In terms of how the world views 3D printing and rapid prototyping, it could be argued that the the ability to turn virtual designs into physical objects is one of the technology's crowning achievements.
Many people have already compared the technique to that of a "Star Trek" replicator, with 3D printing seen as the next step in the evolution of manufacturing and a means of reducing the inevitable waste that comes with traditional production processes.A Yahoo-sponsored project in Japan is now taking that futuristic concept and using it to bring tactile objects on request to the visually impaired and blind.
According to CNET, Yahoo Japan has introduced students at the Special Needs Education School for the Visually Impaired to its "Hands on Search" 3D printer, with the children able to create items though voice commands and internet search engines. The kiosk-sized device, which has been designed to resemble a big fluffy cloud, is able to translate a request for, say, a giraffe or a car into a CAD file that is then printed and passed to the student who requested it.
The printer itself only has two buttons, ensuring that it is quick and easy to use within the classroom. By combining the familiar "search" function with voice recognition software, blind or visually impaired children can touch and feel an object that they may have only been told about, giving them a tactile experience as opposed to just imagining what that item is or could be.
The 3D models and data are initially provided by large Japanese companies such as Nissan and Toyota, although if no match is found, the internet search capabilities of the machine whir into action. While this technology is, to date, only available in Japan, the school is collaborating with not only Yahoo but also the Tokyo-based University of Tsukaba who are overseeing the innovative pilot project.
Stratasys, a global leader in 3D printing equipment and materials, is encouraging American students to submit CAD-based entries for its annual redesign competition, with the company hoping that the contest will continue to spur product innovation at a pre-college level.
According to Twin Cities Business, winners of the Extreme Redesign 3D Printing Challenge will need to demonstrate an awareness of not only computer aided design in existing product development, but also how that product could be improved in a commercial sense. The 2014 contest, which the Minnesota-based company has run for several years, is open to three categories of students - middle- and high-school engineering, college engineering, and those studying art and architecture at any secondary institutions or pursuing further levels of education.
The 3D printing firm is expecting a high level of submissions from across the world, but with the company being based primarily in the United States, there is obviously considerable interest in what home-grown students can achieve. According to the news source, Stratasys is looking for engineering product ideas that have a "sound mechanical design," or present a noticeable twist on a piece of art or architecture.
Since its inception in 2008, the contest has awarded over $100,000 in scholarships to winners, with the top designs in each category being produced on a desktop 3D printer. Recent success stories have included a multi-dimensional additive manufacturing process, a magnesium fire starter and a printable snack cup for travel purposes.
Students have until February 6, 2014, to submit their proposals - which must include a CAD file, a written description and/or a 30 second video presentation - and finalists will be selected by Stratasys in March. The winners in each category, who will be announced in April of next year, will each receive $2,500 in scholarship money, while those awarded second and third place spots will get $1,000.
For most teenagers, the world of 3D printing and rapid prototyping is limited to manufacturing models of popular pop culture icons or smartphone covers. However, 17-year-old Easton LaChappelle has mastered the process to such a high level that not only has he been offered an internship at NASA, but also had the opportunity to present his work on a prosthetic robot arm to President Obama.
According to Mobile Magazine, the Colorado teenager first began experimenting with 3D printing in 2011, with the student inspired to create a cheap and efficient means of building prosthetics. In fact, his first attempts were built out of Lego, fishing line and servo motors, before LaChappelle decided to take advantage of the increasing number of online 3D printing resources and use additive manufacturing to produce his prototype arm.
To do this, he taught himself 3D modeling and design validation techniques, which allowed him to build a robotic prosthetic arm for less than $1,000. Bearing in mind that a state-of-the-art artificial limb can cost as much as $80,000, it is no wonder that his work soon led to an offer of his very own TED talk, before he was invited to the White House to give a demonstration of his arm as part of a national science fair.
"I would never have imagined that something I made in my bedroom would be shaking hands with the President," said LaChappelle, in an interview with Aljazerra America. "I learned from anatomy. I was trying to understand the human limits of the arm and find all the boundaries. Then I want to capture all of that and eventually, hopefully, surpass human strength."
His achievements have now seen him embark on an internship with NASA, with the teen inventor working on the agency's Robonaut project at the Johnson Space Center, a situation which LaChappelle describes as a "dream job." According to his parents, his work was inspired by the desire to give amputees an affordable option for prosthetics, with the eventual aim being to design and manufacture arms or limbs that have a more lifelike appearance.
