In the late 1700s, the first Industrial Revolution marked a period where the world began to leverage new technological advances to improve the speed of production, a theme that’s not lost with our modern Industrial Revolution. On a rainy morning in San Francisco, California, executives at Autodesk, a company known for its creative and design software, assembled at the company’s modern office, located on a pier in the waterfront district, to announce what the company thinks will mark the modern industrial era.
The next revolution will be centered around additive manufacturing, or simply 3D printing, and Autodesk has already made several key investments in this field. Unlike entrenched rivals in the 3D printing space, like MakerBot, Autodesk’s Project Ember 3D printer is based around open software, material and hardware to drive innovation in the space.
A little over a year ago, Autodesk launched its first 3D printer known as Project Ember, a system that uses photosensitive resin, rather than filaments, to create 3D printed objects. The reason that Project Ember was created, according to Pierre Lin, Ember’s principal engineer at Autodesk, is because 3D printing was not very reliable, and a big constraint to adoption was slow print speeds.
To address these challenges, Autodesk created an open ecosystem where users could tweak the software, materials and hardware to achieve better reliability and significantly faster print jobs. These customized optimizations around Ember’s open ecosystem, Lin told me, allow the company’s printer to operate 24 times faster than a traditional 3D printer and at a much higher reliability rate.
And unlike filament-based systems, Autodesk’s 3D printing research scientist Andreas Bastian informed me that Ember’s resin-based process allows for finer printed structures. In one example, a lattice of finely-printed woven lines using Ember’s resin resulted in a structure that can be compressed and decompressed, much like foam. An Autodesk spokesperson told me that the NFL is researching this material as padding for football helmets.
Even though Ember is both fast and reliable, for additive manufacturing to drive the modern Industrial Revolution, 3D printing technology still needs to be able to print large objects at fast speeds. Achieving this goal could allow manufacturers to reliably and quickly 3D print a car or create mass manufactured 3D printed homes.
Historically, there have been trade-offs that must be made when working with large 3D printed objects. You can create big and detailed 3D prints, but without speed, or you can create fast and large 3D prints that lacked detail. Autodesk’s solution to achieve the trinity of large object additive manufacturing is called Project Escher.
Essentially, Project Escher is like an assembly line of 3D print heads that are connected through software to work on different parts of the same print job simultaneously to achieve a large 3D printed image at fast speeds.
Project Escher utilizes “parallel processing system where numerous print extruders collaborate,” Cory Bloome, Escher’s hardware lead, said, “where size will not be an obstacle.”
Bloome was careful to announce that Project Escher utilizes software to drive this innovation, and that Autodesk isn’t releasing a new 3D printer for mass manufacturing large 3D objects. At the center of the networked 3D print heads is a computer, Bloome explained, that serves as a conductor to coordinate the print job.
Unlike the Project Ember 3D printer, Escher’s software is geared towards FDM, rather than photosensitive resin-based materials. This requires that material is pushed out of each print nozzle. A group of nozzles can be networked together, controlled by the Escher software from a central computer, to work on different parts of a large print job to achieve greater efficiency and speed.
When asked if any existing 3D printers or print heads can now utilize the Escher software created by Autodesk, Bloome said that the solution will be easy to implement, but he also conceded that the software was created “to innovate ahead of the [3D printing] industry.”
And there is no limit to the number of print heads that can be networked together. “Theoretically, the size of a room is the physical limit to how many print heads can be grouped together,” said Bastian. Autodesk is working on partnerships for its Escher software, and Bloome’s team of researchers are optimistic that we could potentially see an assembly line of 3D print heads in a manufacturing plant as early as 2017 or 2018.
Today, humans and robots work on an assembly lines to create car parts and assemble an automobile. In the future, Autodesk’s vision of the modern Industrial Revolution will involve a massive number of print heads to 3D print the car of the tomorrow.
To make that vision a reality, Autodesk also announced that it has invested in Xjet, an Israeli startup that uses laserjet printing technology to 3D print metal objects. Xjet suspends metal nanoparticles in a liquid suspension and uses the same technology as inkjet printers to 3D print metal objects. In a promotional video, the company claims that its process is “up to five times faster than 3D metal laser printers.”