3d printing technology, while wonderful, does not scale well. It can do remarkable things, but the hype-level surrounding it is so extreme that it’s worth pointing out what 3d printing does NOT do well, and likely never will.
Why do we bring this up? Because 3d printing has become a brand, a concept – shorthand for ‘new ways to make things’, or ‘the future of manufacturing‘. It’s similar to the way that in the public mind the word solar means “solar electricity”, totally forgetting about solar thermal. (Yes, we’re biased).
What lies behind the excitement is a dream that 3d printing can transform manufacturing in a Moore’s Law-like way. Investors: “Stodgy old manufacturing will be displaced by magic new 3d printers! Look, they’re powered by COMPUTERS! We did well with our computer investments… Let’s jump on this and wait for 100x returns”.
Again, there’s a parallel with solar – the early ’00s dream was that solar electric was going to see exponential growth – but instead the business saw strong linear growth. Investors: “LINEAR growth? SO boring, why even get out of bed for this”?
So below I’d like to take a second and crush a few dreams, so we can all wake up and get back to work. Disclaimer: 3d printing IS awesome, has lots of value, does transform / disrupt / broaden manufacturing. But it’s not magic.
1) Energy Needs Don’t Change
If you mold a plastic part, the energy required to melt the plastic and form it to your desired shape changes NOT AT ALL when a print-head melts the plastic one tiny squirt at a time vs the plastic melting in a ‘bulk’ old-school process like rotomolding. To the extent that energy cost contributes a measurable chunk of the total cost to make something, 3d printing costs the same as older methods. It takes the same number of Kj to melt 30 Kg of polyethylene no matter if you 3d print, roto mold, blow mold, etc. (Yes, efficiency matters, and some processes are more or less effective at getting heat TO the plastic target – but the fact remains that 3d printing still has to melt plastic like every other process).
2) Mass Customization is Overrated
Mass customization is coming! Yay! Throw off your chains and design your very own special (insert your favorite product here). With 3d printing the sky is the limit!
True – and a terrible idea for many products. Mass production implicitly promises that the product’s design has been deeply thought about, and that the product interfaces with the rest of the world. Sure, for some fields the ability to do short runs is critical – fashion, out-of-production spare parts, parts impossible to make any other way, etc. – but do we really need or want mass-customized water tanks or other industrial commodities?
Remember MySpace V1.0 and the horror of (horribly) mass-customized user profiles? Many people don’t have the skill, interest, or time to design anything. Sorry Make. It’s great to put powerful prototyping tools into more designers hands, and to let more ‘civilians’ enter the design world and scratch their preferred itch. For a designer, even an amateur one, 3d printing is a godsend. For the actual mass-market it’s irrelevant except in edge cases.
We think everyone should have tools or a workshop, should be willing to take apart things, void warranties, learn about the products they own, mod or build their own stuff, and 3d printers are a amazing tool.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that increasing the size of the Maker-world means that Maker tools are going to eat mainstream production methods at scale. They’re not. Billions of customers don’t want to design anything, and prefer standardized stuff advertised and sold and warrantied to them in mass quantities, so they can get on with their lives.
3) Tooling Costs Are Irrelevant at Scale
It’s true – 3D printing avoids the crazy tooling costs of injection molding. You can make a fork, or toy or what have you without dropping $100K+ on a massive mold (and God help you if you’ve made a mistake in designing that mold). So in the short-run market 3d printing blows up the economic model and that’s great. BUT tooling costs are asymptotic to zero in all at-scale plastic processes. If I mold four million forks, my tooling costs per fork disappear. And that’s for injection molding, the molding process with the highest tooling costs. Rotational molds are a order of magnitude cheaper, as little as $5-$10,000, and quick to make. It takes just a few hundred parts to render tooling costs irrelevant in rotomolding. Similar math applies to compression molding, vacuum forming and other methods. So the excitement about 3d printing’s zero tooling costs is warranted in the pre-production phase. But as soon as you want to do real volume, tooling costs don’t matter. What does? Cycle time.