"I'm hoping to give someone a functional prosthetic arm for under $1,000," says LaChappelle, who cites the research being done by the San Juan Hand Therapy Clinic in Durango, Colorado, as one of the reasons for his invention. "I wanted to get a more human shape. That's a big thing for prosthetics is psychologically, it has to be appealing to the user and also to others."
Elon Musk has continued to prove that he is a doppelganger for Tony Stark by releasing video evidence of his latest 3D modeling and computer aided design project.
According to CBS News, the serial entrepreneur and innovator has made good on his promise of adapting fictional concepts from Iron Man by demonstrating a means of manipulating 3D designs by gesture alone. Using a combination of 3D projection, a Leap Motion controller and virtual reality technology, Musk was able to grab a virtual rocket part, rotate it in various dimensions and then send it to a 3D printer for manufacture.
In a series of recent tweets, the founder of SpaceX and PayPal had indicated that he had found a way to evolve CAD to the next level, citing Iron Man as an inspiration for his work. According to the news source, Musk was able to interact with the 3D model in a way that suggested a more intuitive way of design validation, with hand motions replacing mouse or keyboard motions.
"This will revolutionize design and manufacturing in the 21st century," said Musk in the video. "If you can just go in there and do what you need to do, with an understanding of the fundamentals of how the thing should work, as opposed to figuring out how to make a computer make it work, you can achieve a lot more in a lot shorter period of time. I believe we are on the verge of a major breakthrough."
However, Musk is certainly not alone in wanting to take CAD and 3D modeling to the next level. According to Science World, researchers at Purdue University have also developed a programing tool that will rely on hand motions to design objects. Known as Shape-It-Up, it allows the designer to become an integral part of the process, while at the same providing an entry-level option for those new to the idea of CAD and 3D modeling.
"With Shape-it-up, our goal is to make the designer an integral part of the shape modeling process during early design, in contrast to current CAD tools, which segregate 3D sweep geometries into procedural 2D inputs, in a non-intuitive and cumbersome process requiring extensive training," said Karthik Ramani, the Donald W. Feddersen Professor in the school of mechanical engineering at Purdue. "It allows people to express their ideas rapidly and quickly using hand motions alone. We're democratizing the design process. You don't have to be an engineer to use this."
One of the more gratifying elements about the use of computer aided design and design validation software comes with the knowledge that virtual models are increasingly likely to become physical objects.
While a number of industries and design sectors have embraced the technology, the conquest and observation of space is considered to be one area where there is literally no final frontier. The work and research being done by NASA and various other international space agencies has been well documented, but university students are also making the most of the CAD tools at their disposal.
Take, for example, a collaborative effort between the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Hanover, Germany, and the Institute for Gravitational Research at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.
According to Astronomy.com, teams from these academic research facilities have been instrumental in developing an optical bench using CAD for the European Space Agency-backed Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) Pathfinder project. This is a test mission that will allow scientists to perform satellite experiments in space that can detect gravitational waves - one of the more elusive phenomena in the known universe.
"Getting LISA Pathfinder's core measurement technologies ready to go operational means that we have just completed another crucial step," said Karsten Danzmann, director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics. "We are now firmly on course for a launch in 2015."
By a curious coincidence, a team of students at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, are also hoping to join the space race in 2015. According to sources provided by the university, EQUiSat is an engineering project that developed as a result of a shared interest in CAD and simulation software, with the aim being to launch a tiny satellite that could contribute to STEM education here on Earth.
Known as a CubeSat, it measures only 1,000 cubic centimeters and comes with a set of standardized requirements for operation. With a build price of $100,000, they are normally used as data gatherers or tracking devices by global corporations.
However, the team from Brown only has a budget of $14,000 and while it has received some funding from the NASA Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium, the project is more about bringing engineers together in an academic environment - although a launch would certainly help.
"We hope to design an an interface to allow people around the world to interact with each other to see the satellite," said Max Monn, EQUiSat founder and former project leader. "Even though you might be thousands of miles apart, you can both look up and see this little blinking beacon that was cobbled together by a bunch of college students."
Additive manufacturing is already becoming part of the industrial landscape in the United States, and with its increased adoption expected to be replicated in other production-centric regions, 3D design software leaders are keen to drive business forward in targeted markets.
