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3D Design for Everyday Consumers

October 25, 2008

Filed under: CAD/CAM/CAE,education,entertainment,future — Terry Wohlers @ 08:39

In The Boston Globe article “Next software for the masses? How about three-dimensional design,” author Scott Kirsner explained that computers were once used only by PhDs and videocassette recorders were designed for television broadcasters. He went on to say that the mobile phone, GPS, photo editing software, and Internet were intended originally for professionals and academic types.

Kirsner suggested that 3D design software may someday become common among non-professionals and I agree. When playing with Google SketchUp, it doesn’t take much time to see what is possible. However, before 3D design truly makes it to the mainstream, it will need to become even easier than SketchUp, and it will. Take, for example, Spore Creature Creator from Electronic Arts. I was able to create elaborate 3D creatures in the first few minutes after installing the software. What’s more, these models are fully closed, water-tight solid volumes that can be manufactured.

The key will be for software, running on your computer or web server, to help you along so that it becomes effortless. I don’t expect for design software such as SolidWorks or even SketchUp to achieve this level of ease. I envision, for example, software designed for a very specific purpose, such as designing bicycles. The process might start by allowing you to select a style from a library of frames. After selecting one, you could change its shape, but within limits, making it impossible to produce designs that would not accommodate wheels, a seat, handlebars, sprockets, crank, and so on. It knows that you are designing a bicycle and not an electronic device, football stadium, or something else, so everything is built around bicycle design with libraries of parts that you can change. 

We are at the early phase of having access to software that allows almost anyone to create 3D content with little effort and no design experience. The models may not be as sophisticated as those produced by users of Catia, Inventor, Pro/E, or SolidWorks, but that may not matter. The majority of these models would be used in educational or entertaining ways, such as adding them to a document, video clip, or computer game, or manufacturing them on a 3D printer.

Engaging Students is Key

June 22, 2008

Filed under: additive manufacturing,CAD/CAM/CAE,education — Terry Wohlers @ 13:35

The U.S. has dropped to tenth place worldwide in high school completion, according to the September 2007 issue of Manufacturing Engineering. In 2004, the average annual income for a high school drop out was about $16,500, compared to more than $26,000 for a graduate.

What can be done to reduce the problem? One idea is to offer more opportunities for hands-on activities that engage students. Some kids do not take well to textbooks and lectures. A number of these same students excel with the right conditions. In the May 22 issue of Machine Design, editor Leland Teschler explained that a kid with a 1.9 GPA became a 4.0 student when he began to apply concepts in hands-on courses.

Teschler went on to discuss Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a program that introduces middle and high school students to applied engineering concepts. One PLTW instructor explained that kids have fun because they don’t know they are learning physics, Teschler said. The hands-on, project and problem-based approach adds rigor to technical programs and relevance to traditional academics, the PLTW website states. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Education Foundation has partnered with PLTW.

PLTW educators are typically former industrial arts/education instructors and many of them now teach CAD. Some of them are beginning to bring additive fabrication (AF) and 3D printing into their courses, which is a perfect fit. The kids develop skills in conceptual design, modeling, and experimentation and then “print” their work in 3D, giving them a chance to touch, evaluate, and test their designs.

I hope that schools throughout the U.S. adopt AF. It will allow kids that are academically challenged a chance to shine in an area that has a bright future. If it does not lead to an engineering degree, that’s okay. Rewarding careers in AF do not require a four-year engineering degree. Examples are operating AF equipment or finishing parts, selling or servicing AF machines, CAD software, or laser scanning systems, or serving as a sales agent for a service provider. What’s more, these are financially and professionally gratifying positions that are important to the future of the U.S.

Lack of Engineering Graduates?

March 30, 2008

Filed under: education — Terry Wohlers @ 17:23

A lot has been published over the past couple years on the suspected lack of engineering graduates in the U.S. Some articles suggest that countries, such as China, are producing many more engineers than the U.S. In determining whether it’s true, one must know how these countries define an “engineer.” Some information hints at the possibility that an individual in China trained to run a CNC milling machine is considered an engineer. Countries, such as the U.S., would count only those with a four-year engineering degree an engineer.

Leland Teschler, editor of Machine Design, said, “There is no shortage of scientists or engineers. In fact, there are ‘substantially more’ scientists and engineers graduating in the U.S. than there are jobs.” His comments were published in the December 13, 2007 edition of the magazine. He went on to say that kids graduating from U.S. high schools do not lag far behind in science and math, compared to economically competitive countries. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Rand Corp., Harvard University, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Stanford University have all come to the same conclusion, according to Teschler.

