now, developers are working on many levels. Autodesk’s flagship product, AutoCAD (CAD for computer-assisted design), is a professional 3-D software application primarily used by engineers to design anything from buildings to wind turbines. But the company also makes hobbyist-friendly software tools, such as 123D Design, which is free to download or use online or on an iPad. Offered in conjunction with 3-D printing, laser-cutting and other creative services, it gives amateur designers an opportunity to have their creations printed or sculpted into being.
The fourth dimension
Three-D printing is exciting enough. But consider the fourth dimension — time.
Skylar Tibbits, director of the Self-Assembly Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a lecturer in the school’s architecture department, ignited the imagination of technologists and futurists in February when he gave a TED talk on the concept of of “4-D printing” — printing objects that transform over time. Tibbits describes the process as “self-reconfiguration.”
The technology seems to come straight out of science fiction. Videos on the MITWeb site show what looks like lumpy strings being submerged in water. At a measured pace, each object changes shape. One string contorts slowly into a cube. Another makes an outline of the letters MIT. There’s no power source, no apparent reason for the material to change. And the process isn’t simply like a sponge expanding: It’s an object taking on a completely different shape. Tibbits has described it as “robotics without wires and motors.”
When explaining the process, Tibbits tends to use technical phrasing such as “geometric code” and “activation energy.” But what it seems to be, basically, is this: A black, static material is blended with a white, active material during the 3-D printing process. When put in water, the white material starts to swell — but its activity is controlled by the black material’s pre-programmed range of motion. This is key: The movement and its limits are programmed not into some kind of electronics or motors, but into the material itself.
Tibbits and his team are exploring other ways to induce self-reconfiguration — through light, heat and pressure. He is collaborating with Stratasys to develop the synthetic polymers used in the process. He’s also collaborating with Autodesk on something called “Project Cyborg,” a cloud-based platform of design tools for programming matter.
“Our products, materials and systems that we interact with in the future will adapt to how they are being used and how the environment is continually changing,” Tibbits said. “Rather than traditional 3-D printing, where we print static objects that are fixed materials, this is adding the ability to print smart materials that change shape or change property.”
The technology is barely in the embryonic stage, but Tibbits is exploring how it can be used to create materials that could be used to make consumer products.
“Let’s say for sportswear,” Tibbits said, “you could imagine sweat or heat, or if it’s raining or altitude or how you run versus how you walk” — all factors that could prompt the fabric to change its form in some way. He says he is talking to companies in “the sportswear realm,” although he wouldn’t give details. “I would target ambitiously to have some of these technologies and materials commercially implemented within five years,” he said.
Stratasys’s DeGrange envisions a longer timeline. “I think we’re certainly greater than 10 years out on that [consumer] front, but there are some limited applications that could potentially fall in the 4-D space right now,” he said. “And it will be a game-changer, when that time arrives.”
Here’s one potential game-changer: Tibbits is working with environmental engineering consulting firm Geosyntec Consultants to develop pipes that are able to bend and flex based on how much water passes through them or how the environment changes around them.
This is not anything he had envisioned. “Water infrastructure would not have been the first thing on my mind,” said Tibbits when asked what potential application of his technology surprised him the most.
In America, the word “manufacturing” is almost inextricably tied to the automobile. So let us consider the self-driving car, which employs radar, lasers, sensors and on-board computers — at least Google’s cars do. The search giant’s fleet of self-driving vehicles are still being tested, but last September, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said, “You can count on one hand the number of years before people can experience this.”
Now imagine a self-driving car that is printed rather than assembled.
It is packed for shipment by a robot.
It is sent to the consumer in a flat, streamlined form, ideal for packing and shipping.
Then, with the addition of water, the car is able to, in a matter of moments, reconfigure itself.
For now, it’s just a fantasy. But as Tibbits says, we’re looking at a future in which “materials can produce solutions that we could have never come up with.”