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Blue Dog Diaries: Weird science

By Terry Roorda

On February 15, a Dutch engineer and puzzle designer named Oskar van Deventer unveiled a mind-boggling 17x17x17 Rubik’s cube constructed of 1,539 individual pieces. It’s far and away the most complex such cube ever produced—the familiar Rubik’s cube is 3x3x3—but equally mind-boggling is the fact that the plastic pieces were all created on a 3D printer, and while van Deventer made the pieces individually, colored them and assembled the whole works by hand, it’s actually conceivable at this point in 3D printing technology that the entire cube, moving parts and all, could be 3D printed as a complete assembled and colored unit. On your desktop.

If you’re not familiar with the 3D printing process—or “additive manufacturing” as it’s more accurately called—let me run down the basics for you. First, a CAD file or 3D scan of the part to be printed is loaded on your computer where the image is analyzed and converted to a series of cross-sectional layers, and then you hit the “Print” button. At that point, depending on the type of machine you’re using, either an inkjet-type device begins to extrude plastic precisely, building up layer upon layer as it passes over the form until the finished part emerges, or a similar print head passes repeatedly over a tray of powdered material—plastic, titanium, or stainless steel—and either applies a binding agent or sinters the granules into a hard substance with a laser.

Freaky, no? This basic technology has been around for a couple of decades, and as it’s matured it’s become an ever more pervasive tool in “rapid prototyping” applications, taking a process that once could consume weeks of effort and significant costs and essentially achieving the same development curve in a matter of days—or even hours—for little money, and literally from a desk. And what’s more, the “additive” process can do things no other forming or machining process can, like building complex internal structures within a seamless exterior or creating the prototype as a fully-assembled and functional device. Functional plastic clockworks and gearboxes have been printed in this fashion, ready to operate as soon as they’re removed from the machine.

And speaking of clockworks—sort of—probably the best-known use of additive manufacturing in the motorcycle industry has been by Klock Werks, the respected South Dakota bike builder and parts purveyor.

They’ve been dabbling in 3D for several years, and most notably used the procedure to produce polycarbonate parts, including the instrument pod, floorboard mounts, fork tube covers and headlamp bezel for their Biker Build-Off-winning and LSR-setting bagger creation in 2006. They went on from there to 3D print the wind-tunnel test model of their game-changing Flare windscreen.

Elsewhere in the gearhead community, Jay Leno showed off his 3D printer as well as his 3D scanner on the Jay Leno’s Garage program in October of 2009, and sang the praises of the devices—roughly $20,000 worth—in replicating obsolete and unobtainable parts for his fleet of vintage vehicles. What’s interesting about that episode is that the flat valve for a 1907 White Steam Car that he demonstrated being replicated on his expensive machines could be done today on equipment costing a tenth of what Jay paid.

The price of printers and 3D scanners has dropped precipitously in recent years, putting fairly sophisticated equipment well within the price range of the home tinkerer. Self-replicating open-source machines for the hobbyist are available through sources like RepRap and MakerBot for between $800 and $1,250. These are machines that are capable of reproducing a goodly portion of their own basic components, so if you have one, you can pretty much make another one for a friend. 3D scanners have gotten cheap, too. Hand-held scanners can be had for under $500, and kits that utilize your personal iPhone or iPod Touch and a webcam can be had for $50.

For larger, more elaborate undertakings, or projects that require sterner metallic stuff, 3D printing sub-contractors with fancy gear like Jay’s are beginning to proliferate, presenting the possibility of Kinko’s-style one-off fabrication stores coming to your town. That may be a ways off in the future at this point, but it’s coming, as is the availability of open-source CAD programs online for a myriad of parts of every conceivable type—just waiting for your personal customization.

Materials have come a long way as well, as has the transition from using 3D techniques exclusively for prototyping to manufacturing finished production parts, and as of this writing, intricate titanium aircraft parts are being produced this way, and plans to fabricate entire wings for commercial jetliners are close to fruition.

More importantly for the more affordable plastic-extrusion types of printers—the type you can realistically have on your own desktop for not a lot of dough—material engineers have formulated durable ABS-style plastics, rubber-like elastomers, and even optically clear material, among a growing list of options for 3D printers. The company producing many of those products is Objet Geometries, and in demonstrating what the new stuff is capable of, they displayed, of all things, a clear plastic turn signal lens for a Harley-Davidson printed on a desktop.

Just think of the possibilities. (Or, rather, just try not to.) Here’s one: Scan your own turn signal lens and then scan your own face. Superimpose the one on the other on your computer and hit “Print.” In short order you’ll have your sweet smiling visage beaming out in three dimensions from the lights on your bike. Talk about personalization.

It’s all right here in the diaries.

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