Clearly, there is interest in increasing the number of engineers in the U.S. I’m in full support of strong engineering education and producing many good engineers across the country. Yet, the best way to increase the supply of engineers is to boost the demand for them. However, as more and more product development and engineering is outsourced to India and other countries, it becomes increasingly difficult to grow demand within U.S. borders. And, I don’t see this trend disappearing any time soon.

National Center for Rapid Technologies

February 17, 2008

Filed under: additive manufacturing,education,review — Terry Wohlers @ 14:20

Saddleback College (Mission Viejo, California) is the home of the National Center for Rapid Technologies (RapidTech), a four-year program funded by the National Science Foundation. NSF approved the Center in September 2007. RapidTech will assist industry and education with rapid technologies for prototyping, tooling, manufacturing, and reverse engineering. A major emphasis of RapidTech is the preparation of technicians for the world of work.

Many excellent colleges are active in rapid technologies across the country, so why did NSF select Saddleback for the Center? Saddleback’s Advanced Technology Center is at the forefront of offering hands-on experiences in additive fabrication (AF) technologies. The Center currently operates large-format stereolithography from Sony, two 3D printers from Z Corp., a Dimension machine from Stratasys, two 3D printers from 3D Systems, a laser cutting system, a CNC router, a vacuum forming machine, three laser scanners, and several CAD systems. What’s more, Saddleback is planning to acquire additional equipment.

For several years, Saddleback has offered weeklong National Teacher Training Workshops for colleges across the U.S. Over the past few years, 50-60 instructors and administrators have attended each year. This important activity has led to the adoption of AF technology by more than 80 institutions of higher education into their instructional programs.

Saddleback College also works extensively with private industry. It processes 2–3 industrial projects per week (an estimated 120 annually), which provide financial support to the institution. The projects involve new product development and prototyping across many industries, including consumer products, aerospace, motor vehicles, medical, architecture, and entertainment. After introducing new methods and technologies to companies, Saddleback refers them to those who offer commercial services, thus reducing the likelihood of competing with service providers.

Indeed, Saddleback is a community college that stands out. Having attended the first RapidTech Industry Advisory Board meeting last month and last week’s NSF National Visiting Committee meeting, both at Saddleback College, I can say without reservation that the Center is on track. I found that these two volunteer groups from industry and education have offered RapidTech nothing but support and excitement. Stay tuned because I expect that you’ll be hearing more about Saddleback College and RapidTech in the future.

Biggest Advancement of the Year

February 3, 2008

Filed under: additive manufacturing,education — Terry Wohlers @ 16:01

Meghan Connolly, editor of Time-Compression Technologies magazine, recently asked, “What has been the biggest gain, improvement, or advancement over the past year for RP/RM?” The following was my response.

Many interesting advances have occurred. However, the one that stands out the most is the increased popularity of additive fabrication (AF) technology at schools. Almost weekly, I come across an article, news piece, or blog on how a school is putting the technology to work. And, it’s not only colleges and universities. High schools are finding ways to purchase systems and this is exciting to see. Just recently, I visited a high school here in Fort Collins, Colorado and the CAD instructor said he is considering the purchase of an AF system.

This educational activity is critically important to the future of the industry because graduates are entering the workforce with knowledge of what these systems have to offer. These graduates are our future customers, employees, and decision makers. Although it’s difficult to quantify, the multiplier effect from education is undoubtedly increasing awareness of AF for modeling, prototyping, and pattern-making applications. I hope that instructors and lab managers are also introducing students to the use of AF technology for custom and replacement part manufacturing, short-run production, and series production. A growing number of corporate users are applying it to the actual manufacture of end-use parts, so our schools are in a position to support this important trend.

Inspiring Questions

November 25, 2007

Filed under: education,future,life — Terry Wohlers @ 15:26

During a recent trip to Africa, professor Deon de Beer of Central University of Technology, Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa) and I spoke to a group of nearly 100 kids. Most were high school age, along with a number of parents and teachers, all from a township called Soshanguve, located about 45 km (28 miles) north of Pretoria. The group convened that day to learn about opportunities and careers in engineering and manufacturing, and the vast potential of additive fabrication (AF) technology.

