Friday, May 11, 2012

Jay Leno's 3-D Printer

I've posted about 3-D printing here once before, and it's awesome. I don't particularly like Jay Leno (especially after what he did to Conan), but this is also awesome.
Jay Leno has a lot of old cars with a lot of obsolete parts. When he needs to replace these parts, he skips the error-prone machinist and goes to his rapid prototyping 3D printer. Simply scan, print and repeat. 
"One of the hardships of owning an old car is rebuilding rare parts when there are simply no replacements available. My 1907 White Steamer has a feedwater heater, a part that bolts onto the cylinders. It's made of aluminum, and over the 100-plus years it's been in use, the metal has become so porous you can see steam and oil seeping through. I thought we could just weld it up. But it's badly impregnated with oil and can't be repaired. If we tried, the metal would just come apart.  
So, rather than have a machinist try to copy the heater and then build it, we decided to redesign the original using our NextEngine 3D scanner and Dimension 3D printer. These incredible devices allow you to make the form you need to create almost any part. The scanner can measure about 50,000 points per second at a density of 160,000 dots per inch (dpi) to create a highly detailed digital model. The 3D printer makes an exact copy of a part in plastic, which we then send out to create a mold. Some machines can even make a replacement part in cobalt-chrome with the direct laser sintering process. Just feed a plastic wire--for a steel part you use metal wire--into the appropriate laser cutter.  
Inside the printer, the print head goes back and forth, back and forth, putting on layer after layer of plastic to form a 3D part. If there are any irregularities in the originals, you can remove them using software. Once the model is finished, any excess support material between moving parts is dissolved in a water-based solution. Complexity doesn't matter, but the size of the object does determine the length of the process. Making a little part might take 5 hours. The White's feedwater heater required 33 hours.  
Any antique car part can be reproduced with these machines--pieces of trim, elaborately etched and even scrolled door handles. If you have an original, you can copy it. Or you can design a replacement on the computer, and the 3D printer makes it for you. 
That is so completely awesome, and I can't wait for stuff like this to become more widespread (and it will, eventually, as resistant as we all may be to change).

When I see amazing innovation like this, I instantly become a little upset at our societal tendency to continually prop up old failed businesses with terrible business models (like airlines, banks, and car manufacturers). In order for our economy to make progress over the long run, we need to be willing to let older companies die off. In this case, traditional car repairmen would certainly resist the introduction of NextEngine scanners and printers on a wide scale. But if we cave to their concerns, we'll never get anywhere. This technology is awesome, and I want it.

[Popular Mechanics]

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