According to the Bangkok Post, revenue from 3D modeling and related services in the Asia-Pacific region is predicted to increase significantly in the next few years, with Thailand seen as a key area for growth. The demand for simulation software and design validation products has encouraged companies such as Dassault Systems SolidWorks Corp. to focus attention on the market, with the firm confident that it can double its existing revenue generated by consumers in the country by 2015.
"The increasing number of Asian companies shifting from labor-intensive manufacturing to innovative products is significantly driving business growth in the region," said Choon Keat Goh, vice-president for Asia-Pacific at Dassault, according to the news source. "Revenue from Asia-Pacific accounted for almost 10% of the group's total US$530 million last year."
The global 3D design software firm is setting up offices in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia as part of its efforts to capitalize on the demand for products in the industrial, packaging, machinery and automotive supply sectors, while medical and consumer-orientated companies are also seen as crucial for growth.
Increased use of 3D printing and rapid prototyping techniques are considered by the firm to a major factor in its Asia-Pacific strategy, coupled with a reduction in development time and operating costs as reasons for a wider adoption rate. According to Kenneth Clayton, vice president for global sales at Dassault, companies that use SolidWorks can reduce product development from six to 12 months on traditional software to one month, with 3D design now an accepted part of the manufacturing industry.
"3D design and simulation software have become mainstream, thanks to cheap prices and ease of use," said Clayton. "Companies spend $4 billion per year globally on computer-aided design and related software tools."
The decision to direct additional resources to the region comes as the company, which can claim a 50 percent share in the 3D design software market, gets set to introduce the latest version of its best selling design validation and simulation tools.
SolidWorks 2014 will be launched globally on September 9 and the firm has added a host of new features. While many of the upgrades remain under wraps, some of them have already been revealed on the company blog, with consistent patterning tools, sketch picture scaling and lock rotation for cylindrical mates all being introduced as "sneak peaks" before the official unveiling next month.
Freelance designers with technical and STEM-related skills are increasingly in demand, with a recently released employment report showing that hiring has risen by 51 percent in the last 12 months.
According to Elance, a global online freelance work platform, companies are looking for people to fill specific roles in a number of computer aided design sectors, with expertise in 3D printing and rapid prototyping now considered to be a driving factor. Freelancers with demonstrated STEM - science, technology, engineering, math - experience are reportedly in short supply, with 89 percent of businesses that use the website stating that a supplemental workforce aids and expands their presence in a chosen industry sector.
"Demand for technical and creative freelance talent continues to accelerate on Elance," said Fabio Rosati, CEO of Elance, in a press release. "The ability to hire the best available person online and on-demand is becoming an essential strategy for agile businesses of all sizes."
With CAD and design validation already considered to be a prominent part of the additive manufacturing sector, the need to close a perceived talent gap is moving the industry forward. According to Elance's Global Online Employment Report, the market for freelance workers could be worth as much as $5 billion by 2015, with average earnings for these individuals increasing by 69 percent since 2012.
In terms of what companies are looking for, the number of firms searching for CAD and 3D printing experts rose by 200 percent in the United States alone, with the report also highlighting a need for data scientists, software application and mobile app developers. In addition, the study also indicated that 50 percent of companies were building teams of freelancers, while 70 percent of the 800,000 businesses that use Elance on a regular basis hired contract workers to close identified skill gaps within their own workplace environment.
While the release of the latest job figures from the Department of Labor have shown that the employment market is moving at a slow pace, there are signs that freelance work in the CAD sector continues to rise.
Research conducted by an online freelance hiring resource, showed that earnings for individuals with STEM education skills are increasing by 10 times the rate of the traditional workforce, with the website revealing that income from freelancing is expected to be 69 percent higher in 2013 than at this time last year. Many of these opportunities are coming in the small-to-medium business sector, with the resource itself revealing a 51 percent rise in online work placements.
Demand for data scientists and computer aided design experts is reportedly exceeding all expectations, with requests for experienced workers rising by 200 percent in the last year, according to the authors of the report. Software application developers have also seen a spike in their earning potential, with the research showing an increase of 9 percent, while the number of posted positions had increased by 62 percent.
According to the study, advances in 3D printing and rapid prototyping have significantly contributed to this, with calls for U.S. based CAD talent increasing by 70 percent, while the number of 3D printing jobs posted on the website has grown by 200 percent.