The two-hour youth awareness program was held at one of seven Fab Labs in South Africa. A Fab Lab is a hands-on prototyping facility targeted at young people in under-served communities. The concept grew out of the Center for Bits and Atoms at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to MIT, Fab Labs offer innovative solutions to common problems and provide thriving incubators for local micro-businesses. The local communities themselves foster innovation that can lead to sustainable solutions. My experience with Fab Labs and developing communities is limited, yet I could immediately see the positive impact that they could have.

I really did not know what to expect going into the presentation. The local area experienced a power outage just before we arrived, so we were unable to use the data projector and microphone/speaker system. The program was delayed as we waited for the power to return, but it did not and the “show” had to go on. Dr. de Beer and I had prepared many images and animations to explain the benefits and applications of AF, so we were faced with using whatever we could quickly grab to explain advanced methods of rapid product development and why they might be important to the group.

Our presentations generated more than an hour of questions, many of them stimulating. A young woman asked, “I want to start a business. What advice do you have for me?” I asked what she liked to do and where she saw herself in the future. She responded by saying, “I’d like to be an engineer.” I explained that after formal education, she may want to consider contract engineering as a career and could potentially serve a wide range of companies in South Africa. I said that with some creativity and ambition, it’s possible to rise to surprising heights. It may take some time to get started, but once you do—and if you deliver quality work—jobs will come to you by word of mouth.

Another question, this time from a young man: “What are the secrets to success?” I explained that I’ve observed many successful people and their success is not a secret. You’ve got to work hard, get a good education, make many friends, and help others in need. It is important that you are honest in everything you do, have integrity, be open to new ideas, and take risks, but don’t gamble. And, if you really enjoy what you do, you won’t view it as work.

A pediatrician in the audience, who I later met, asked an interesting and challenging question. She explained that most people go through school in route to securing a job to earn money so that they can buy products, most of which are produced outside of South Africa. She asked, “What can be done in schools to change this mindset so that teachers and students consider how they might create products for themselves?” I really had not given it much thought until then and responded by saying that it begins at an early age. I believe it’s important to give kids the opportunity to be inventive by letting them play with modeling clay, 3D puzzles, Lego products, building blocks, and so on. As they get older, encourage them to use 3D content creation software, such as Cosmic Blobs and SketchUp.

The questions continued, but time ran out. I could tell that many of these kids were motivated and hungry for ideas and information. Given a little guidance, some encouragement, and access to tools, I’m certain that they will produce some impressive and unexpected results. They are the future of South Africa and I felt lucky to be a part of this special day.

Four Events in One Week

September 17, 2007

Filed under: additive manufacturing,CAD/CAM/CAE,education,event,manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 08:30

Next week, four design/prototyping/manufacturing events are being held simultaneously in Europe and the USA. VRAP 2007 is September 24–29 in Leiria, Portugal. (VRAP stands for Advanced Research in Virtual and Rapid Prototyping.) This every-other-year event, being offered for the third time, draws some of the best academic researchers, as well as a few presentations from private industry. The Portuguese are excellent hosts and do a fine job with this international conference.

TCT 2007 is September 26–27 in Coventry, England and has been running as an annual event for many years. (TCT stands for Time-Compression Technologies.) It is an industrial conference focused exclusively on rapid manufacturing, with a relatively strong exhibition associated with it. The people at Rapid News Publications—the publisher of the European TCT magazine and organizer of the TCT event—are excellent at bringing together a good group of people from the UK and many other countries.

The other two events are in the USA. NDES (also known as National Manufacturing Week) is September 25–27 in Rosemont, Illinois. NDES stands for “National Design Engineering Show” and is organized annually by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). The event is not like it once was and has been on “life support” in the recent past. I’ve attended several times, but not over the last few years.

3D Systems World Conference is September 25–27 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. It is a first-year event sponsored and organized by 3D Systems. The event competes with the 3DS Users Group Conference, an annual event organized and conducted by 3D Systems’ customers.

I’m attending the VRAP and TCT events. I’ve been to them in the past and know that they deliver a wide spectrum of views and opinions from top industry and academic leaders. TCT struggled for a few years when it became affiliated with another event organizer, but it is back on track. I’m looking forward to attending both, but wish they were not the same week.

We Need More Invention

May 12, 2007

Filed under: additive manufacturing,CAD/CAM/CAE,education,event,future — Terry Wohlers @ 06:54

“It’s been said that inventiveness is the source of American wealth,” explained Leland Teschler in his March 8, 2007 column in Machine Design magazine. He went on to say that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) concluded that we need more of it.

