3D printing tech gives tortoise new life, is shaping manufacturing
Cleopatra doesn’t seem impressed with her new coat. But the red plastic shell probably will save the teenage leopard tortoise’s life.
“This is a very good feeling,” said Colorado Technical University design student Roger Henry, who spent 600 hours tweaking software and assembling prototypes of the custom 3-D-printed shell for the malnourished Cleopatra.
Made with a plastic derived from corn, Cleopatra’s new shell will protect her from other tortoises and allow her to right herself if she flips. After years of a protein-heavy diet, the herbivore’s shell had weakened with deep valleys and pyramid-type peaks. Holes had formed that threatened the shell’s ability to protect her from infection.
Rescued by Nico Novelli and his Golden-based Canyon Critters team, student designers at CTU in Colorado Springs working with the 3D Printing Store painstakingly created a solution that could extend Cleopatra’s lettuce-chomping life into her 80s.
The challenge was cajoling the design software — adjusting the influence of gravity in code — to make the plastic “drape like a piece of cloth” over Cleopatra’s ridged shell, Henry said.
“It’s fantastic to know this tortoise is going to be able to recover from its malnutrition,” Henry said.
The promise of 3-D printing goes well beyond rescuing tortoises.
Three-dimensional printers are using the same biodegradable corn-based plastic in Cleopatra’s new shell — a resin known as polylactic acid — to help people.
Doctors have printed a windpipe to help an infant breathe. They are implanting in people tiny beads that dispense antibiotics or cancer-fighting chemicals before dissolving. Designers are crafting custom prosthetics. Dentists are scanning and printing teeth. A 3-D-printed helmet wired to the brain of a paraplegic wearing a robotic exoskeleton enabled the man to kick a soccer ball to open the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, marking a scientific milestone.
“Yes, we can change the world,” said Debra Wilcox, whose four-store 3D Printing Store is bringing 3-D printing to the masses. Her design team scanned Cleopatra, which enabled Henry to engineer the tortoise’s protective shell.
The 3D Printing Store works on just about everything, from tortoise shells and pet lizard legs to secret, intellectually protected products for individuals and large corporations, to random doodads that can’t be found on a store shelf.
“In a single day, I can make something that has never been made before or something that hasn’t been made in 50 years,” Wilcox said.
In two years, the 3-D-printing industry has surged. Wilcox expects even more rapid growth, especially as printers work with materials such as carbon fiber and Kevlar.
“Any estimates you’ve heard about the future for this industry, they are probably low,” she said. “A lot of industries are using a manufacturing process that is 50 years old, that can and will be both cost-effectively and time-effectively replaced by 3-D printing.”
Colorado is at the forefront of the revolution, Wilcox said.
“Colorado is at the precipice of being the premier location for additive manufacturing,” she said, relishing Cleopatra’s new outerwear before heading to the National Renewable Energy Lab to show off lightweight, carbon-fiber equipment she prints in her shop.
The technology behind 3-D printing and its industrial counterpart, additive manufacturing, is riding the coattails of Colorado’s thriving aerospace industry, which has found new efficiencies in 3-D printing. But it’s not just industry that is uncovering new work for 3-D printers. Sales of home desktop 3-D printers are booming, too.
Jeff Moe’s Aleph Objects lab in Loveland has 135 3-D printers working around the clock five days a week, making printers and parts.
He sold $80,000 of parts in 2011, his first year. This year, he says he’s pacing toward $10 million in sales. Aleph is one of the busiest clusters of 3-D printing in the world, Moe said.
And in a rare twist for an in-demand, blossoming business, everyone has access to Aleph’s designs and strategies.
As soon as one of Moe’s engineers discovers something new, it’s on the Web, open for anyone to peruse and use. Every printer part that Aleph sells comes with a list of all the materials, the programming code and the precise drawings required to make the part on a 3-D printer. The company’s trove of data is updated with the latest additions every 30 minutes.
“This has led to a very rapid development of our printers,” said Moe, who offers three lines of printers that have evolved through as many as five versions in the past four years.
When his team struggled to find that perfect material for the very first layer of a 3-D printing, the community of Aleph users sprang to action and quickly determined that a rigid, insulating plastic called PEI worked best. Now, PEI is an essential first element of Aleph’s printing process.
“There is a great relationship between users and the companies when they all have the same amount of information. We are not holding anything back from our users,” Moe said. “Oftentimes, the first time I see some new development here, it’s already been made public.”
With printer sales doubling to tripling every year, Moe sees 3-D printing changing manufacturing, revolutionizing the prosthetic industry, delivering NASA-type technology to homes and, ultimately, changing lives.
He points to videos of an amputee fitted with a 3-D printed prosthetic hand controlled by subtle shoulder movements. Moe said 3-D printers are creating communications technology for hobbyists, allowing them to control antennas connected to satellites.
“It’s hard to keep up with all the amazing things that people are doing,” Moe said. “Three-D printing is really a great enabler. I hope it’s as great an enabler as the Internet has been.”
by Jason Blevins, The Denver Post | 03/25/2015 05:04:00 PM MDT