Q&A with NCC’s Paul Pierpoint
By LVEDC Staff on August 20, 2013
Q: You just returned from a conference on additive manufacturing. So what’s the latest on this amazing process?
Paul Pierpoint: The National Science Foundation meeting focused on the areas of research and education that can help to move Additive Manufacturing ahead as a competitive production technology and not just as a prototyping technology. Advances in the materials that are now able to be printed are happening regularly but some of the biggest research challenges (and opportunities) lie in learning how to print multiple materials in one process. If we can solve some of the problems associated with printing and fusing disparate materials like metals with ceramics or composites with polymers we will be that much closer to printing entire complex products. That will be a game changer.
I was also especially impressed with the rapid advances in 3D printing processes that include living cells. In most cases it involves printing very sophisticated 3D lattices and then introducing living cells (such as liver cells or skin cells) and growing them directly on the lattice. The lattice can be infused with nutrients to promote the growth of the cells and it can also be composed of materials that will dissolve and be absorbed by the body after it has been implanted. The medical applications of this kind of technology are stunning.
Q: Has the Lehigh Valley embraced this technology yet – and how can it help local companies achieve more for less?
A: I am not aware of too many Lehigh Valley companies that have yet adopted Additive Manufacturing as a primary technology. Jack Pfunder at the MRC or Todd Watkins at Lehigh may be able to answer this question more knowledgeably. The one company I know that is fully invested in this technology is ProtoCam.
Q: What is the difference between additive manufacturing and 3D printing?
A: Interesting you should ask. At the NSF conference some people claimed they are the same while others differentiated between them. I personally think they overlap. Some 3D printing is additive manufacturing but much of it is still just creating models and not actual manufactured products. At the same time much additive manufacturing is 3D printing but one can argue that some AM technologies like Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) are not really a printing process. It’s mostly semantics in my opinion.
Q: How did this technology come to be and what effect is it having on manufacturing in general?
A: The idea of additive manufacturing is not that new. People were doing this kind of thing 30 years ago. But one of the limiting factors was the design software needed to create the 3D files to run the equipment. In recent years 3D design software has made amazing progress and that is one major factor in the recent rapid diffusion of this technology. A lot of really smart people are working hard to expand the capabilities of this technology with better and faster machines, stronger or better materials, improved design software and improved design concepts to take full advantage of the 3D world. This is a technology that sat rather quietly in some labs and even in a few factories for a couple of decades but it is waking up now.
I don’t think AM is having a huge impact on manufacturing yet but the potential is as profound as the original Industrial Revolution. When this technology reaches the point where you can print with a wide variety of materials simultaneously and with very precise tolerances, and do it on a machine that costs less than two tickets to the All Star game, look out. Entire industries will disappear and new ones will appear. People will buy files from the Internet and print out their own product. Physical distribution and warehousing will a totally different process for many products and even whole industries. I am not enough of a visionary to see too far around the corner on this but I expect this technology to redefine the concept of disruptive innovation.
By the way, I need to mention here that the U.S. is rapidly falling behind China and Europe in the development of AM technology. While it was exciting to hear President Obama mention this technology in his State of the Union address (including a specific mention of the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute which Lehigh and NCC are both charter members of), there is minimal federal investment in promoting this technology compared to our global competitors. China plans to dominate the world AM equipment manufacturing industry and is investing a lot of money to make that happen. I am worried that when AM becomes a mainstream manufacturing process in the Lehigh Valley, all the machines will be made in China.
Q: How did you get into this field and how – and where – has Northampton Community College utilized this technology?
A: Back in 2006 when NCC first began to develop its center in an old Bethlehem Steel office building in south Bethlehem, one of the first people I met was Shahri Naghshineh, a very successful serial entrepreneur in the Valley. He brought me a book by a guy named Neil Gershenfeld titled “Fab: The coming revolution in personal fabrication.” Gershenfeld is the genius behind the Fab Lab movement that has put amazing technology – including 3D printers – in the hands of regular ordinary people who have ideas for new products. After reading the book I was totally hooked. Shahri kick started our Fab Lab with a very generous donation of a laser etcher/cutter and I was fortunate enough to have a nice little federal grant practically drop into my lap to fund the renovations and additional equipment for NCC’s Fab Lab. Since then we have expanded the footprint of the Fab Lab four times, added an amazing wood shop, and grown a pretty good clientele of inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, kids, and various creative people.
Right now I am working on a new project in the Fab Lab whereby we hope to show people how to create their own 3D printer from parts that are made from a 3D printer. My goal is to create a whole ecosystem of self-replicating 3D printers in the region until everyone who wants a 3D printer can have one.
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