Taiwan is home to a strong advanced technology sector, and one that has been embracing 3D printing at increasing rates. As additive manufacturing continues to expand its capabilities, strength in research and applications will continue to drive the industry as a whole forward. Resin- and metal-based 3D printing systems in particular have seen strong growth lately in systems both big and small, as advances offer new levels of both performance and cost-effectiveness.
If someone were to mention using a smartphone to power 3D printing, your first thought might just be, “Oh, no” — particularly if you’re familiar with the ONO (originally OLO) 3D printer, which hit Kickstarter last year with big promises of low prices in resin-based 3D printing. To be fair, there may still be something there for ONO; the company is providing updates of solutions to problems that have long delayed production of an actual product. Shortly after we first heard about the ONO project, though, we learned about a similar effort from Taiwan.
T3D, a spin-off from National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (NTUST), highlighted its smartphone-powered 3D printer at Inside 3D Printing Shanghai 2015. The work behind this resin-based 3D printing effort has been ongoing since 2012, and the T3D SLA 3D printer hit Kickstarter this September. The campaign was successful, raising $160,093 — and the 3D printer demonstrably works.
I recently caught up with Jeng-Ywan Jeng, PhD, the founder of Taiwan 3D Tech, LLC, in Frankfurt, where the T3D team were showcasing their creations at formnext. He introduced me to the 3D printer which, while not running during our chat, had created plenty of sample prints available for a hands-on look at the unique SLA offering. It takes a lot these days for a new 3D printer, especially a small one funded via Kickstarter, to truly stand out — but T3D manages this with grace. The smartphone 3D printer, Jeng explained, can cure a 100 micron layer in 15 seconds; it features Bluetooth connectivity and uses a patented UV-curable resin.
“The idea is to use only a smartphone, no PC; we use this light for its energy to do something. We have already proved it can be done,” he told me.
“There are several thousand models in the cloud, in the app. These download to the smartphone to print. The phone has Bluetooth connection and fixes for alignment. That is critical for this, with a 100 micron layer. The patented resin is very stable, offering repeatable layers and sharp finishing… One drop of resin can cure by sunlight in one second.”
While a smartphone inherently limits build volume — which is 16.0 x 7.6 x 8.5 cm — Jeng pointed to a larger build, a fairly whimsical blue-and-green T-rex, as an example of how the software can allow for larger sizes of prints made in parts for assembly. The skeleton’s color scheme drew up one of the traits that truly makes T3D a standout: multi-color SLA 3D printing.
“We are the only one in the world to do this,” Jeng continued. “We use these rotating vats of colors. We are also the only one to glue the resin tank together, with a special thin film to make the system very simple for contact printing, and we use a disposable injection molded vat. Alignment is automated for builds.”
The hardware and software components of T3D’s setup are open source. The rotation table that allows for vat switching for multi-color prints can additionally be employed to use the phone’s built-in camera as a 3D scanner. Key to the system T3D is working with is focus on accessibility and affordability; using the integrated features of today’s smartphone technology allows a user to take advantage of features they already have that can be part of an ultimately low-cost 3D printing and 3D scanning setup.
“Using the energy and the camera of a smartphone, and shared economics — this is why this machine is only $300 US. You have all these sources from your smartphone,” Jeng said.
Since we spoke at formnext, Jeng has shared the news that the T3D smartphone 3D printer has also seen its first successful prints outside of the research lab as the machine comes into real-world use, as earlier this week the first prototype machines were sent to the first 50 Kickstarter backers.
Jeng and his team have extensive experience, and are using this to continue to innovate. For next year, he noted the ambition to introduce “even more innovative 3D printing,” as his vision extends well beyond desktop SLA technology. He noted that they are connecting with Bluetooth to control the Z-axis of an FFF machine, again keeping costs down. Work will continue with a focus on “shared economics for innovative 3D printing.”
“You already have a smartphone — we connect to use that to print,” he said.
