Xiaofan Luo G’10 Heralding Next Step in 3D Printing’s Evolution
It is almost magical the first time you see something take shape in a 3D printer. An object appears virtually from thin air. The problem is, when the novelty wears off, all you’re typically left with are tchotchkes. Maybe a cell phone case, a doorstop or a bottle opener.
Admittedly, for entrepreneurs and students, 3D printing has proved quite useful for developing prototypes and unique parts, but for all its hype, 3D printing hasn’t exactly caught fire with consumers.
Xiaofan Luo G’10, an alumnus of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, understands this perception and is confident that we are only now beginning to understand the true potential of this technology. His company, Polymaker, develops 3D printing materials that refine the process and prove that it can be a valuable, and widely used, tool for manufacturing.
“Many people still see 3D printing as just a method for prototypes or knickknacks. In fact, it is being used increasingly in production. The economics are slowly getting there and it is actually quite competitive, even when compared to traditional ways of manufacturing. In five to 10 years, I predict 3D printing will be used in a very large percentage of products,” says Luo.
Economics aside, the quality of the material that is used in 3D printing has held it back. Envision your average 3D-printed item and inevitably a fluorescent, low-quality plastic comes to mind. Polymaker’s materials go far beyond what you’d find in your average makerspace.
Luo says, “We want to use 3D printing to create a wide variety of different products, so obviously, we need very different materials. If you look at objects that surround us, they are all made with different materials. Some need to be soft, some need to be rigid, some need to be durable, and so on and so forth. We have this entirely new production tool available to industry, and in order to realize its full potential, we need many different materials.”
Polymaker offers a polycarbonate material that’s suitable for engineering applications, because it’s strong, tough and heat-resistant. Another mimics the appearance, feel and even density of real wood. Polymaker even partnered with Graphene 3D Labs to develop a graphene nanocomposite that can conduct electricity. Their newest material, PolySmooth™, dramatically improves the surface quality of 3D printed parts, producing a shiny and layer-free surface, enabling practitioners to move on from rough prototypes to polished final products.
While the “home 3D printer” has been slow to catch on, Luo can attest that industry’s adoption of the process has been growing faster and faster. With the right materials, hobbyists and entrepreneurs can innovate something in their garage that they can print, even sell. He’s also seeing a rapidly increasing share of large companies and organizations, such as Siemens, Phillips, Google, Caterpillar and NASA, just to name a few, purchasing his materials. It all suggests that 3D printing’s best days lie ahead.
“The nice thing about this technology is that it is flexible. It is not like the traditional factory production line that can only make one product. 3D printing can make any product. There’s no limit. Flexibility is a key advantage that ensures that it will become a mainstream production tool. That is the future I envision.”