Design-Five reasons to get into 3D printing

3D design and printing have hit the mainstream, where you can explore your ideas as quickly as you can think of them…

Realisation of an Idea

3D printing brings your ideas to life, from your initial concept to creation in a short space of time, without the frustration. If you have ever tried to submit an idea to manufacturers or to bring an idea to market yourself, getting a prototype made using traditional techniques and possibly third parties can be expensive and time-consuming.

A basic 3D printer could create a good enough model to demonstrate concepts and ideas to manufacturers, and help improve those ideas before building a more expensive prototype. Saving you time and money in the process. Of course, if your dream is to design a unique chess set for yourself, you can tinker to your hearts content to find your ideal design, the concept is the same, make that idea a reality, easily.

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Make it don’t buy it

It’s no stretch of the imagination that creating your own household products using an inexpensive 3D printer and software such as DesignSpark Mechanical for things like a coat hook, a toilet roll holder, shower head or smartphone case, could save a few pounds a year, and it could be a bit more fun than wandering around a crowded store.

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These very same principles are being adopted by many industries today and prove invaluable to facilities in remote areas who are in need of quick replacement parts to restore functionality to equipment for example. The ability to print you own components for repair or conceptual design is breaking down traditional barriers and opening the doors to faster innovation.

Recently a ratchet wrench was 3D printed on the International Space Station as part of their plans to travel to Mars, opening up greater possibilities in space travel. Even food has even been 3D printed and consumed, a concept I currently find rather unappetising!

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Bring it back to life

If you have a broken device of some kind, be that at home or in an industrial scenario, often, replacement parts can be difficult to find, and expensive to buy. Sometimes the part you need is no longer available if the item is old or of a unique design, 3D printing could solve that problem. If it’s something simple like the plastic casing for a PCB, print yourself a new one, with a 3D printer and DesignSpark software it’s easy.

There are people who use 3D printing to create items for vintage vehicle restoration, which can mean the use of an expensive printer, but can prove to be a lot cheaper than sourcing engineers to recreate vintage parts. Some enterprising companies have even 3D printed cars!

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Individually yours

You could make yourself a pair of shoes, entirely unique to you. A personalised spectacle frame, Christmas decorations, false fingernails, a new briefcase, or as mentioned above a car (which might be challenging!) Try it out, see what you can make for yourself!

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These concepts and ideas are already available, either by commercial enterprises today, or by yourself, if you purchased a 3D printer and obtained design software like DesignSpark Mechanical with the 3D add on modules, and used some artistic flair.

Want it? Make it…

The best thing about 3D printing is that it can free you from the boundaries of what has already been manufactured. When you own a 3D printer, you can make anything you want, within the limits of the printer model you have of course! Want a custom made case for your smartphone? Print it, a new glasses case; make it. At the higher end there’s printing a replacement valve cover for your car’s engine, creating jewellery or even electronic components for PCBs.

3D printing has been used in medical procedures, using body scans to sculpt replacement joints, and recreate organs to allow doctors to examine the body parts without complicated surgery.

The only real limits are your imagination and of course your budget, and as time progresses, and the technology improves further and becomes even more readily available and cheaper, so do the possibilities, want it? Make it!

How wearable electronics is rapidly evolving

Making electronic systems wearable is an increasingly popular design option. Advances in process technology and wireless protocols have enabled wearable electronics to be integrated into a wide range of form factors for many different applications, and this is just the start for the technology.

Two key factors have come together to enable this tremendous development. Firstly, the recent advances in process technology deliver lower power consumption and higher computing performance, allowing designers to trade off functionality and battery life. Secondly, a new generation of wireless protocols is able to provide standardised low power links from wearable systems to a smartphone. This avoids the need for a dedicated terminal in order to use the technology, and opens up wearable electronics to billions of smartphone users.

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This move has not been lost on the world’s largest semiconductor maker, nor on world’s largest microprocessor ecosystem. Intel’s Edison platform is now bringing x86-based software to the wearable market, while hundreds of chipmakers are integrating processors with the 32bit ARM architecture into low power wearable designs.

The Bluetooth low energy (BLE) specification, now called Bluetooth Smart, starts with version 4.0 and builds on previous versions to allow a Bluetooth node to be both a peripheral and a controller, making it easier to set up reliable connections. Bluetooth Smart is also optimised for wearable applications with a short range and reduced data rate that greatly extends the battery life in the node. This means that the wearable system can communicate easily with a smartphone as both a controller and as a link to the Internet. This has led to a wide range of fitness tracers, smart watches and other wearable devices for monitoring health, from babies to adults. Sensors and controllers are also being integrated into gloves and other items of clothing to improve productivity at work.

But wearable technology is extending even further. Cameras are being integrated with transmission system in shirts worn by football players or even in wearable mini-drones that can take off from your shoulder in new ways of connecting people.

There are several platforms available for developing wearable systems, from ultra-low power 16bit controllers to the latest high performance 32bit systems.

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Intel’s Edison board provides a dual-core, dual-threaded 500MHz Intel Atom CPU and 100MHz Intel Quark microcontroller with 1GB of low power DDR3 memory, 4GB of flash memory as well as WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0. With 40 configurable 1.8V GPIO lines and breakout boards to other platforms such as Arduino, the board can be used to develop a wide range of wearable applications using Yocto Linux v1.6 and a real time operating system.

The Intel Edison board combines a microcontroller and microprocessor for sophisticated wearable designs and Internet of Things Applications.

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The 50mm diameter LilyPad Arduino is based around Atmel’s ATMega32u4 microcontroller and designed specifically for wearables and e-textiles as it can be sewn to fabric and similarly mounted power supplies, sensors and actuators with conductive thread. It has nine digital IO pins – four that can be used as PWM outputs and four as analogue inputs – as well as an 8MHz resonator, a micro USB connection, a JST connector for a 3.7V lightweight lithium polymer battery and a reset button. The built-in USB connection allows the board to appear as a mouse and keyboard, providing an easy way to send data back and forth.

The LilyPad Arduino board is designed to be sewn into clothing

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For smart watch designs, Texas Instruments has developed a Bluetooth smart watch development system called Chronos. This combines the ez430 16bit microcontroller core in a single chip with wireless connections in the 868MHz unlicensed band for the EU and 915MHz band for the US. This allows the smart watch design to act as a central hub for nearby wireless sensors such as pedometers and heart rate monitors. It also integrates a 96-segment LCD display with a pressure sensor and three-axis accelerometer to allow developers to design their own innovative motion sensitive control algorithms.

Microcontrollers such as the EFM32LG Leopard Gecko from Silicon Labs have been designed for ultra-low power consumption, switching off parts of the chip when not in use and powering them up quickly when needed, and so are being designed into wearable designs. This family of devices combines a 32bit ARM Cortex-M3 core with a wide range of peripherals that can be mapped directly to the needs of the design and so provide the optimum balance of performance and power consumption.

Future trends

Wearable technology has only just started to scratch the surface of potential applications. The Bluetooth Special Interest group is extending Bluetooth Smart to include a mesh protocol. This would allow devices around the body to easily connect up, creating an ultra low power personal area network (PAN) that can be easily controlled by a smartphone.

Advances in manufacturing technology are also promising to add new capabilities to wearable systems. Flexible, printed electronic substrates are reducing the weight of the systems and making them easier to embed in clothing. This can create a network of sensors and controllers all across the body that provide a wide range of new capabilities.

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Image credit- RIT.edu.