For more than 25 years, Jeng has been focused on research, informing his work both as the head of T3D and as a Distinguished Professor and Founder of EMRD / CTO Program in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at NTUST, as well as the President of Additive Manufacturing Association Taiwain. Among technologies he has explored have been DED, laser melting — before learning about SLM technology — and hybrid laser selective work bringing together laser melting and CNC machining.
In 2000, he published a paper on advanced technologies in dentistry, focusing on scanning teeth and a 3D printed dental crown, as he has kept at the forefront of digitization across various real-world applications.
At the T3D booth at formnext, I also had the opportunity to meet Dr. Hong-Tzong (Edward) Yau, Founder and CTO of Inteware, for a conversation about digital dentistry and how he has been working for the last 10-15 years to bring 3D printing and dentistry together.
“I already believed 3D printing was very significant for digital dentistry; you see here many people with dental backgrounds — we see this almost better for us than a dental show. People are here for solutions. We are adding value to 3D printing. We believe the value is in patient-specific applications,” Dr. Yau told me.
“15 years ago, every crown was done by hand, then CNC milled; now, more than 50% are still milled. I believe every dental office and dental lab will have a 3D printer — not every house, but every dental lab.”
Dr. Hong-Tzong (Edward) Yau, Founder and CTO of Inteware
Today, Inteware 3D prints temporary crowns, aligners, surgical guides, models, splints: “everything that had been done by hand,” Dr. Yau explained.
“Almost all dental applications require use of 3D scanning, 3D printing, customized software. Digital dentistry is going through a revolution, I believe. It will still be going through this for 10 to 15 years. It is changing a lot of things. What we are seeing is really changing society, helping more people,” he said.
These changes will come from a variety of applications, though dentistry has long been showing itself a viable, valuable proving ground for adoption of advanced technologies. Jeng supported Dr. Yau’s assertions regarding rising adoption directly into lab settings, noting barriers that still exist for previously-hyped applications such as home use, the biggest of which remains high entry prices.
“3D printing — who will use it?” Jeng asked rhetorically. “It is challenging for the maker or consumer. The maker is a poor guy, he can’t have expensive machines or materials. Here, he needs DLP, needs top-down methods. He doesn’t care about accuracy or functionality, he cares about cost.”
In manufacturing, of course, the considerations are different.
“When we’re talking about manufacturing, we need to compete with current production technologies, like injection molding. What we call hybrid is the key feature of manufacturing — you need accuracy, speed, functional properties for injection molding. These accuracies are defined in the mold. The hybrid of accuracy is concerned with mold and speed,” he continued.
“For additive manufacturing, a laser is a single source of energy. If you need a smaller size for accuracy, you may lose speed; SLA is the same, accuracy needs to be small. This is good for rapid prototyping, but not for direct digital printing. For digital manufacturing, you need hybrid. It’s like HP looks at it — divide patterns, create definition via inkjet. Other production technology is DLP, where resolution is controlled for each image. Resolution follows very strong lines. For DLP, though, pixel number is limited. We can print five cubic centimeters with good resolution, but what kind of mass production can we have with that? We need a larger pixel size.”
Jeng (R) with a member of the T3D team at formnext 2017
Jeng shared his thoughts on several 3D printing technologies’ abilities to scale, as laser-based technologies can see multi-laser systems and FFF systems will increasingly see multi-head units — but the underlying message across any of these technologies is hybridity. Bringing together resolution/accuracy and speed in one manufacturing process is the goal for any production system, along with the use of materials with functional properties.
“If we really want to go to digital manufacturing, it must be hybrid or it’s out,” Jeng said. “We need selective laser creating with CNC to maintain accuracy and speed together. I believe this is right.”
He noted that several newer entrants in metals are incorporating hybrid thinking into their latest product introductions, and that this will increase the competition for more established metal additive manufacturing suppliers.
As 3D printing continues to become a more production-oriented technology and integrate meaningfully with subtractive processes to create end-use products, forward thinking will continue to be necessary. We’ll be keeping in touch with Jeng and the teams in Taiwan to learn more about the future of hybrid thinking, smartphone-powered SLA 3D printing, and more thoughts about the future of technology and manufacturing.
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[Photos: Sarah Goehrke]