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Charlotte Weber: Additive manufacturing changes the way things are created

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Our language is always expanding and adding new words, but in recent years, primarily due to the rise of technology, new words are coming at us at a pace we've never known. We're caught in a linguistic tsunami.

Consider a few examples: It wasn't that many years ago that none of us had heard the term "cellphone." Today, it seems nobody, from the youngest child to your Aunt Sadie, is willing to leave home without one. And then there's "Twitter" and "hash tag," to say nothing of "social media" or the use of "friend" as a verb.

Now technology has given us another new term: "additive manufacturing." You might not have encountered it yet, but it describes a new process that's triggering a revolution in the way we make things.

Additive manufacturing, sometimes called "AM," is the "addition" of layer-upon-layer of material to build a 3D object, whether the material is plastic, metal or some other substance. This method is radically different from traditional machining techniques that mostly rely not on addition but on subtraction -- the removal of material by drilling, cutting, etc. -- or use presses to bend or shape material into a desired form.

Here's how AM works: The process starts with a computer aided design (CAD) that shows the desired object in three dimensions. Once the CAD sketch is produced, a 3D printer reads the digital data from it and lays down successive layers of material in a layer-upon-layer fashion to fabricate an actual object that is identical to that envisioned by the design.

It's not science fiction. It's science fact, and you can see it happening every day at RCBI's Design Works labs that provide inventors and entrepreneurs the tools they need to take their idea or concept to reality. We can help them shape their ideas into digital computer files that our 3D printer can then use to create working prototypes. The prototype can then be used to test the form, fit and function of the product.

At our Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centers in Huntington and Charleston, we have computer workstations with SolidWorks 3D design software set aside exclusively for use by clients who need to design their products. In addition, we offer the use of our FARO ScanArm, which can be used to reverse engineer a part or product.

Using traditional techniques to build a prototype of a new product can take days or even weeks. Using AM technology, a 3D printer typically can produce the same prototype in a few hours.

The potential of AM, though, goes far beyond rapid prototyping. It can be used for limited production runs of a product, thus avoiding the time and expense of the traditional tooling that would be required. By altering the digital design file, it can produce a series of objects that, while more or less identical, have been individually customized in some way.

But that's just the beginning of what AM technology can do.

AM could be used to manufacture spare parts for all manner of products, meaning it no longer would be necessary to maintain huge warehouses with thousands of stockpiled parts. You'd simply call up the image of the part on your computer screen, then hit a button and turn out as many of them as you need.

Already, AM is being put to work in the medical field. It's used to produce surgical knee-replacement implants that have been designed and manufactured to fit a particular patient's joint perfectly. Need a hearing aid? Today, a cast of your ear canal can be made and the casting then digitized. The result? A perfect replica of your ear canal is printed, ensuring that your hearing aid will be a great fit.

Additive manufacturing is now part of our language, and all of us are going to be hearing more about it. Lots more.

Weber is the CEO and director of the Robert C. Byrd Insitute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing.


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