You are here

A 3D Manufacturing Revolution: From Dreams to Reality

Duke Engineering becomes one of the first places in the nation to host a new production 3D titanium metal printer

Design plays a vital part in engineering solutions to today's problems, but a major obstacle facing this trade is converting a design into a complex, functional product in the most time- and cost-effective way possible. Beginning 30 years ago with the first item to ever be 3D printed by Chuck Hull, father of 3D printing and co-founder of 3D Systems, additive manufacturing has soared into the market, revolutionizing the healthcare industry in orthopedic and spinal applications. Several new products with unique features and functionalities are being introduced worldwide thanks to the freedom of design enabled by advances in 3D printing technology. Now, Duke has become a major player in this innovative movement, having acquired the ProX DMP 320, 3D Systems' state-of-the art metal production printer.

Located in The Foundry makerspace under Gross Hall, the ProX DMP 320 metal printer has 1000 in3 (10"x10"x10") of workspace for transforming one's imagination into reality. According to Gautam Gupta, vice president of healthcare applications for 3D Systems, the printer uses "pure metal powder (e.g. titanium alloy) and a high-energy source that melts and consolidates the metal into a final shape," enabling small, complex designs to be produced with high quality and functionality.

A powerful program used by the ProX DMP 320 is 3D Xpert, which, according to Gupta, "combines the experience, expertise, and knowledge of 3D printing into a simple tool that optimizes the build parameters, including the orientation of the design, and minimizes the amount of support structures needed to make the part." Users who are new to the technology can take advantage of this software to optimize the functionality and design of the parts being produced.

Printed parts on a titanium printing platform. From left to right, impeller, spinal fusion cage, brain electrode holder, ultrasound transducer electrode and metallic sphere with hexagonal mesh.Gupta discussed the significance of the ProX DMP 320 printer and how, originally, 3D printing was primarily used as a prototyping tool to analyze design structures, which would then be produced using traditional manufacturing methods.Today, 3D printing has transitioned from a prototyping technology to a full production process by combining multiple manufacturing methods into one machine. A final product can be made straight from the design.

"This gives limitless freedom for any designer to innovate without compromising on the limitations of traditional manufacturing processes," said Gupta. This powerful tool, the ProX DMP 320, is unleashing innovation in design and generating a lot of excitement in the industry.

Ken Gall, professor and chair of mechanical engineering and material science, who headed the project of acquiring the printer, commented on the projects Duke is working toward now that the ProX DMP 320 is finishing its final stages of installation. Some examples from Professor Gall's mentoring of current senior design groups include "printing scaffolds for large bone defects specific to each patient, and building spinal fusion cages."

But this printer does not only hold promise for orthopedic engineering. "It is something for the entire Duke community, for all students and faculty in all fields of study, to utilize in designing their next breakthrough," said Professor Gall.

Professor Gall plans on setting up a print week where people can queue their designsinto the printer and pay for the material costs, where titanium, being the only material, is $100/lb. And, with the printer's recycling ability, which takes unused titanium powder and sifts the material back into the machine after a print, all users will only pay for the weight of the items they make. This process makes it relatively cheap and time-effective to produce vital, complex parts—if people heed Gall's advice.

"Only small, complex designs utilize the full capacity of the printer," explained Professor Gall. "Larger, less complicated designs can be printed but are often cheaper and faster to produce using conventional machining methods."

 Kyle Dhindsa (Mechanical Engineering ’17), Patrick McGuire (Senior Lab Administrator), and Professor Ken Gall stand beside the ProX DMP 320 Printer.There are still hurdles in integrating this metal 3D printer into a community of solution-seeking students and professors. With only one 3D metal printer, availability may become a limitation, especially since the 3D Xpert software is currently on only one desktop. Chip Bobbert, media & emerging technologies engineer and father of Duke's Innovation Co-Lab Studio, offers a streamlined process where the entire Duke community can conduct heavy prototyping for their design in the Technology Engagement Center (TEC) located in the Telecommunications building. This "engineering sandbox" houses over 60 3D printers of varying materials and sizes. "The Innovation Co-Lab is the perfect place to start to refine and perfect ideas," said Professor Gall. "The metal printer is the place to finish if you need a high-quality, high-strength component."

Duke is a thrilling place to be. This university has been at the forefront of breaking new barriers of change, and with adopting this technology that is unleashing innovation, Duke is empowered with the tools to create some of the most complex design systems. From the resources available to Duke's community in the Co-Lab Studio, and now with the ProX DMP 320 printer, it is not a question of what can be done at Duke, but a question of when Duke will dream, design and produce the answers to our toughest problems.

Samuel Lester is a first-year Pratt student in mechanical engineering.