Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Importance of Prototyping in Education

It’s very satisfying for me to design and develop products that help students learn. Whether it’s our ZPrinters, ZBuilder or another manufacturer’s prototyping system, having students work with rapid prototyping or 3D printing systems in the classroom is invaluable for them to gain a deeper understanding of the design process, to engage them so they are more enthusiastic and excited about what they’re learning and to help them gain a competitive advantage when seeking jobs or higher levels of education. After all, they will be using prototyping systems when they land jobs, so their education isn’t complete unless they work with those systems in school. I’m not just talking about technical universities…high schools, colleges, and vocational schools can and do benefit and, more importantly, benefit their students, by having prototyping systems in the classroom.

It’s incredibly gratifying to have a high school student approach me at a tradeshow (industry tradeshows often set aside a special day when they invite students studying design and engineering to talk to the different manufacturing companies and gather information for a class assignment) and proudly tell me that they use a ZPrinter and even show me examples of the models they’ve printed. They also can’t get enough of the sample 3D printed parts we hand out at the shows! I always ask them what they like best about the particular ZPrinter they have, and they tell me how “cool” it is to be able to print and hold their designs and they love to tell me how easy it is. Students who have a monochrome prototyping system can't believe that our multicolor models on display came out of the printer in full color and weren't painted...that always draws a "Wow! That's so cool!"

I firmly believe that prototyping in the class gives students confidence and a real sense of pride in their design capabilities.

Are you a student or teacher using prototyping or 3D printing in the classroom? How has it helped you to learn or teach design? Do you teach design without a prototyping system? If so, why haven’t you brought one into the classroom? As always, I look forward to your feedback.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reverse Engineering Aircraft with 3D Scanners

I’m going to change things up this week. It occurred to me that I haven’t written about 3D scanning yet, and every now and then I like to highlight some of the cool things people are doing with our technology. So this week, I combined both of those ideas.

You probably know that we have a line of handheld 3D laser scanners called ZScanners. One of those scanners, the ZScanner 700 PX, is able to scan very large objects, like airplanes, trains, trucks, buildings… you get the idea. It can do this because AICON photogrammetric software is built into the system.

M7 Aerospace, located in San Antonio, TX, USA, uses this scanner to capture precise, 3D data of entire planes, down to one-thousandth of an inch. Recently they scanned the entire surface of a Fairchild Metroliner in a resolution of 0.1 mm in three days. If you’re not familiar with aircraft, the Fairchild Metroliner is a 19-seat commuter-class, turbo prop aircraft with a 57-foot wingspan. Then the folks at M7 used the engineering data they captured with the scanner to reverse-engineer components that were originally designed during the 2D era (before 3D CAD was readily available) that needed retrofitting and repair.

M7 Aerospace also maintains and modifies legacy aircraft for the US military and foreign governments. They told us that older, yet still viable, aircraft sometimes perform modern roles and need to be modified with ballistic blankets, avionics upgrades and external sensors for missile defense systems. Those types of modifications can be expensive and take an incredibly long time without precise data, which is often missing because the original design documents are gone or because of variations in an aircraft due to factors like wear and tear. The scanner enables them to capture the precise engineering data they need to repair, modify or retrofit any plane they come across and keep a detailed design template for any plane of the same design.

I think this is a pretty interesting use of technology, even if you’re not an aircraft buff. What do you think? Were you aware of 3D scanning? Do you use it yourself and have an interesting story to share? I look forward to your feedback.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Todd Grimm's June 2010 3D Printer Benchmark Report

Did you catch Todd Grimm's June 2010 3D Printer Benchmark Report? It is available as a free download at and is pretty interesting reading since it is an independent third party analysis. More about Todd Grimm and his company T.A. Grimm & Associates can be found here: along with a number of other industry publications and tools, some free to download and some for purchase.

Like any report of this nature it isn't perfect. For example, the ZPrinter 310 was used for this analysis. If the newer models ZPrinter 150, ZPrinter 250 and ZPrinter 350 were considered instead, some of the results would likely be different. Overall, however, I agree with most of the conclusions in the report. I thought that instead of writing about my views on this paper I would bring it to your attention, give a brief overview, and ask for your opinions and experiences. Do they line up with the conclusions found by Grimm?

It focuses on the fastest growing segment in additive manufacturing – 3D Printing. So, comparisons where made between the six lowest cost printers available from five different manufacturers. As mentioned above, Z Corporations three newest products (ZPrinters 150/250/350) might have been considered if they had been available when the data was collected for the report.

As stated in the report, the purpose of the study was to determine just how fast, inexpensive, and easy to use 3D printers can be. To do so the following four areas where reviewed: Time, Cost, Quality, Operation, along with a number of subcategories. In the coming weeks I will give you some of my insights on cost, part quality and ease of use. But if you will allow me to give you an assignment, download the study, read it (the pictures are nice also), and let me know what you think. Do the conclusions ring true to your experience or assumptions? And, what part of the study is most important to you, cost, ease of use, other?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

ZPrinter Product Differences - Part II

Wow, it was just a few weeks ago I talked about the differences between several of the ZPrinter® products and just last week, we come out with two more! Of course I knew about the planned launch of these new products, the ZPrinter 150 and ZPrinter 250, but couldn’t talk about them at the time. I was quite happy to see several comments from that recent post asking for smaller and lower cost printers. In a nut shell these two new business and industry-quality ZPrinters combine many of the ease of use features that all of our recent printers have to a set of entry level offerings. The idea is to allow customers the option of paying only for what they need. If you are not interested in color and your parts will fit into a smaller build volume, the ZPrinter 150 might be the right choice. It is our lowest cost option. Why pay for more than you need to increase your productivity? For larger monochrome parts you might want to upgrade to the ZPrinter 350 with a slightly better resolution and larger build volume. The difference between the ZPrinter 250 and 450 can be viewed similarly. The ZPrinter 450 has a slightly larger build volume and significantly better color quality than the 250. So, if you primarily have a need for monochrome parts but require color from time to time the 250 is a good choice. For improved color capabilities upgrade to the ZPrinter 450. And of course, for best in class color, resolution, speed and build volume (which often leads to increased productivity) you should consider the ZPrinter 650.

Have you seen these two new products? What do you think? I look forward to your feedback.