We’re only a few days away from the fourth annual Inside 3D Printing Conference, the premier B2B trade show that encompasses the entirety of the 3D printing industry. Started by Meckler Media, and currently run by Rising Media, the conference has served as a breeding ground for innovative ideas and breathtaking demonstrations. Columbia Engineering professor and robotics/3D printing expert, Hod Lipson, has been helping to articulate the conference’s program since the very start. I recently spoke with him at great length about his current work, his time with Inside 3D Printing, and why this year is set to be the most exciting conference yet.
Lipson begins, “I’ve always believed that [3D printing] technology is one of these rare exponential technologies that are not hyped, but are here to stay and move us forward. So, I was very passionate about this technology, and part of my passion about this is that more people need to know about it, more people need to be aware of what it can do. This technology has a huge potential that needs to be explored and broadcast more widely.”
When it comes to the major differences between this year’s Inside 3D Printing and prior events, Lipson adamantly spoke about how the entire industry is exponentially getting “faster, cheaper, and better” (this is a phrase he used quite often over the course of our conversation). The proof of this statement will be front and center at Inside 3D Printing, kicking off with the opening keynote by Carbon’s CEO and co-founder Joseph M. DeSimone. Carbon’s CLIP technology has been causing the entire 3D printing community hive to buzz with anticipation, and the keynote is coming just a couple of weeks after they released their first commercial CLIP-based printer, the M1. In Lipson’s view, Carbon showcases just how rapidly the industry is improving and expanding.
“One aspect is simply the technological aspect, the fact that there are new technologies on the horizon that are changing the applicability of this technology,” he says. “For example, Carbon 3D is doing our opening keynote this year and are bringing this technology that makes 3D printing 100x faster than it was. While last year, we had HP deliver the opening keynote and they were promising 10-20x faster. So, these are technological advances that are not incremental. A lot of people think that this technology is mature. No, this technology is not mature yet; there’s a long road of possibilities ahead. As we speak, new companies are talking about faster, cheaper, and better at an incredible pace. We’re talking about announcements of metal printing that are 10 times faster, people are talking about desktop metal printing, this shows that this technology is moving forward at an incredible rate, that’s what gets technology people like me very excited.”
Other notable and exciting companies that will be represented (and that we will be covering) at Inside 3D Printing include Formlabs, D-Shape, Voodoo Manufacturing, nTopology, and others. Aside from Carbon’s opening keynote, the second most eye-catching presentation might be the in-depth look at metal-based additive manufacturing with Arcam Group’s CEO, Magnus René. Metal 3D printing seems to be a major focus this year and, as this aspect of 3D technology also become ‘faster, cheaper, and better’, we may start seeing it being used much more often in a much broader sense.
Another major difference that Lipson has noticed within the industry, as of late, is the expansion that the technology has made into previously unexplored territories. As the technological capabilities of 3D printing continue to grow exponentially, the number of industries that will adapt this emerging technology will do the same. Lipson explains, “Beyond that, the other thing that were seeing, and you’ll see throughout the event, is that the range of industries affected by this technology is also growing. It used to be only aerospace, medical, and defense using it in a big way. But as the technology gets faster, cheaper, and better, a lot of other companies and industry segments can start playing.”
Lipson has been involved with 3D printing technology for some time, which has particularly useful in his Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University. But prior to teaching at Columbia, Lipson was on the forefront of robotics, bioprinting, and electronics printing. The engineering professor has been using 3D printing technology for about a decade already. In fact, his team was one of the first to use 3D printing to manufacture a complete robot.
“We’ve been using 3D printing for a long, since the late 90’s, and we’ve always tried to stay ahead of what the industry is doing,” Lipson recalls. “Back then, we printed working robots. I think we were the first ones to print a complete robot. Today there isn’t one robotics lab that doesn’t use 3D printing, but, back at the time, it was a pretty revolutionary idea that you could print a pre-assembled robot in one shot. Since then, we’ve done other things. We were the first to do bioprinting, and now, bioprinting with live cells is its own field with its own conferences and journals. We’ve done printable electronics and batteries, and they’re all sort of becoming the next big thing in 3D printing.”
In Lipson’s mind, there are two segments of 3D printing that will lead the emerging technology towards a brighter and more useful future. The first, would be the ability to 3D print completely integrated systems in one operation, rather than printing component by component. “But there are two things were working on now that I think are the next big thing,” he explains. “One of them is the ability to print completely integrated systems. So, not just printing a wire, or battery, or another component, but instead being able to print a complete integrated and functional system, like printing a robot that could walk right out of the printer. We’re working hard on this ability, I don’t think it’s something you’ll see commercially available anytime soon, but if you look 10 years into the future, I think that this is where the technology is moving towards, from printing parts to printing integrated systems.”
The second, and this was a bit of a surprise to me, was food 3D printing, which Lipson himself called both the “killer app” and “the last frontier” of 3D printing. In fact, in Lipson’s Columbia course on Digital Manufacturing, his students are utilizing food printing to grasp the concepts of design and manufacturing with multiple materials. Lipson elaborates, “It’s a completely untapped territory, has a lot of potential, and, personally, I think it’s the ‘killer app’ of 3D printing. We’re trying to push that technology as much as possible. We’re trying to develop the ability to cook while we print. We’re working on this idea of making software that allows you to predict how the recipe design will look, and we’re hoping to show results of that very soon.”
Still, Lipson did discuss the aspects of the industry that require some improvement, and to him, the biggest hindrance to 3D printing seemed to be the lack of advancements in CAD tools. Lipson believes that the human imagination limits our ability to truly explore our potential design space, and feels AI will be the answer to this glaring issue. He also spoke about the lack of design tools focused on multiple materials and lattice structures, and how, once again, our saving grace will likely be AI-based techniques.
“Design as a whole has been the neglected child of 3D technology,” Lipson says. “We always focus on the materials, the printer, the resolution, and speed, but, meanwhile, this manufacturing ability far exceeds what we are able to design. Today, we’re in a situation where you can make things in any shape, but we don’t have CAD tools to allow us to explore that space, and we don’t have the imagination to explore that space either. And, so, I think the gap between design tools and manufacturing tools has grown. Design tools are not keeping up with manufacturing tools.”
“The gap is growing wider too,” he continues. “For example, with multi-materials, there are barely any design tools for multi-material processes, and the same goes for meta-materials, such as lattices. I think there’s some big room for investment and ideas, because there’s no doubt in my mind that, eventually, we’ll have to resort to AI techniques to bridge this gap. The human imagination just can’t cut it. There’s just too much to do and we need some compute power to help us explore this space.”
Hod Lipson has been involved as the Program Chair of Inside 3D Printing since the very start of the conference four years ago, which was then run by Alan Meckler. Aside from his recognizable and innovative work in robotics, bioprinting, and as a professor of engineering, Lipson is also renowned for his 2013 book Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing. Although some impatient and eager individuals feel as if 3D printing technology is strapped to a high-speed hype train that’s ready to crash at any moment, Lipson is here to say that 3D printing is here to stay. If you need evidence to prove the validity of this sentiment, you can find that and much more at this year’s Inside 3D Printing NYC!