I’ve long been excited by the idea of 3D printing but, alas, a little underwhelmed by its application – for every story about surgeons 3D-printing replacement joints while operating on a patient, there are thousands of 3D printers doing little else than printing bad business card cases and mock Star Wars figurines.

That said, 3D printing is absolutely transformative and one particular area of application is in the design and manufacturing space. Currently, it is both time-consuming and expensive to design and produce a new physical item – prototyping in balsa wood and making expensive and intricate injection molds are the way things are currently done, but one good example came across my desk recently – that of a partnership between tapware company Kohler and 3D printing specialist 3D systems.

Kohler is actively embracing its own future – indeed, just the other day I read about Kohler Konnect, a new line of smart bathroom and kitchen appliances. Powered by Amazon’s Alexa smart device, these household items can be given various voice commands to perform specific tasks. The initial line includes a shower, a bathtub, two toilets, a mirror, and a kitchen sink. Each product pairs to your phone through the Kohler Konnect app and lets you set preferences across a number of different users. Kohler demonstrated many of the new items at the CES show, all of the different Kohler products pairs to a user’s phone through the Kohler Konnect app and lets them set preferences across a number of different household occupants. The initial range includes:

  • A new mirror, the Verdera Voice Lighted Mirror. Apparently (and, perhaps, unsurprisingly) the first mirror with Alexa built directly into the unit
  • The DTV+ Showering System. A voice-activated shower that allows users to set the sound, water, steam and lighting in a single command, such as “Start my morning shower.”
  • ‘PerfectFill’ technology for the bath, which lets users set their intended temperature and simply tell the bathtub to fill with water
  • Two new toilets. The highest-spec is the Numi which comes with a sensor that knows you’re approaching and automatically offers up a foot warmer and heated seat. The Numi also has a bidet, ambient lighting and can play music
  • The Sensate faucet, which lets you ask for specific measurements of water. For example, the user could ask for eight ounces of water to be poured into a baby’s bottle during the night shift, as shown in the demo video.

Anyway – back to the 3D printing story. Kohler set out to design a seemingly simple faucet and tap set – but one with some serious manufacturing complexity – the faucet is a seemingly-simple outline of a square. But engineering the shape, and allowing for actual water flow, was a challenge that traditional manufacturing processes would balk at. Which is where 3D printing (or, more correctly, Metal additive manufacturing) comes in. Metal additive manufacturing brings the 3D printing we know from the plastic world into the world of metallic items. It works via a layer-by-layer ‘additive’ process in which high-powered lasers precisely sinter each layer of a 3D digital design into a bed of metal powder.

In the manufacturing world, that is the antithesis of the orthodox approach, whereby manufacturers machine a block of metal to make a part or an injection mold tool, milling metal or plastic down to make a shape – a subtractive approach. 3D Systems has taken basic additive manufacturing and ramped it up a notch with a combination of inert, oxygen-free 3D printing environments, high-quality metal alloy powder materials and integrated software for metal additive design.

More creative freedom

The upshot is that by using a 3D printing approach, manufacturers gain both production speed and design freedom. In the case of Kohler, it meant that for the design of the Kallista faucet, they could innovate using a faucet design with integrated channels for water that is not easily manufactured using traditional manufacturing processes. Kohler used an industrial-quality stainless steel 316 powder material to create a faucet that had the same characteristics – in terms of rust-proofness and durability – as a regular tap.

It’s also highly accurate, as opposed to traditional manufacturing methods, which have a degree of inaccuracy, metal printing is highly accurate, with precision to about 50 microns. As a frame of reference, the diameter of a human hair is approximately 100 microns. The process is also applicable to a range of materials – aluminum, alloys including titanium, cobalt chrome, and nickel, stainless steel among others.

The video below tells about the 3D printing part of this story but both as an example of a traditional manufacturer reinventing itself, and a real-world case study of additive manufacturing, this is an interesting story.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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