4) Long Cycle Time is a Disaster
3d printing has gotten faster, but it is still slooooooooow. You have to programmatically place every bit of plastic where you want it, for the whole object, every time. How can we improve this? Multiple print heads? Faster lasers sintering the goop? It’s non-trivial. Know what IS trivial? Making the 3001st part using a big simple mold via rotomolding or vacuum forming, after you’ve previously made 3000 parts. The intelligence is built into the tool (mold) itself, and each production cycle takes zero computational power, relatively few operator interactions, etc. You can mold a massive water tank in about an hour with rotational molding (either our Solar Rotomolding Process or traditional molding). If you’ve ponied up the cash for injection tooling, you can bang out a plastic briefcase in less than a minute. 3d printing is nowhere near this kind of performance.
The Good Stuff
3d printing is ‘machining plus’ – an infinite-axis process by which one can slowly make awesome things, sometimes objects that can’t be made any other way. It will get more and more powerful, and eat market share of some other processes. It’s solving problems for aerospace, medicine, and desktop hobbyists.
…and the Limits.
But world, please get this: 3d printing will never produce exponential improvements in manufacturing speed for large production runs, and it has no hope of displacing ‘boring’, mature technologies like rotational molding, vacuum forming, compression molding etc, especially for making large objects.
California firm creates new solar thermal market and IoT heliostat – earns spot at Solar Power International
Central Coast California solar technology firm LightManufacturing exhibits at the Solar Power International (SPI) expo in Anaheim this week, showing new applications for solar energy and a unique set of products at the conference.
“We’re not a PV company” explains founder Karl von Kries, “we don’t make electricity. Instead, we use concentrated solar heat to replace fossil fuels in industry”. Continues von Kries, “For example, we’ve learned how to mold water tanks and boats using solar thermal energy at a fraction of the cost”. The company has molded thousands of commercial-grade plastic parts for private clients at its research facility.
The firm’s Solar Rotational Molding or SRM™ process recently received US Patent protection. The company is targeting several follow-on industrial processes for conversion to real-time solar heat.
In addition to patents and process know–how, the firm developed a unique line of sun-tracking heliostats. A two–year effort yielded a simple, industrial–grade heliostat that’s efficient to deploy in small arrays.
“The new H1 is remarkably easy to use”, says von Kries, “and it’s the first ‘Internet of Things’ or IoT heliostat”. According to the company, the H1 is the first heliostat that connects to the Internet for simple cloud-based configuration and aiming. No software is required to use the H1, just a web browser on a computer or smartphone.
For greater heat intensity, customers can order the Vacuum Mirror option, a patent pending field-adjustable mirror which according to the firm can focus most of the reflected energy onto a circle
LightManufacturing’s unique vision for industrial solar thermal industry won the firm a slot at the competitive “Start-Up Alley” section of the massive Solar Power International show, and landed the company a chance to present at the the even–more–selective Startup Challenge competition. SPI attracts 20,000 visitors and 600 exhibitors each year, so “we’re very excited to participate”, says von Kries.
For more information contact:
415-796-6475 x 4 (Public Relations)
Founded in 2010, LightManufacturing researches and commercializes solar thermal technology, including Solar Vacuum-Forming and Solar Rotational Molding (SRM®). The firm’s products include the H1 heliostat and turn-key SRM molding systems.
About Solar Power International
Solar Power International (SPI) generates success for solar energy professionals and the global solar industry. SPI is ranked #109 in the Top 250 Largest Trade Shows (by Trade Show News Network), making SPI the largest solar show in North America. In addition, SPI is a Gold 100 trade show (as ranked by Trade Show Executive), making it the only solar show to make both lists.
Photo 1: Solar molding in action
Photo 2: LightManufacturing heliostats in grassy field
Photo 3: Concentrated light from patent-pending vacuum focus mirror
Keywords / Concepts: heliostat, solar, IoT, concentrated, CSP, industry, cleantech, sustainable, LightManufacturing, SPI
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We’re exhibiting at the Solar Power International show next week in Anaheim California, Sept 15-17. Come see us at Booth 1041. We’re exhibiting the worlds first wifi-connected, IoT heliostat, showing video of our patented Solar Plastic Molding process, showing our field-adjustable vacuum focus mirror, and presenting at the Start-Up Alley battlefield on Wednesday afternoon.
