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.
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.
“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.