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Embracing the
Next Dimension

Many experts predict 3-D printing technology will revolutionize the way companies do business. UT Arlington is at the forefront of this burgeoning industry.

By O.K. Carter

Unlimited Options Above: An architecture student and a fabric artist blended their talents to produce a 3-D printed mold from which this building tile was cast.

Asmall machine the size of a desktop printer hums so quietly it can only be heard a few feet away. In just minutes, it makes an exact duplicate of a recently scanned item, a simple comb, to the delight of those watching in UT Arlington’s Central Library. “What will they think of next?” a woman asks rhetorically. At almost the same time, a University robotics team member hopes to solve a design dilemma involving a tiny sensor robot.

The device needs a very small component that has never existed before. Call it a nonstandard part—so nonstandard it doesn’t have a name.

The team member relays his problem to research scientist Stephen Savoie at the UT Arlington Research Institute along with design drawings, which Savoie feeds into a 3-D printer that’s considerably more sophisticated than the library’s. In less than an hour, the part is ready but doesn’t quite fit because, in this field, slight variances matter greatly.

The drawings are tweaked and a second part printed. It fits perfectly and the miniscule robot scuttles across a table. The scientists have compressed months of work into three hours, moving idea to reality in one afternoon.

Custom Fit

3-D printing is gaining momentum, transitioning from a metaphoric groundswell to a societal tsunami that most observers predict will change global trade flows, reduce production costs, shrink barriers to entering markets, and profoundly impact supply chains.

Rachel Croson

3-D State of Mind
Rachel Croson says 3-D printing will “enable an age of mass customization.”

“It’s not really a question of if it will happen, but how long the process will take. I believe the changes will be profound over the next decade,” College of Business Dean Rachel Croson predicts. “As 3-D technology advances, we want our students to be fully prepared for a changing business landscape.”

When it comes to 3-D, UT Arlington plans to stay ahead of the curve in multiple disciplines—business, robotics, medicine, architecture, the arts.

Also called additive manufacturing, 3-D printing churns out objects by laying thin layer after thin layer of metal, plastics, or other materials (concrete, for example) atop each other. The technology can either scan an object or follow computerized instructions. This differs from subtractive manufacturing—in which an object like a baseball bat is machined from a larger piece, typically metal, wood, or composites following computerized instructions—or manufacturing that uses components made from molds.

“Right now a lot of people see 3-D printing as something of a curiosity,” Dr. Croson says. “It isn’t. It represents technology that will enable an age of mass customization.”

She envisions an era when we won’t wear or use the same standard sizes of anything anymore.

“You’ll get your shoes custom built to your feet, mine to my feet. My clothes exactly to my dimensions, and so on. The medical industry is already making medical devices through 3-D printing like dentures and hip implants that exactly conform to each unique patient. They’ll fit just like your original teeth, just like your hip. Innovations like that, customized for each use, are becoming a much more attractive alternative.

“As long as you’re talking about a three-inch bolt, the old-fashioned manufacturing processes work well. But 3-D printing enables manufacturers to exploit situations where adding non-uniformity of the product can create value.”

The implications for students are vast.

Some types of conventional machining manufacturing might take two years from design to completion. With 3-D, it might be only a few hours.

3-D State of Mind: The MakerBot Replicator 2 printer brings life to the creative vision of art students.

“We need to teach our students not only about the world that’s out there today, but the world that’s going to be out there tomorrow, or 10 years from now or 20,” Croson says. “A big part of that is going to involve the impact of 3-D technology. We want a future-proof degree. Our students will graduate with skills needed for today but also with the skills to lead their companies in the future that’s coming.”

Consider students in supply chains and operations management as they examine optimal inventory policy. Let’s say Home Depot historically keeps 80 of an item on a shelf and 200 in the warehouse. If the company has 3-D printing capabilities, maybe it needs only 20 on the shelf and 50 in the back. If inventory runs low, just print more.