Ideas have been explored and tried in an effort to “produce” inventors. Teschler believes—and I agree—that some people are born with more natural ability to invent than others. You simply can’t create good inventors.

It is possible, however, to bring out the best in people that have what it takes to invent. History has shown that high-profile prizes can encourage innovation, according to Teschler. He uses the example of Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris. It was the $25,000 Orteig Prize that served as the motivation. More recently, Mojave Aerospace Ventures received the $10 million X Prize for launching a private pilot into space.

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) and a group of volunteers are working together to introduce high school students to the tools and technologies that help you explore new ideas, create, and innovate. The fourth annual Bright Minds Mentor Program, held last week, introduced advances in CAD solid modeling, 3D printing, rapid manufacturing, and laser scanning to 50 Detroit-area students at the RAPID 2007 Conference & Exposition. The program has never offered prizes as an incentive to participate, but it supports NAS, NAE, and NSF’s belief that creating interest in invention starts at the elementary and secondary school levels.

NAS, NAE, and NSF also believe that more scholarships for science and math majors are needed. The Dimension 3D Printing Group, a business unit of Stratasys, recently announced the results of its third annual “Extreme Redesign: The Ultimate 3D Printing Challenge,” a design and 3D printing contest for high school and college students. More than 1,200 designs were entered in the competition. Two first place winners received $2,500 scholarships and four finalists received $1,000 scholarships.

Inventors cannot be created, but there are ways to motivate the naturally gifted to become productive inventors. I truly believe that programs, such as Bright Minds and Extreme Design, are helping. Kudos to SME and Stratasys for serving as the spark that hopefully ignites many fuses among our youth.

Will Fab@Home Succeed?

April 15, 2007

Filed under: additive manufacturing,education,entertainment,review — Terry Wohlers @ 16:31

Fab@Home has been receiving a lot of attention lately. What is it? Fab@Home is an open source 3D printer development at Cornell University. Hod Lipson, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Evan Malone, a PhD candidate in Lipson’s Computational Synthesis Lab, are working together on the project. The plans for the machine are available at for anyone to download. Also, a kit is available from Koba Industries, a machine shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for $2,975.

About a dozen people are building one and three are complete and running, according to a March 5, 2007 story published by The Engineer Online, a web-based publication in the UK that quoted Lipson. Two of the assembled machines are at the University of Washington and one is in Innsbruck, Austria.

To some degree, the academic project has already succeeded. Will it become commercially viable? It may, if on-going improvements are made to the system. Currently, the quality of the parts from the machine is questionable. At, you can see parts made from silicone rubber, chocolate, and cake icing. Part quality aside, I believe that engineers, students, and others would enjoy assembling and experimenting with the machine and custom tailoring the process for a specific application and/or material. If the momentum continues, the development could grow into something much bigger and of commercial interest.

Lipson and Malone refer to the 3D printer as a “fabber,” a term that was introduced about 15 years ago. It received a cool reception back then and few have since warmed up to it. With the attention that Fab@Home has been getting, the guys at Cornell could popularize the term. More importantly, they could popularize 3D printing among those who would never consider a more expensive system.

The World is Small

February 5, 2007

Filed under: additive manufacturing,education,future,life — Terry Wohlers @ 18:12

New information, methods, and applications of technology are transferred so incredibly fast today, compared to years ago. South Africa is a case in point. It is currently applying some of the most advanced technology in the world and receiving a constant flow of machines, software, and know-how from the U.S. and Europe. One organization is running five laser sintering systems, two stereolithography systems, fused deposition modeling, and a system from Solidscape. Not only is it considered the leader on the African continent, it is now considered world class, given the advancements this organization has made in recent years. Other organizations in South Africa are not far behind.

I attended a conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in December. Most of the information discussed at the event was cutting edge. Individuals were eagerly talking about the latest in 3D printing and how they might apply additive fabrication to custom and short run production. Some of the latest machines and example parts and assemblies were on display. The conference and small exhibit were not a lot different from what you’d see in the U.S., Europe, or Japan.

The industry is maturing with product distribution and service organizations expanding into countries that before were not considered viable markets. The availability of new products and services in these regions of the world is helping to create knowledge and experience among people inspired by a range of industry and academic meetings and events.

New information is being distributed quickly in far away places, as easily as sending it across the street. Now, if only a plane trip to South Africa or Asia was five hours instead of more than 15 hours, the world would be even smaller.

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