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When 3D Printing and IoT Merge: Smart Customisation in Printing

The 3D printing industry is expected to grow to around 21 billion USD by 2020 and Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) market is forecasted to reach 151 billion USD by the same time frame, according to reports of Forbes and Marketsandmarkets. Giants like GE and Cisco show a more optimistic picture than the stated figures. When these two spheres merge, it leads to endless possibilities of a rejuvenated IoT-powered 3D printing experience. We will be able to monitor and control our 3D printer remotely from anywhere in the world. Let us now discuss a simple description of how 3D printing and IoT can be integrated in a home-based environment (Fused deposition modeling as an example).

Wireless 3D printer control (Source: Instructables) - 3D Printing and IoT
Wireless 3D printer control (Source: Instructables)

Internet of Things
The Internet of Things promises a new age of connectivity among different entities. A gadget or machine is connected to the internet to communicate autonomously with any other device or human. Development of automation and advanced sensing technologies are not new, but there was always a human interference needed to analyse the data and make decisions, in order to coordinate between different devices. Introduction of IoT redefines this intrusion step, by automatically collecting information from one device and signalling another one to perform the required operation. This opens up to advanced abilities in 3D printing.

Merging 3D Printing with IoT

The existing 3D printer has to be modified in most cases to incorporate and integrate the features of IoT. We will now see a broad implementation strategy without drilling down into the technical specifics. First the outcomes expected and functions to be performed by the 3D printer have to be charted out. As any IoT integration is application-specific, thorough information of the required performances help in the selection of appropriate sensing and communication platforms. Some major desirable functions, some of which do already exist, are charted below.

• Sensing sufficient filament availability before start of print
• Comparing build job with CAD file as it is being printed
• Alert/warning in case of discrepancies between CAD and actual part
• Sensing potential failures like warping, distortion, etc. and signalling to user
• Predicting failure modes of 3D printer parts before actual breakdown
• Constant availability of all information in internet, to be accessed by mobile phone, tablet or computer
• Controlling the possible printer settings online from distant location
• Erratic behaviours of machine to be automatically reported to machine manufacturers for improvement

The list goes on depending on individual experiences and expectations, but a common IoT architecture framework must satisfy majority of the issues. A suitable IoT architecture for such an application has the following four main layers.

  1. Sensing and perception layer
  2. Communication and networking layer
  3. Management service layer
  4. Application and interface layer
IoT architecture (Source: C#Corner) - 3D Printing and IoT
IoT architecture (Source: C#Corner)


Sensing and perception – 3D Printing and IoT

The main purpose of sensing and perception layer is sensing and collecting data from various components. It includes different types of sensors and interpretation devices. For our present application of 3D printer, the availability of filament can be checked by a simple mass or volume measuring sensor. Different non-contact height measurement sensors working on infrared, ultraviolet light and similar principles can be used to track the height of part being printed. Cameras to record building of the part would be really great, but involves expensive image processing and data storage techniques. CT scan and thermal analysis to capture and analyse parts are they are being built are already available in powder bed based metal additive manufacturing machines.

Communication and networking – 3D Printing and IoT

As the name suggests, this layer is responsible for transmitting the data acquired by the previous layer for further processing. The communication medium can be selected depending upon the requirement; generally LAN to connect to a limited range, and WAN to connect over long distances. In terms of IoT, a WAN makes more sense to connect the devices and operate through a common cloud. WiFi and Ethernet provisions are available in latest 3D printer versions, and they can just be expanded into IoT requirements.

Management service – 3D Printing and IoT

The management service layer is the most important entity to ensure a seamless IoT experience. Managing different devices, data analytics, security and overall control is taken care by this layer. Volumes of raw data received from different sensing systems are analysed, compared and meaningful decisions are taken based on predefined algorithms. These decisions are then signalled to corresponding actuators. The complexity of data processing is not too high like an industrial production scenario, but a meaningful processing capability is required to analyse the 3D printer’s print data. Adequate protections have to be ensured against hacking, loss and tampering of information flowing across internet. The actual comparison between CAD model and actual part is done in this layer. The processor can also be made to keep track of important components of the 3D printer. Working based on the predefined cycles/hours of operation, it’s an important tool in industries in preventive maintenance to avoid unexpected machine breakdowns. Such a wealth of information can be used by 3D printer manufacturers (or yourself if you built it) to study the failure trend and improve performance.

Application and interface – 3D Printing and IoT 

Application layer is the user interface with the 3D printer through remote means. Any required information such as build status, temperature and filament availability can be viewed and altered from a mobile phone or tablet connected to the internet. Creation of respective interfaces and application software provides wide range of flexibility to control the printer from anywhere in the world.

Such a ubiquitous connectivity enables us to initiate the prints, monitor the progress as we travel or work, and modify possible parameters remotely through handheld devices. One cannot discard the fact of experiencing unnoticed interruptions in printing after initiating a build job, only to discover very late that the machine has been idle for a long time. Such problems and breakdowns occurring in our absence can be immediately notified through networked mobile phones. Many more benefits are to be reaped in coming days. And it is not a long way to go; at the current pace of development, we can very soon expect a smart 3D printing experience.

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