3D Printing Series #2 – Interview with NextFab Studio’s Dr. Evan Malone

June 5, 2013
3D Printing SeriesPhoto by Andrew Cameron Zahn, StudioZahn.com.

From shipbuilding to medical devices, the Philadelphia region has long been a solid part of the nation’s manufacturing foundation.  The industries that have historically shored up the region’s manufacturing economy continue to succeed, but as manufacturing evolves and embraces new technologies and methods, so, too, does Philadelphia’s industrial base.

As you may have seen here recently, one of the brightest spots on the advanced manufacturing horizon is 3D printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing.

Excitement abounds when it comes to 3D printing, and there’s no doubt that the technology is a potential game-changer. The time-saving and cost-cutting figures speak for themselves, yet there’s a great deal to be learned about the ways that traditional manufacturers might incorporate 3D printing into their service lineups.

Our region is not alone in its pursuit of this technology as a cornerstone in its advanced manufacturing offerings.  With enterprising individuals like Dr. Evan Malone of NextFab Studio choosing to put down roots in Philadelphia, however, it’s clear that we are making progress up the technology value chain.

We recently sat down with Malone, founder and president of NextFab, a co-working space and design-engineering/fabrication service center located in one of Philadelphia’s busiest light-industrial corridors, to learn a bit about his outlook for advanced manufacturing—around the region and in the market at large.

The NextFab facility, a 21,000-square-footformer iron workshop, has been reconfigured into an engine of the creative economy, featuring a collaborative workspace with 3D printers, computer-controlled machine tools, software, and electronic workbenches, as well as the expert staff, classes, workshops, and consulting services necessary to turn ambitious design projects into reality.

Malone, meanwhile, brings a blend of academic expertise (he holds a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, along with M.Eng. and Ph.D. degrees from Cornell) and practical experience (stints at Fermilab and research work on mobile robotics as part of Cornell’s 2002 World Champion RoboCup autonomous robotic soccer project, as well as creating NextFab and the Fab@Home project).

His first encounter with 3D printing came early in his academic career while still an undergraduate.

“I was consulting for a faculty member at Drexel, designing some components for laboratory automation,” he says. “I think I first heard about it in science publications. I looked into it and saw it was suitable for making the complex part I was working on.”

Initially, Malone says he was intrigued by the technology as an alternative to more traditional prototyping methods. “You can make a lot of things through injection molding that are inexpensive in large quantities, if you can afford the up-front cost of making the molds,” he says, “but this was a chance to try out additive manufacturing to make a complicated part.”

While working on his doctoral degree several years later, Malone found himself moving on from components to full products as he partnered with a faculty member who was using the technology—thanks to funding from NASA—to enhance planetary surface and space exploration.

“My Ph.D. was focused on proving that 3D printing can make not just plastic parts, but complete, functioning products,” he says.

While at Cornell, Malone developed hardware, software, and materials that enabled 3D printing of batteries, transistors, relays, tissue fabrication, and even polymer actuators—muscle made of plastic, in this case—and combined them into complicated functional systems.

Asked about his perspective on the end-use markets and applications, Malone cautions that like many technologies, 3D printing is still in its infancy.  He hopes that as markets appear on the horizon, though, the technology will develop in order to make them possible.

“That feedback is important, the way markets drive technology. Tissue engineering—3D printing of replacement living tissues and organs—is a very promising area of application.  3D printing is already used for making surgical guides so you don’t necessarily need a DaVinci system to make surgery safer.  And those same approaches—scanning the body, making 3D shapes to help guide surgery—work for some industrial applications, too.”

As for materials, although much has been written lately about metals and 3D printing, “Selective Laser Sintering” (also known as SLS) of plastic is the most important process for critical applications.  SLS is the process of using a high-power laser to fuse fine powders (usually nylon), layer by layer, into an object with a desired three-dimensional shape.

“SLS of nylon is the dominant end-use part manufacturing technology,” Malone says. “Others tend to be too fragile and isotropic.  SLS is probably the cutting edge of manufacturing finished parts, as opposed to being [used for] a model or prototype.”

