The innovative approach to 3D printing that Topolabs is taking is borne of nature. In his youth, inceptor James Page spent his days on a tree farm. His father’s doctorate in forestry and mothers love of botony created a rich platform of insight into the ways of the beautiful world of trees, and provided a catalogue of observational information upon how this mode of organic life overcomes the problem of dealing with survival against the forces that influence it. James has taken the way that trees grow and used biomimetics – the imitation of nature – to create the next leap forward in FDM 3D printing.
Rarely in nature do forms grow in flat layers. Volcanic magma, as it permeates the atmosphere from the geosphere cools rapidly in layers that partially or wholly solidify before being submerged by the next magmatic stratum. Trees mark their growth in rings that in turn mark the passage of time with intrinsic details that are a veritable library of bio-chemical information on decades, and in the case of the very oldest trees, millennia, past. The 3D printing process of Fused Deposition Modelling shares some analogous principles, but ‘God does not build in straight lines’ – to quote Ridley Scott’s recent sci-fi movie Prometheus.
FDM printers traditionally print in layers. They print from the ground up, and only utilize their Z-axis (vertical axis) to move up a layer, once the current layer is finished printing. The parable of the lava may come to mind. With magma, this produces enough strength in solid form to forge mountains. With plastic, the parable falls short in the parabola. The linear growth in strata that are bonded within only the levels of durability that we find in ABS and PLA, the two most popular plastics in home FDM 3D printing, can fall foul of some of the properties that make them so reasonable for filament extrusion in the first place. Flat layers are actually a source of weakness in FDM printing with a relatively low degree of strength between the layers within the context of other methods of making. This has been the case ever since FDM printers first appeared: What they print grows upwards in layers. The rings of a tree could come to mind…. What is the difference between the seasonal layering of rings on a tree, and the layer by layer making method of an FDM 3D printer? Let’s check out Topolabs’ video before we continue…
The life of trees is one where growth, and therefore survival, is dependent upon a constant opposition to the all powerful pull of gravity, pushing ever forwards towards the source of energy, the potent photons that fall endlessly upon the rock upon which they grow. Life on the rock — Earth — is, in terms of scientific processes, the product of photons hitting the rock. The photons travel to that rock from our own giant nuclear reactor, the Sun, to present the opportunity for energy collection by any life forms on that rock capable of doing so. The forces that influence the battle for survival include the one that is all to easy to take for granted, gravity.
Endlessly! Because whether on a summer day — or winter night where the human eye captures just a millionth of the light that it does on a bright day (our minds naturally compensate for this massive differential), moonlight reflecting the suns photons to the rock from the sun, or even in a solar eclipse where photons still bounce around the confines of our atmosphere — the sun is in fact always bathing life on Earth with photons. As trees pursue their goal of growth to capture the highest proportion of sunlight, they form intricate inner structures within their bodies – from trunk to branch, root to tip. These structures maximise strength, whilst maintaining flexibility. Not too brittle, not too plastic, in terms of physical material properties.
Trees grow differently from both humans, and the main methods of making and manufacturing preferred by humans. Homo Sapiens grow homogenously, more or less, expanding in proportion from an infant to an adult. Most things humans have made grow layer by layer, brick by brick, stone by stone. Tree’s grow with a leading face. The tip of the branch, the top of the trunk. We are creating oversimplifications here that border inaccuracy, but the basic truths remain for the purpose of our analogy. On your FDM desktop printer, the growth is the motion of the extruder through three dimensions, the DNA is the G-code which represents the language of the expression of the design into the actual, the heat from the bed and extruder are the sun’s light, for without them, the materials in which your 3D printer extrudes would remain that roll of filament, bereft of potential for it’s final form. Yeah, I know, I know, I wanted the roll of filament to be the DNA instead too…
3D printing, as regular readers will know, is, at its simplest, adding bits rather than taking bits away to make things. It is a term for a specific technology in itself – as well as a strata of additive manufacturing: Indeed one of the original types of additive manufacturing, which has been around for three decades now. I have been asked many times by newcomers about 3D printing as if it is solely this original type of additive manufacturing, the type we now see trending across the internet and mainstream media, and its impacts upon industry ‘like GE have used, and, like when they built NASA rockets with it’ such that before I continue I feel it best to create this distinction.
