Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Visit to 3D Systems SF

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go on a "field trip" to 3D Systems San Francisco office.  It's in a rather nondescript, black building in SoMa; you wouldn't even notice it if you weren't looking for the small metal plaque near the door.  But inside, it is a 3D printer wonderland!

I was introduced to Seth Astle, Industrial Designer at 3D Systems and the designer of the awesome Cadence, a prosthetic limb and bike pedal combo that improves the existing experience for amputee cyclists.

Seth originally worked for San Francisco-based BeSpoke (which has since been acquired by 3D Systems).  This company is known for its Bespoke Fairings, often featured in this fairly iconic photo (below).  You can read more about these fairings on the website.  They are truly awesome, as in 'inspiring-awe.'

The first thing you see when you walk in the ground floor is a series of high-end 3D printers (more on this later).  The first thing you see upon walking upstairs is a row of Cubes (3D System's consumer product), furiously printing objects.

Seth talked a little bit about the process, and then showed off some really cool examples:

(paused mid-print to add metal rings)

(awesomely fine resolution)

(some whimsy in the shop)

And, then I saw THE WRENCH.  As in the ZCORP VIDEO WRENCH (3D Systems acquired ZCorporation in 2012).  As in, the video that started it all.  If you know me, I have probably made you watch this video!  In fact, why don't we watch it again?

Now, back to the wrench.  I was so excited. In fact, I secretly wanted a photo of myself with the wrenches to use a new profile pic.  (After all, I do have a picture of myself with the original fish mummies... as well as a picture of myself with the CEO of 3D Systems!)  However, I decided to take it down a couple of notches and not be weird.  So I just admired them.

I learned a lot about high-end printing on my trip.  Basically, there are a variety of options:

printed head
Zprinter - This printer contains a powder made of mostly starch with with some plaster.  It can print in color (see right) and at very fine resolution.  Basically:
  1. A roller spreads a fine layer of powder (0.1 mm or LESS in height!) across the build area.
  2. The inkjet printer head sprays a binding liquid in a layer than matches that particular layer's cross-section of the part.  This solidifies the powder in that cross-sectional area.
  3. The roller returns to the powder chamber where it lifts as the build chamber drops and the process of spreading a layer of powder and spraying the binding liquid repeats.
  4. This is done, layer by layer, until the part is complete.
  5. Excess powder is brushed off and extra powder is recycled back into the machine.
  6. Some post-processing is done.  The object is basically dipped in a super-glue bath, which then soaks in and fills up andy little holes in the model, making it watertight and strong
Another ProJet - Not sure of the exact name, but I do know that it first lays down layers of was, then acrylic polymer to build up an object with very impressive resolution.  (The wax can also be built using and subsequently melted off) as support material.  According to the website, these ProJets print with "VisiJet® Materials," which I learned could be a variety of things.  In this particular printer, it was printing with some poly acrylate (?) material in addition to the wax.

SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) - Works in a similar way to the Zprinter, but uses a laser instead of binding material.  You can watch this short video to learn more.  I learned that many places, including the SF 3D Systems office, do not have an SLS printer, since the fine particulate is a hazard and can explode (like the midwestern silos, I wonder?).  So, only particular locations work with them, including the 3D Systems' main headquarters in North Carolina.

SLA (StereoLithography Apparatus) - This printer has a tank filled with many gallons of liquid photopolymer.  These prints were super smooth, you could hardly see the layers at all!
  1. Once you input a file, the 3D printer's laser "paints" one of the layers, exposing the photo-sensitive, liquid plastic in the tank and hardening it.
  2. The platform drops down into the tank of liquid a fraction of a millimeter and the laser paints the next layer.
  3. This process repeats, layer by layer, until the build is complete.
  4. Then you have to rinse off the object and "bake" it in an ultraviolet oven until the plastic iss  thoroughly cured.

According to HowStuffWorks, "Stereolithography is not an inexpensive process. The machines themselves usually cost in excess of $250,000. They have to be vented because of fumes created by the polymer and the solvents. The polymer itself is extremely expensive. CibaTool SL5170 resin, a common photopolymer used in stereolithography, typically costs about $800/gallon. For these reasons, it is uncommon to find stereolithography machines anywhere but in large companies."

Wax printer - This one was new for me.  Apparently, wax casting has been used for a long time in making jewelry.  But now, you can 3D print the layers in wax.  In the photo below, the blue wax has a higher melting point than the white wax.

As I understand it:
1.  The wax model is printed from an stl (or other file), with two different types of wax (one for the model and one for the support material)
2.  After printing, the lower-melting point wax (white in this pic) is melted off, leaving the blue original design
3.  The blue design is used to make a mold out of plaster, or some other material
4.  The mold is heated up, and the blue wax melts and drains out
5. Now, your other material, usually metal, can be poured in and takes the shape of the original blue wax.  

For those of you who enjoy an adventure, you can design and 3D print your own rings using this method....

Finally, if you are still excited to read more about the various types of 3D printing, you can visit this site to read some of the advantages and disadvantages of the types listed above. [UPDATE 11.4.13: Or, to learn more, you can read all about this blog post about visiting Stratasys, the other major 3D printing company in addition to 3D Systems.]


  1. 3-D printers are so cool! I remember the days when we thought an Address Printer was the coolest thing ever. It's crazy to think how far technology has come

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