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The Key To Automated Manufacturing Is 3-D Printing–With Metals

Researchers have developed techniques for 3-D printers to churn out formable metal and–and one rocket scientist’s already got a plan to plug that tech into a real self-assembling factory.

The Key To Automated Manufacturing Is 3-D Printing–With Metals

The advances in 3-D printing have focused on miniaturization for the commercial sector and synthesizing cheaper, stronger plastic polymers–but what about innovating methods to print metal? Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed techniques to drop liquid metal into a stack–not ooze it into a larger puddle–at room temperature, allowing the formation of free-standing structures. More than a hobbyist’s dream, printable metal could be the answer to microproduction’s doubts about 3-D-printed plastic’s strength.

It’s difficult to create structures out of liquids, because liquids want to bead up. But we’ve found that a liquid metal alloy of gallium and indium reacts to the oxygen in the air at room temperature to form a ‘skin’ that allows the liquid metal structures to retain their shapes,” says Dr. Michael Dickey, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State and coauthor of a paper describing the work.

Of course, the researchers didn’t stop there: The alloy can be inserted into a polymer mold (itself made by a 3-D printer), after which the polymer dissolves to leave the molded metal, and the alloy can be stretched into long liquid metal wires able to sit perpendicular to the substrate. This is only the latest from North Carolina State University; back in January, they released a video on self-healing electrical wires, and in December, one on ultra-stretchable wires.

So what’s the big deal? The ability to print this alloy, potentially from the same machine as a traditional plastic-spinning 3-D printer, would exponentially increase your ability to make components at home. At the extreme end of this technology synthesis is the potential to create a factory that repairs and expands itself. Dani Eder’s Seed Factory is a conceptual nexus of production, an independent factory line that could bring Skynet-style auto-replication to reality:

As the factory grows and has more equipment, it can automate more of the steps from raw materials to finished product and make a higher percentage of its own parts. The disruptive change is from linear production–where a factory produces a given product at a given rate, to exponentially expanding production, including making more Seed Factories. Some people worry that robots and automation are going to take their jobs. I say let them. If you own the automation, you have nothing to worry about. Self-expanding factories that grow from a relatively small and inexpensive starter kit can make that possible.

The main component that’s missing, Eder concedes, is the need for components that can’t be otherwise created on-site, such as metal and computer chips. With the ability to print particular metal components, the Seed Factory will be able to not only create parts made of conglomerate materials but also maximize the factory’s small-scale potential: on-site printing facilitates the Seed Factory’s mission to constantly innovate new designs superior to components that have been mass-produced to keep costs down. On-site fabrication also eliminates the wait for parts and the expenditure of energy needed to transport them from factory to front door (increasingly across oceans and continents).

In short, 3-D-printed metal will exponentially increase the application of location production. We’ll figure out all that Singularity stuff later.

[Image: Flickr user Woodleywonderworks]

About the author

David Lumb is a tech writer who dabbled in the startup world and once did an investigative article on pizza.



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