Central Coast, California Oct 2, 2014
|LightManufacturing of California delivered an array of four H1 Heliostats to Belgium to provide heat and light to an apartment building. The heliostats – sun-tracking mirrors – were installed on a garden wall, and shine light into North–facing windows. These windows normally get no direct sun, but with the addition of the heliostats get bright, warm sun for hours a day. The private client reports “when mid-day temperatures are hotter than 20°C (70F) we target the light onto the balconies. This creates one VIP ‘seat in the sun’ for each balcony”.|
Apartment Heliostat Photos:
“When mid-day temperatures are colder, we shine right into the apartments… to bring extra heat into the building”. Each H1 heliostat funnels up to 1300 Watts of heat, and 115,000 lumens of light into a structure. LightManufacturing’s heliostats include wireless remote control capability, so operators can move the reflected light from balcony to windows at the click of a button. The client continues, “we sometimes change the targets of the heliostats using the wireless control system. For example, there’s one tenant that’s spending a month abroad. In his absence that heliostat is re-oriented to another apartment”.
LightManufacturing introduced the H1 heliostat in 2012, and has shipped the systems to numerous clients in the US and international destinations including Belgium, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and more.
LightManufacturing developed the H1 to support its patented solar plastic molding systems, which make products like water tanks and boats without using fossil fuels. The firm began receiving inquiries about the heliostat as a stand-alone product, and responded by offering the H1 heliostat for sale to the general public.
The firm claims the H1 is the world’s lowest cost–per–reflected–watt, professional grade heliostat. “We’ve designed it as a robust, industrial-strength tool for larger architectural clients and solar thermal projects” says CEO Karl von Kries, “but we’ve also made it easy for home-owners to install and enjoy”.
Additional Apartment Heliostat Photos:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 10, 2014, Pismo Beach, CA — LightManufacturing LLC, a solar thermal technology company, today announced that the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued the firm US Patent 8,662,877 covering the use of concentrated solar thermal energy for molding plastic. The proprietary technology allows low-cost manufacturing of large plastic objects like water tanks and boats without the use of fossil fuels. The patent describes the use of heliostats (sun-tracking mirrors) to concentrate heat in a plastic molding system.
“Our technology eliminates the energy costs of roto-molding or vacuum-forming plastic parts”, says Karl von Kries, LightManufacturing Founder and CEO, “while offering opportunities to simplify and reduce the cost of the molding system”. The company’s Solar Rotational Molding (SRM®) systems are delivered pre-integrated into 20′ ISO shipping containers, and can be dropped onto unimproved land. No building, concrete pad, or grid energy connection is required. “This ease of installation means customers can put inexpensive production capacity in new markets, or put manufacturing close to customers to reduce transport costs”, says von Kries.
Heat for melting the plastic comes from an array of the company’s “H1” heliostats, and a photovoltaic array on the roof of the container provides energy to rotate the molds and operate other equipment. The company estimates that the now-patented processes can be deployed on over 49% of the Earth’s land area.
While many solar technology firms work on methods for generating electricity, LightManufacturing differs by concentrating solely on applying solar heat to manufacturing processes. “Enormous opportunities exist to harness solar thermal energy for industrial applications”, says von Kries. “Many processes that burn natural gas or other fossil fuels to generate heat is a candidate for conversion to solar thermal, and the plastic molding processes covered by this patent happen to be two of the best first applications of our technology”.
The firm describes the process in detail with photos and video at https://www.lightmanufacturingsystems.com
Image 1: Solar Rotational Molding in action
Founded in 2010, LightManufacturing researches and commercializes solar thermal technology, including Solar Vacuum-Forming and Solar Rotational Molding (SRM®). The firm’s products include the H1 heliostat and turn-key SRM molding systems. For more information visit: https://www.lightmanufacturingsystems.com
For more information contact:
415-796-6475 x 4
Light Manufacturing presented this technology to the ARMO conference in Goa. Further investigation of the website shows the product in action. However the website videos show a fairly small part being made and I wonder how the energy calculations stack up for larger mouldings, such as water tanks.
In any event, this technology offers a fantastic way for isolated communities with limited or no access to gas or electricity to start up a low cost manufacturing operation. Not only can they start a small business based in their community, they can actually produce products that will help with water storage and transportation.
The wheel-based water carrier recently profiled in http://www.hipporoller.org would be a perfect product to make in these communities, with or without the dynamo. Charities should be looking at this to see if it offers a way for poorer communities to find their own way out of poverty. All the best ideas are pretty simple. – Jonathan Wurr”
We couldn’t have put it better ourselves, although we note that 49% of the Earth’s land area is suitable for SRM, and it’s viable both in emerging markets and the developed world. More details to come soon. » Here’s the link to the full article.