Since the earliest patents for additive manufacturing devices have started to expire, the 3-D printing industry is entering a Wild West sort of stage, where innovators of new technologies will be championed and rewarded for bringing additive manufacturing to the next level.

Joe Sinclair and Innovation Park-based Solid Dynamics hope to be one of those companies at the forefront of this expansion.

The Penn State graduate has sat by different 3-D printers in his Innovation Park lab space for the last two years, watching as different liquid polymers are spun, squirted, molded, and assembled into whatever device his clients request. Taking entire design elements from his clients and tweaking or customizing them using his own engineering skills, Sinclair and his team first use computer-aided drafting software to mock up a blueprint. That blueprint is then introduced into one of 14 3-D printing machines Solid Dynamics uses.

The machines take it from there. Cheaper builds using quicker printers are an option for clients looking for rapid turnaround time. More expensive options use printers that take longer and print the smoothest, most professional looking components for assembly. 

But even these top-of-the-line printers don’t always do the job well, and Sinclair and his company are ready to revolutionize the way Solid Dynamics prototypes devices for its clients. They hope to make the process more efficient by introducing a printer that can “think for itself.”

“3-D printers are extremely stupid machines,” Sinclair says. “Right now, I have to sit by the machine, babysit it until the component is done, and take the component off, measure everything to make sure it will fit together—and a lot of times it won’t.”

“If I design a nut and a bolt, and I print them to spec the first time, they’re not going to fit together. It’s just something that doesn’t happen in additive manufacturing.”

Sinclair calls himself a “babysitter” or really a machines-sitter. It’s not a misnomer. Until now engineers have had to closely monitor 3-D printers to ensure error-free operation. If there is a hang-up — think of a paper jam in your home office printer — someone has to be there to fix it, or the prototype is a loss.

“If they are at a tolerance, or if they’re just completely failing, the device itself has no way of detecting that,” Sinclair says. “So it’s up to a highly-trained operator to be able to correct those problems before the prototype is ruined.”

Considering Sinclair and his team pride themselves on their ability to complete prototypes in as little as a few days — jobs that would have taken months and months just a few years ago — efficiency is critical.

He believes there’s opportunity in making the prototyping process more fluid. The less time it takes to fabricate a serviceable prototype, the more time his clients have to test it.

Enter Sinclair’s innovation.

Solid Dynamics has built a new 3-D printer that, for the first time, introduces quality control measures and feedback mechanism software that will alert the machine when something is wrong. Patents are pending for the machine that the company plans to both use internally and sell to third parties.

The new system will make the prototyping stage more efficient and will eliminate costly back-and-forth with clients who may find that the prototype (as it is originally designed) doesn’t hold up structurally when tested. 

What was previously more of a guessing game in terms of which additives and polymers would best work for certain projects will now be a more exact science.

“With our design, you can introduce a drawing into our proprietary CAD software, which is very user-friendly, then the 3-D printer will optimize that CAD model for fabrication,” Sinclair says. “The device will start fabricating your component on its own, and will check the component for dimensional integrity and structural integrity as the component is being fabricated.”

And, no, Sinclair isn’t worried about better 3-D printers making the engineers who operate them obsolete. 

“We don’t want to continue using the same machines with the same problems for the next 10 years,” Sinclair says. “People are still going to be having the same headaches, and they will have to continue to come to us for solutions. If we can get to the point where we sell machines plus software that improves quality and turnaround time, that’s beneficial.”