If a student team can build a homemade 3D printer that can produce a boat, the administration's $60 million foray into advanced manufacturing technology could hold promise.
The Obama administration is getting behind 3D printing in a pretty big way, dedicating $60 million of the administration's domestic manufacturing initiative into researching a technology that has, among other things, shown the potential for building drones.
The program is looking to capitalize on a trend that's growing on both small and large scales, from student projects to industrial innovations.
Researchers might want to take a look at what a team of students at the University of Washington came up with, printing a boat made of recycled milk jugs -- from a home-made 3D printer -- that was sea-worthy enough to enter into a race.
OK, the boat isn't exactly Ted Turner's American Eagle and the race wasn't quite Olympic quality. It was the Seafair Milk Carton Derby, featuring boats made from milk cartons or jugs -- a life-size, aquatic Pinewood Derby. The 40-pound boat the students made can carry only 150 pounds.
But considering the materials they worked with, it's further evidence of the potential for 3D printing.
The student team, the Washington Open Object Fabricators, better known as WOOF, spent two months on research, engineering, extrusion and “dumpster diving” to create what is likely the first 3D printed milk jug boat, the team reported. And not only did it float, but, paddled by team leader Matt Rogue, it finished second in its heat at the derby.
The team printed the boat in layers (3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing), adapting a 4-foot-by-8-foot plasma cutter with a homemade extruder, which shapes materials being pushed through a die. For material, they used about 250 #2 high-density polyethylene one-gallon milk jugs picked from the trash and then cleaned.
3D printing with plastic milk jugs has environmental benefits, as the team noted in its report, and could be useful in remote or underdeveloped countries. (And 3D printing can use a lot of other materials; one of WOOF's other recent projects was printing shortbread cookies suitable for baking.)
The federal government might have other priorities with its $1 billion National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI), a pubic-private coalition of 15 institutions to conduct research into the potential of 3D printing and other innovations.
With $60 million targeted for 3D printing, NNMI is working to develop a Pilot Institute for Manufacturing Innovation using resources at the Defense and Energy departments, National Institute of Standards and Technology and National Science Foundation.
3D printing isn't new, as such things as circuit boards, for example, have been printed for years by ink-jet and other processes. More recently, it's been applied to everything from guitars to medical models. And it's proved valuable in producing prototypes of electronics products.
But advances in technology have broadened the playing field.
Xerox has developed a silver “ink” that's 5 nanometers wide and melts at a fairly low temperature, and can print flexible electronics using an ink-jet printer, The Economist reports. It can be used for flexible displays, sensors and antennae, the report said.
Another company, Optomec, can print “augmented reality” electronics onto eyeglasses.
And then there is aircraft.
Optomec has teamed with two others to develop a printable “smart wing” for a small unmanned aerial vehicle, The Economist said.
This would likely advance the work done on the first fully printed plane, which was sent aloft by aerospace engineers in England in August 2011, according to New Scientist.
Airbus, meanwhile, is considering building a 80-meter-by-80-meter 3D printer for making full-fledged aircraft by 2050, Forbes reports.
For 3D printing, if you'll forgive the obvious, it appears the sky's the limit.
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