Mar 10, 2016 | By Alec

For all its manufacturing advantages, 3D printing has pretty big disadvantages too. Once you scale up the size or the complexity of whatever geometry you’re working on, speed is decreased dramatically. While hardware certainly has something to do with it, this loss of speed does make software seem like a bottleneck for complex 3D printing. Fortunately, CAD design pioneer Autodesk isn’t just resting on its laurels, but is looking towards the future of 3D printing as well. Through their Project Escher, they are now working to turn 3D printing software upside down with a smart 3D printing production line that creates very large objects by running multiple toolpaths between multiple collaborating machines very efficiently. Could this be the future of large scale 3D printing?

Of course, Autodesk is no stranger to 3D printing hardware themselves. Their excellent open source Ember 3D printer already showed their dedication to pushing the 3D printing revolution further. But Project Escher is operating on a completely different level. As its name suggests, you don’t even know where to look with the project’s 3D printer, which is essentially several machines working in unison. But the funny thing is, the hardware is inconsequential. As the project’s hardware lead Cory Bloome revealed, “Just to be clear, Autodesk is not releasing a new 3D printer. Project Escher is software and control technology that can work with a new generation of 3D printing hardware,” he said.

As Bloome explains, they are essentially trying to find a way to overcome the challenges created by manufacturing complex or large parts. At the beginning of the 3D printing revolution, a standard of sorts has been set up. You can either create large and detailed objects slowly, or you can create small 3D prints very quickly, but without any detail. It’s an understandable trade-off, but the technology won’t truly be widely adopted as a manufacturing option when that trade-off is overcome. “The bottom line, speed matters,” he says.

While many 3D printer manufacturers focus solely on the hardware side of the equation, Autodesk is trying to find a software solution through Project Escher. Essentially, it’s an assembly line that is governed by a smart setup that can control a theoretically endless number of printheads to create single large prints. “By intelligently distributing toolpaths between multiple collaborating machines, systems enabled by Project Escher can manufacture parts faster than traditional 3D printers,” its developers say of their experiment. “Project Escher is a parallel processing system where numerous independent tools collaborate to fabricate a design. It’s faster because whatever the job is, there are more workers on that job. And there is no compromise to detail because we’re using proven existing technology.”

While the 3D printer capable of creating a single piece propeller is obviously most eye-catching, Escher is fundamentally a software and control strategy that provides a new manufacturing architecture. A coordination system for numerous “independent” 3D printers that effectively create a single large build volume. The software essentially partitions off print jobs and sends them to different bots. These, in turn, work collaboratively on different areas of the same part – removing ‘size’ as an obstacle. Unlike the Ember 3D printer concept, the Escher is obviously geared towards FDM 3D printing technology.

So far, the project has been quite effective, and has shown to be able to manufacture large print jobs with far greater efficiency and speed. “Depending on configuration and part geometry, it can be many times faster than traditional systems using single bots,” Bloome tells us. It’s even more remarkable for simply using existing hardware – made by other manufacturers – in a new configuration. It is even nearly infinitely scalable: “Both the number and size of bots can be changed. Printers can be very large or very small (bio-printers to building-scale concrete printers),” Bloome adds. “It can work with different extrusion technologies and can easily incorporate new technologies as they are developed.” This also includes toolheads with very different technologies, such as laser cutting.

It is, in short, a very open and adaptable system that could become a very accessible 3D printing solution for end users with a need for speed, or even for 3D printer manufacturers looking to develop the next generation of their flagship model. As an adaptable model using existing technology, it could even be an affordable option. While still under development, the optimistic researchers behind the Escher Project are hoping to realize a commercial version of their platform as early as 2017 or 2018, depending on the partners they team up with. Who says mass production 3D printing isn’t possible?



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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