Max Rohr 2013-07-03 06:39:30
This new technology will let you ‘manufacture’ plastic repair parts on the jobsite. How does a 3D printer work? You create or download a file that has a layered design of an object. Instead of exporting it on an 8.5-in. by 11-in. Piece of paper, an extrusion head melts and dispenses materials into many horizontal and vertical layers. It builds up layers like building a castle out of Lego blocks, but without any seams or gaps b etween pieces. What could 3D printing do for the hydronics industry? Imagine walking into a new home’s boiler room and making a list of fittings and valves you will need. This time, however, you aren’t going to run to the supplier With the list. You are going to select your parts in a computer program and hit print on a machine sitting next to you in the mechanical room and watch it build the piece right in front of you. In the past, plastic manufacturing usually consisted of injection molding a form and then machining or cutting away excess material to create a final product. With 3D printing, the tolerances are so tight that, in some cases, less or even no additional machining is required. State-of-theart machines can produce layers with a thickness down to 16 micrometers in multiple materials. The possibilities are endless with this technology. Since you don’t need to use conventional tools and drilling machines to remove extra materials, the choices of raw materials increase. Companies already are testing their printers using all types of plastics, metals, ceramics, laminated papers, plasters and edible powders — even human cells. Scientists are off to the races to create reliable products with these printers. The upside of having a bag of raw materials and a suitcase-sized machine that can make anything is enormous.NASA will send a 3D printer to the International Space Station next year.In an environment where every ounce and square inch counts, this technology is a perfect fit. “Roughly 30% of parts on the International Space Station could be replicated with 3D printers,” says NASA product manager Niki Werkheiser on Venturebeat.com. “3D printing will allow us to live and work in space with the same efficiency and productivity that we do on Earth, with the ultimate objective being to eliminate reliance on materials and parts launched from the ground.” Venturebeat.com reports that while the “Made in Space” project will focus on making spare parts and science equipment, NASA also wants to use the technology to feed astronauts.The agency recently announced it was “giving a $125,000 grant for research into so-called food printers, which synthesize foods like chocolate from raw materials.” My initial reaction to this idea is that it sounds disgusting, but I guess there aren’t a lot of restaurant options in space. Certification issues Where does 3D printing fit in with the heating industry or a contractor in the field? In the near future, you can carry a printer to a jobsite and build the parts you need right in the mechanical room. This is not a reality yet, but the tolerance for a PEX fitting is well within the possibilities of these new printers. Let’s say you are going to take pipe through an existing wall and have to make an unusual bend to get through. It could be a 35° angle fitting, for example. All you would have to do is go over to your printer and select that specific file to print.Without having to leave the job to run to the supply house or shop, you could have a custom fitting ready in a few minutes. All 3D printing technology seems to lend itself well to plumbing with plastic fusion technologies that are already on the market. The tools exist to melt and fuse plastics together to make connections.The plastic materials seem to be the easiest For the machines to realize because they can be dispensed as liquid without changing properties like metals can. Printing a copper elbow isn’t on the radar yet, but some metals actually are. The test will be To see if metal printing is cost-effective. The New York Times reports that the price of 3D printers has “dropped sharply” from 2011 to 2013, with $20,000 machines now at $1,000 or less. This technology won’t be limited to university laboratories and military applications.You could potentially buy a machine that could build you a mountain bike for Less than it costs to buy a mountain bike today. This is why the 3D printing technology is booming. For $1,000 you could be your own small-scale manufacturer. The reality check for hydronics comes About when you consider certifications. How would you guarantee to anyone that a fitting you made in your basement would hold up to specific pressure and temperature ratings? What would an inspector look for if you have a boiler room full of things you created with no ANSI, ASME, ASEE, IAPMO or UL listing? Plumbing component manufacturers could create a file for each component or fitting and sell it to a contractor or wholesaler. Obviously, a computer design major may be able to make something for you instead, but having a file directly from a manufacturer may be something that could be certified. However, if you printed the file without the exact right blend of raw materials, it might not conform to temperature or pressure ratings. Regardless of the current legal hurdles, 3D printing is something that should be on the radar for manufacturers, contractors and inspectors. Compared to the ethical questions raised by being able to print a gun, handcuff key or human organ, printing a plastic pipe coupling doesn’t seem to have as many strings attached. Considering the possible savings in time and money, as well as the additional flexibility offered by this concept, I believe 3D printing is here to stay. About the author: Max Rohr is the chairman of the Radiant Professionals Alliance’s Education Committee and an outside salesperson at Shamrock Sales in Denver. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for the last 10 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors.Max is a LEED Green Associate and a BPI Building Analyst and is passionate about green technology.
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