Jesse Harrington Au, maker advocate at Autodesk, discusses with James Pozzi how 3D printing technology is evolving and influencing everything from design to manufacturing.
You joined Autodesk to give the maker’s perspective. What are some of the key trends you are seeing in 3D printing right now?
In 3D printing in general, I think material sciences are really booming. So we’re seeing a lot of different materials, coming off the 3D Print Show in London last week. There we saw a lot of interesting stuff: there was a bronze material and also a non-PLA plastic. There was a new type of plastic that was non-toxic, the sheen was better and it was also a little more durable than nylon. It is even more sustainable, better for people’s health but also making great prints. There’s a whole eco-system based around the fuel deposition modeling (FDM) printers. People don’t fully realise between software, printing material and printers that it’s not just a box, but a whole system. There’s a lot of advances on the material side.
What is your view of 3D printing revolutionising the manufacturing industry as a whole?
Back when I was doing product design, we would make a product, and then send it overseas to be injection moulded. We’d then wait three weeks for it to come back after they had re-engineered our files. Then we’d critique the results, send it back to them and then wait another few weeks to receive it back. So it was a constant waiting chain to get a product out. But now what I’ve seen a lot of people do it go to a 3D printer or a service bureau and they’ll 3D print. This allows prototypes to be made extremely fast with an almost immediate turnaround. So when businesses are talking to clients, they have a physical way to show them what their idea is. I think this has totally changed the start up space. In terms of high end manufacturing, additive manufacturing is allowing us a whole new way to create shapes; shapes that we’d never even thought about designing before because there was no way you could manufacture them.
Are you seeing an upsurge in the urban manufacturing movement, which enables small city locations to be factories?
Yes, especially in the USA. Places like TechShop exist where you can have people come in and manufacture on a small scale. I’ve seen this at least 50-60 times over the last two years and each one of these times represents multiple products. This is everything from iPhone cases, origami kayaks to underwater robots. I’ve seen so many spur out of the maker space into making their own manufacturing hubs within the USA, which is really promising. Especially when you look at a city like Pittsburgh, which is an area that was really on a downturn but has since really picked up as an innovation space.
Which industries seem to be embracing and benefiting from 3D printing more than others?
Things that are customised such as medical and outdoor adventure, because those are always things that people tweak on their own. The only areas that we don’t see a lot of growth in currently are things like soft goods, but even that’s started to explode now. It appears to be encompassing every industry. It’s kind of the new injection moulding – it touches every single industry.
Autodesk has moved into hardware by releasing its first 3D printer. This is alongside the release of free to own 3D apps. What can you tell us about these?
They’ll be coming out in the fall and we have some other big announcements coming up around this. What’s important to remember is it’s not solely about us putting out a 3D printer for consumers to purchase. The printer is going to be open source, and it comes with a software platform that you can innovate and really customise it to meet your own needs. The belief behind this is to grow this sector. The FDM market has been extremely innovative but now we are looking at other sides of things. What can we do with resins? How can we help these sectors grow? We’ve always said software is only good as the physical things you can with make it. Being able to change and shift focus and saying “let’s help people create these businesses and innovate into the 3D print market” is perfect for us.
You also work on the education side of things. Do you think we are far off the reality of of schools having 3D printers to use as an education tool?
We’re probably about a year or so away. We’ve seen a lot of teachers passionate already adopting the technology. I think the thing that’s slowing down mass adoption is providing a curriculum they understand; a curriculum that can help them get out of the mentality of its not that every student needs to make their plastic key. You can really get into history and everything else with this device in a physical way that kids can help remember and be more involved with. So it doesn’t have to be a 3D printing class, it can be the science class where these things show up. It’s a matter of helping schools understand how to shift their focus to having maker spaces inside their school with real technology. A home economics lab could even be the modern maker space.
What are your predictions for 3D printing going forward?
We’re seeing a lot of people experiment with carbon fibre printers. Those are amazing, because you are able to print something out in a very complex shape that has sensitive carbon fibre. In this sense, you are able to do very structural models very easily. The other side of it is there’s a lot of people experimenting with CNC lund. I think that’s fascinating and something we need to catch up with on the design side of things. If you’re making something with CNC lund such as clothing, then this could very much result in mass adoption. As much as people have trouble trying to think about the widget or the lamp or something they’d bring into their home, with 3D printing, I don’t think anyone’s ever said “I think it’d be horrible if these jeans fitted me right.” I also think you’ll see more options to be do multiple materials at once. There are also people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developing auto assembly. That stuff is breathtaking to watch. If you think about being able to take something somewhere, add energy to it and have it auto assemble, that could really change the game for a lot of people in a vast amount of ways.