Those asking where 3D printing fits in to the future of manufacturing may have found a good indication this week. One day after Silicon Valley entrepreneur and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk released a 57 page PDF detailing his radical and almost certainly impossible Hyperloop transportation system, the smart eggs over at Utah based 3D print firm Whiteclouds had fired off a detailed scale model. Once upon a time (as in, about half a decade ago) creating a prototype for such a huge concept would take months. Now, thanks to the boundary pushing potential of additive manufacturing, it can be delivered in a mere 24 hours.
When the inventor of a new transport system describes it as a mixture between ‘Concorde and a railgun on an air hockey table’, life-valuing travellers may prefer to hitch a lift with their local serial murderer, as it would sound like the safer choice. Yet that was the language Musk used to unveil the Hyperloop, his revolutionary, compressed solar-powered idea that can, apparently, ferry passengers from LA to San Francisco in a mere half an hour (around 1/10th of the time it takes by car). His concept for the system, which involves metal pods flying through elevated tubes at speeds of 800 miles per hour and would span 350 miles of California, was met with with both wide-eyed excitement and keen-eyed scepticism last week, with critics pointing to the potential cost, time and safety issues. The inevitable ‘pipe dream’ pun was tiredly repeated in just about every report on the story including, sadly, this one.
Anyway, what made us interested in the story was the announcement from Whiteclouds’ CEO Jerry Rapelato the following day that he had set five of his top designers a not-so-simple task: make a scale model of Musk’s vision in 24 hours. They quickly got to work, each taking responsibility for a different section of the Hyperloop and designing the digital models using computer aided design software. The printing leg of the project required three different machines: the Cannex 500 was used to create the pillars, the ProJet 3500 HDMAX was used to print the tubes from UV resin and the ZPrinter 650 made the platforms and the pods from sandstone. Before the deadline hit they presented Musk’s concept as a (decreased) reality.
The significance to the wider world should be pretty apparent. While many in the mainstream press fixate on the idea of printing their household meals or designer clothes on a 3D printer, this is where 3D printing, in its current form, is at its most effective: bringing a complex, implausible concept to life and edging a maverick vision closer to realisation.