A recent article posted by Bloomberg appears to back up the fact that hiring freelancers - especially in the technology field - is becoming the preferred means of operation. According to the news source, there are an increasing number of online resources that can offer SMBs access to talented people on an individual project base, with an estimated 23 million workers expected to join the freelance economy in the next 5 years.
Many of these are widely believed to be in the information technology sector, with experienced users in simulation software and design validation expected to play a key role in increasing the visibility of a freelance workforce. According to Bloomberg, outsourcing a project to a suitably qualified freelance worker is seen as one way to engage with the latest methods and techniques, especially in a world where the ability to innovate is crucial.
"It's one thing to find one person to design a logo or deliver doughnuts," notes Jeff Leventhal, CEO of online staffing resource Work Market, in an interview with the news source. "If you're a big company, you need to build a process around finding, verifying, and paying freelance workers."
With the mass adoption of 3D printing and rapid prototyping expected to be a matter of when and not if, the sector is setting its sights on encouraging the next generation of tech-savvy talent that their future lies in the advanced manufacturing industry.
Academic programs that focus on computer aided design have been springing up in schools and college campuses across the country, with students being taught the basics of not only additive manufacturing techniques but also how basic 3D modeling and design validation can be applied in real-world scenarios. The fact that the CAD industry itself is enjoying a high profile in the mass media - mainly through through innovations in 3D printing - has allowed students to experiment with virtual environments in such a way as to showcase exactly what can be achieved with teaching these skills at an early age.
According to NewsAdvance.com, education is increasingly seen as the best way to identify this talent, with an Iowa-based program using advanced manufacturing to further develop knowledge. Originally established in 2006, Iowa's Virtual Reality Education Pathfinders is sending some enrolled participants to an immersion experience in South Virginia, with attendees expected to turn their 3D designs into workable prototypes in a physical location.
The four-day event has been organized by the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, with identified students able to participate in a number of manufacturing workshops. Those selected by VREP have been limited to creating 3D designs in a virtual space, and it is hoped that exposure to the physical aspects of computer numerical control (CNC) and reverse engineering practices will advance their CAD development.
"Given our tremendous assets in advanced manufacturing, and our specialty in making things, we immediately saw an opportunity for collaboration," said David Kenealy, director of research and development for SVHEC. "Aerospace pioneer Rockwell Collins, manufacturing software firm ITI Global and Kyoger have all joined with SVHEC and VREP to make the event possible."
Over the course of their time in South Boston, Virginia, the students will be engaging with local business leaders and regional officials, all of whom are involved in the economic development of rapid prototyping. Cited by the organizers of the event as a unique educational experience, it is expected to show what happens when talent is paired with resources.
"VREP is currently in 165 schools in Iowa," said Kenealy, according to the news source. "Part of the focus of this immersion week is showing them the opportunities we've created in Virginia to apply their knowledge & skills in a meaningful way that will put them on a solid career path."
A group of students and professors in Texas have turned to computer aided design and 3D modeling to help preserve one of the most famous historical sites in the Lone Star State.
According to the Houston Chronicle, the team will be recreating digital versions of the Alamo, with the aim being to use the 3D models to keep tabs on preservation efforts and potential maintenance issues at the site. Funded by the Ewing Halsell Foundation, the project is being led by academics from Texas A&M University, with the University of Texas providing additional support from its sites at San Antonio and Austin.
"This project is providing valuable pieces of the Alamo's history that are known and newly discovered," said Pam Rosser, head of conservation at the site. "This is an exciting preservation time at the Alamo."
Over the years, it has suffered from rainwater erosion and deterioration caused by the hot and cold nature of the Texas weather. The Alamo is arguably one of the most famous buildings in U.S. history, and the team will be using design validation techniques and simulation software to recreate the heritage site as it would have looked during the heat of battle in 1836.
While local historians will be providing the majority of the relevant data, the team will be relying on scanned information from the Historic American Buildings Society, which created detailed drawings of the site in 1961, according to The Glen Rose Reporter. They will also take full advantage of photographs and other forms of recorded visual information to ensure that the 3D versions are as accurate as possible.
"This kind of groundbreaking preservation project at the Alamo is long overdue," said Jerry Patterson, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, which is affiliated with the project. "The data gained will be vital to ensuring the Alamo remains an icon of Texas history and personal freedom for future generations."