Sunday, January 26, 2014

3D Printing

My father-in-law, Robert Lincoln, is a mechanical engineer. He originally trained as a gunsmith at the Rhode Island School of Design and at Trinidad State College in Colorado. That’s where he met his future wife and mother of my lovely Linda. He worked at various companies that built oil filters, ultimately ending up at Fram here in Longmont.

Later he moved to Coors where he worked in packaging. He was responsible for the various new designs of beer cans that eliminated the pull ring. The removable ring was a waste hazard to animals and bare footed people. He also developed computer programs that supported the brewing of the new “light beer” using an HP desktop computer. He was a self-taught programmer, although I did help him with some of the code. It was all in Compiled BASIC.

Besides engineer and programmer, he was an inventor. I remember one idea he had. It was a plastic plug that you would use to replace the cigarette lighter in your car. On the end of the black plastic, painted white, was a representation of a cigarette with the red “no” symbol over it. His idea was to sell it to nonsmokers to put in their cars to discourage passengers from smoking. You young folks won’t understand, but things were different back then. Cigarette lighters were for lighting cigarettes rather than charging phones, and people smoked in offices and cars.

He had to hire an outfit to make a prototype of his design, and I remember seeing the small plastic object. Now days, that would be a good job for a 3D printer.

First invented back in 1984, it wasn’t until the last few years that 3D printers have really caught on … that and drones. Up to this point, “subtractive” technology has been the mainstay. Machines would build objects by removing material with lathes and planers and other machines. Now, with 3D printing, “additive” development is done. The final object is built up slowly by numerous applications of thin layers.

3D printing has found a use in both prototyping and small count manufacturing. It is the flexibility of the methodology that is so exciting. New ideas literally “come into shape” on the printing platform. 3D printers are still rather expensive and the materials used in them cost more than ink jet ink … which is already priced like liquid gold. So it is a hobby for the rich or well funded. There are some small machines in the $5,000 price range, but cheaper models are appearing.

One thing we know about technology is its ability to reduce the price with volume production and wide acceptance. So I expect companies like HP to soon offer low cost 3D printers down at Best Buy and WalMart. A 3D printer coupled with some 3D design software will start producing objects of technology and works of art. Now sculpture can be reproduced as easily as paintings and drawings are with 2D printing. This might become a whole new paradigm of objects. That and the “Internet of Things.” (I’ll have to tell you about the IoT at some later date.)

I think one of the first things I’ll make when I get mine will be a copy of that no smoking plug that Bob invented so many years ago.

1 comment:

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