The key innovation that could change this would be reducing the cost of additive manufacturing with metal. “Right now I think it’s not that those processes are so exotic, just that those companies are still trying to recoup investment. Those machines are very expensive, as are the materials. They’re still researching the best materials and physics to produce parts.”

The primary challenge the technology faces at this point, however, is living up to the hype that surrounds it.

“I’m thrilled at the enthusiasm the maker community has for the technology, but it is not going to solve every problem. We need to spend more time designing and planning what will be printed, otherwise we risk 3D-printing a lot of plastic junk. We need to think of recyclability and of where 3D printing works effectively and efficiently, and where it does not.  The maker community is growing aware of these issues and already there are some inexpensive recycling systems out there that grind up and reclaim material.”

NextFab Studio, he says, emerged as an effort to support just that sort of balanced development and use of new design and manufacturing technologies.

“The NextFab model came about because I’ve seen the impact that having access to technology can have on people. Being able to make things is empowering. It helps people understand and change their situation and the world,” he says. Seeing that impact made me realize that, even though I love research, something like NextFab would help more people more directly.”

Armed with that resolve, it was time to select a destination for the venture.

“I did some public speaking in Philadelphia about 3D printing and my desire for a place like NextFab where individuals and companies could learn about and use cutting-edge technology. This led to contact with the University City Science Center, which is one of the oldest urban technology transfer centers in the country and starting point for a lot of big name companies. The Science Center was excited about engaging the public through something like NextFab, and put some investment dollars into getting NextFab started.

“NextFab’s mission is to help companies and the public learn how to use additive manufacturing and other advanced manufacturing tools in our space, to promote awareness and innovation through direct access. We’re about intelligent interaction and increasing awareness of the capabilities and limitations. Additive manufacturing, for instance, can do lots of things other processes can’t, but it won’t replace everything. Injection molding will still be the dominant way of producing plastic parts for some time.”

As the competitive landscape develops along with the technology, Malone sees some fundamental shifts on the horizon. For NextFab, as well as traditional manufacturers, that will mean the need to embrace change.

“I think as the number of consumer machines increases in the world, and their capabilities grow, that will bring a lot of people offering [additive manufacturing-related] services. I think we will see lots of service bureaus and design services driving the cost of additive manufacturing services down. Companies like NextFab will have to offer some additional value to stay competitive, and that’s our current focus.”

Again, it comes down to building and sharing expertise: “The machines are fairly simple, but creating good quality 3D content that prints well is a challenge. That’s the next horizon—companies defining themselves as offering good 3D-printable content for hire and the expertise to reliably make high-quality parts. Then there are also the challenges of intellectual property control, such as encryption and protection to maintain design security.”

For the Philadelphia region, making the most of this technology will mean forming new partnerships and fostering existing relationships.

“We’re part of the Advanced Manufacturing Accelerator Program* to promote advanced manufacturing,” Malone says. “That’s key. NextFab is providing awareness workshops and consultations for local manufacturers to learn about additive manufacturing and other advanced manufacturing technologies; that’s effective partnership.”

To learn more about 3D printing and the ways 3D printing can work for your business, contact DVIRC today. Watch for upcoming educational programs hosted by DVIRC on advanced technologies, such as additive manufacturing and composites as well as new innovation programs on new products, new markets, and new processes.

* The Greater Philadelphia Advanced Manufacturing Innovation & Skills Accelerator (Advanced Manufacturing Accelerator Program) is an industry-driven, integrated partnership that brings together business, technical, financial, and educational assets, both public and private, to grow business value among the region’s manufacturing firms.  The partners are:

  • DVIRC, Managing Partner
  • EEB Hub
  • Ben Franklin Technology Partners Southeastern PA
  • The Collegiate Consortium
  • NextFab Studios
  • Paramount Industries
  • Penn State College of Engineering
  • Philadelphia University
  • Philadelphia Economic Development Corporation
  • Philadelphia Works
  • Select Greater Philadelphia
  • Triumph Engineering Group
  • Urban Industry Initiative
  • Wharton

The Advanced Manufacturing Accelerator Program is sponsored in part by grants from the following federal agencies:

  • Economic Development Administration
  • Employment and Training Administration
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • Department of Energy
  • Small Business Administration