“The capability of 3-D printing will totally change inventory policy—how many of an item you need to hold, how many you need to order—and best business practices will change with them,” Croson says. “Business law will change significantly, as will copyright and patent law, duplication rights, and myriad opportunities and obstacles that haven’t surfaced yet.”

The Total Package

For some UT Arlington departments, 3-D printing technology is making an impact right here, right now. UTARI’s printers often are busy 24/7, with projects ranging from medical applications like custom-fitted burn victim coverings to robotic components. “Some types of conventional machining manufacturing might take two years from design to completion,” Savoie says. “With 3-D, it might be only a few hours. That’s a huge savings.” He says 3-D also speeds up research and development, a key for helping UTARI move technology to market more quickly. “One company we’re collaborating with printed six or seven designs, a process that was particularly useful for prototypes or even small-scale production. The technology is also beneficial for making molds, which conventionally are expensive to produce. It’s particularly useful for limited-production, custom-molded products.” A most unusual embrace of 3-D printing technology is evolving in fine arts. Students are using 3-D to create computer gaming characters, educational games, sculptures, innovative packaging, even colorful retail exhibits.

“It is important to explore new tools and technology that create a type of marriage between what students experiment with in our studios and what knowledge they will require as they move into careers in industry or as entrepreneurs,” Art and Art History Department Chairman Robert Hower says. “We have sculptors who use glass or metal for casting in our foundry. With 3-D printing technology, we can actually create forms and molds that can be cast with these materials in a traditional way. 3-D printing is becoming so sophisticated that object building is now created directly using metal, clay, or various synthetic materials.”

Brad Bell

3-D State of Mind: Led by Brad Bell, the School of Architecture has developed 3-D-related intellectual property in thermal facades and sound-mitigation panels.

Projects span from fanciful to pragmatic, including one of the most comprehensive university packaging programs in the nation in collaboration with the International Corrugated Packaging Foundation. Students create designs with sophisticated software and use a table that can cut any packaging or display system imaginable.

“It is packaging and form creation that is also art and design, packaging that is intended to safely ship products but also to display them,” Hower says. “With our 3-D tools, we can tweak and tweak, perhaps creating 15 or 20 versions of a given packaging concept before arriving at the perfect solution.”

Architect of Change

In the School of Architecture, 3-D printing has advanced so quickly that the technology may migrate to individual studios, where Assistant Professor Brad Bell believes the equipment soon will be as commonplace as laptops, X-Acto knives, and straightedges.

“We’ve always relied on certain design tools, and the way we utilize those tools has expanded to 3-D printing,” he says. “Right now the low-hanging fruit is to use 3-D to create representations or prototypes, but in the future we’ll use 3-D to print concrete or metal alloys or synthetic materials for direct manufacturing. Students have to be conversant in both additive and subtractive manufacturing. Those ideas have to be part of the curriculum.”

The bonus of 3-D printing for architects, Bell believes, is that it blends the functions of both designer and manufacturer and is reminiscent of the architect as a builder. “The integration of 3-D modeling with digital manufacturing opens up the design and fabrication process to a much broader range of customizable outcomes.”

The school’s 3-D research already has created collaborations with the private sector, including architectural companies HKS Inc. and Beck Group, along with Acme Brick, Gate Precast, Zahner Metal, and Austin Commercial. Bell’s research group has developed 3-D-related intellectual property in sound-mitigation precast panels, thermal facades, and reconfigurable form work. Those are, he foresees, a mere hint of what’s to come.

A recent IBM study on the impact of 3-D technology predicts a decrease in the cost of producing new products, a huge drop in production volume needed to enter a market, dramatically sped-up design cycles, and the undercutting of large supplier networks and extended supply chains. In short, a sea change.

“There will absolutely be big winners, big losers, and accelerated change in the process,” business Dean Croson predicts. “Our mission will be to make sure no students anywhere are better prepared for the future than those at UT Arlington.”

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