Home prosumer desktop 3D printing and industrial additive manufacturing are emerging as separate markets, with cross overs. The former is generally based upon Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) 3D printing that became popular via a project called RepRap, which – as those in the open source school of thought would say – ‘liberated’ the FDM patent as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). With irony, the 3D printer maker quickest off the block to create a sound salable product and market it, namely MakerBot, then went on to become highly successful, and recently were acquired by Stratasys… who originated the FDM patent. A full circle for patents. A certain amount of irony. A lot of ingenuity, across the whole of the RepRap movement, which has now produced many successful businesses.
As FDM is the main 3D printing technology used in home 3D printing, any new major progression in the technology is going to have a huge affect upon the whole of desktop 3D printing. Most of the USD$83,000,000 spent upon home 3D printers in this nascent sector last year was expended upon FDM printers. The rate of exponential growth of home 3D printing suggests that we are, therefore, considering a potential technological transition for a $130,000,000 market this year. But not all of it, as the biggest seller, MakerBot, will only have their devices up to the forth generation supported: Thus not the new product line unveiled in January this year. Anyone else is pretty much dandy for a radical upgrade…
Topolabs suggests that there are two ways to widen the range of applicability of 3D printing: One of these is to bring costs down for higher quality techniques such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS). This strategy fits into the industrial additive manufacturing tier of 3D printing we have set out at the outset. Topolabs is seeking to tackle technological advancement from the other of their defined angles: ‘taking a disruptive approach by elevating the quality from intrinsically low cost techniques such as FDM.’
I tend to agree. There is a symbiotic relationship between industrial and desktop 3D printing, but let’s keep things simple. For home users who are engaging in 3D printing as a new way to make things – customised presents, downloadable houseware, replacement parts (beware copyright infringement if you are directly replicating existing parts for your damaged product: Vacuum cleaner, headphones, hair brush handle, etc.) and design professionals who are prototyping and manufacturing using their personal production unit, desktop 3D printers already offer a range of materials, colours and ways to bring designs from the digital to the physical.
But the material properties for that output are available within the set boundaries defined by the technology used, not just the materials available themselves – ABS, PLA, water soluble PVA, nylon, carbon fiber, food, electro-conductive ink, metals, and the rest of the ever growing list. We have seen a myriad range of approaches to the orientation, print-head, electronic components, and the other variables which dictate what the device itself does with the materials that it processes. Less common is addressing the methods by which the digital is rendered into the actual itself.
Topolabs is pioneering several innovative techniques, which allow existing low-cost FDM systems to produce stronger, more flexible and better looking parts. Topolabs software takes STL files, sketches and photos as inputs and outputs G-code and related formats. Several key tools are in beta testing as I type, including:
• Strength Designer: By printing 3D paths instead of flat layers, you can easily orient the “grain” to your part’s inherent shape. Woodworkers have aligned the grain to the task for thousands of years. Now your printer can too.
• Flexible Part Designer: Easily create flexible, fabric-like structures. Many products that would typically be made of thick canvas, nylon fabric or leather can now be 3D printed directly in engineering polymers. With some of the new elastomer and advanced material filaments available the possibilities are increasing.
• Aesthetics & Line Art: start with any sketch or photo and your printer can create beautiful line art on 2D and 3D surfaces of parts. Think of it like embroidery or 3D graphics you can apply to many types of surfaces.
• Layer Locking for even more strength: When you do need flat layers, lock them together. Topolabs layer locking tools interconnect adjacent layers using transverse rays to eliminate cleavage planes so your parts won’t split. Finally, really useful parts in all three directions.
Topolabs is populated by Mark Sears, Co-Founder of Figulo, a 3D printing company sold to additive manufacturing giant 3D Systems; Carl Ransdell, with a knack for cloud component CAD technologies; Ishmael Philip, a talented UX designer skilled in API construction and scalable cloud solutions; Greg Meess, a mechanical engineer specialising in optics design; Cory Bloome, who specialises in automated mechanical systems; and Laura Gardner Smith, an experienced communications professional with a track history in the technology sector.
Topolabs plans to launch its cloud-based software in the forthcoming months, which will enable users of the majority of existing FDM based 3D printing systems to generate these innovative, intelligent 3D toolpaths. Let’s perhaps call it 3D printing version 3.0…?