Xerox: ‘Making the Un-Makeable: The Future of 3D Printing’

3D printer

In the following blog post, Michelle Chretien, a materials scientist and research leader in the fields of electronic materials and 3D printing at the Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC), discusses the future of 3D printing – specifically, “3D-printing the un-makeable.”

Last year, in an October conference call with investors, Xerox CEO John Vistentin had commented on Xerox’s possible entry into the 3D-printer market, announcing that Xerox is developing “a road map to participate in 3D printing.”  Xerox may discuss this road map further at an investors’ conference scheduled for February 5th in New York City. Note that Xerox also manufacturers print heads used by third-party partners for additive (3D printing) at its Wilsonville, Oregon, location. As with HP Inc., we suspect that if Xerox does bring a Xerox-branded 3D printer to market, it will be designed for prototyping and/or production applications, not for the overcrowded consumer 3D-printer market.

Following is Xerox research scientist Chretin’s blog post:

“Imagine a world where athletes wear mouth guards that monitor their heart rate as well as levels of oxygen, cortisol, and glucose — then transmit the data back to coaches on the sidelines. Or where the perfect pair of glasses can be printed following a scan of the face, with sensors and displays embedded in the lenses. Batteries wouldn’t be a problem — they can be printed into the frame of the glasses too.

This is the type of world Michelle Chrétien envisions for the future — a world where printed smart objects are part of our everyday lives.

Why are 3D printing and printed electronics exciting spaces to work in?

Where do I start? What’s really exciting to me about 3D printing and printed electronics is not so much making conventional things in a different way, but the possibility to make things that were un-makeable before. I like to describe our work as being at the intersection of printed electronics and 3D printing. We want to produce unconventional objects by printing form and function together.

We’re also interested in inventing new materials for printing conventional objects with improved properties — making them, for example, harder, shinier or bouncier. Moving across that divide to being able to print form and function together is really exciting.

How important is 3D printing?

Today, we’re still at the early stages of 3D printing but the potential is massive. It’s already a useful prototyping tool in the manufacturing value chain but there are plenty of opportunities still to be exploited. There’s the potential to avoid waste. For example, are we able to produce things with less material waste in terms of tooling? There’s also the manufacturing portability; you could imagine taking a small 3D printer up to a space station or down into a mine to produce things on the spot and on demand.

Part of what we’re trying to do at our research center is enable the printing of more complicated, functional objects. So we’re developing new types of “smart” inks that can be used to add functionality. Our research is focused on moving past the traditional metal powders and plastics that are used in current 3D printers.  We want to invent materials that will take 2D and 3D printing beyond shapes and colors.

We hope that our work will enable the additive manufacturing of truly functional objects with applications in everything from wearables to automotive. There are a lot of researchers interested in this space and many companies are starting to the test the market. I think there’ll be interesting products starting to come to market soon. It’s an exciting time to be working in the field.

What does additive manufacturing mean?

Additive manufacturing is a term that refers to a process where items are made by adding material in contrast to many conventional “subtractive” manufacturing techniques. When you use a lathe or a CNC machine to even a hammer and chisel to produce a part, you are using a subtractive manufacturing process. For example, a metal sprocket can be created by carving the shape out of a block of metal, effectively “subtracting” the excess metal to reveal the part. Or you can produce the sprocket in an “additive” way by printing the shape directly by fusing together metal powder in a metal 3D printer. In this way, only the metal required to form the part is used.

3D printer and hammer

Tell us about your work with printed electronics

I’ve been lucky to work at XRCC which is really a pioneer in the design and manufacture of electronic materials. Over the last decade we’ve developed everything from conductive silver nanoparticle inks to semiconducting polymers, to metal complex based inks.

My lab also works on integrating materials with different printing technologies. For example, we’ve coupled digital printing with robotic motion control so we can print on all sorts of different objects, not just flat surfaces. We can do large features using a robotic arm, or we can do very fine resolution, less than the width of a human hair.

With this printing capability and our ability to develop new materials, we’re looking at being able to print really interesting circuits and sensors on, or in, three dimensional objects. The aim is to put all the pieces together so when an object is produced, you’re adding in electronic circuitry along with the structural elements to generate a complex, interesting, and functional object. This will hopefully move device design out-of-the-box — designers will be able to create new products where the form factor isn’t limited by the shape of a conventional circuit board.

Printed electronics

Where do you see printed electronics taking us?

There are materials and other challenges that still need to be addressed in order to enable the technology for fully printed smart objects — but then the sky’s the limit. Really interesting things are already being demonstrated today just with conformal printing. For example, you can print sensors directly onto the surface of pipes — maybe, a flow sensor, or some sort of chemical sensor on the inside. Or leak sensors on the outside of oil and gas pipelines.Obviously, pipes are not exactly complex objects but it’s a good example of a non-flat surface.

printed electronics on a pipeline

But there are so many possibilities. Anything that’s manufactured in a conventional way, you could potentially do it in a customizable, on-demand way using printing.

So, let’s think about a hearing aid or a mouth guard with embedded electronics. Somebody took a scan of your ear or your jaw and teeth and now it’s printed just to fit you exactly. Maybe your mouth guard has sensors to monitor your blood oxygen level while you’re playing sports. Or maybe it’s got an embedded sensor that measures your heart rate and maybe glucose in your saliva. And all of that data is sent wirelessly to your coach on the bench who’s saying, ‘Hey, that guy needs a Gatorade.’

These types of customized devices will be part of the Internet of Things environment. When we’re designing new architectures and looking at printing new objects that are completely functional, we’re also thinking about how these objects communicate. It’s fun to be able to print a sensor, but we need to power the sensor, and we need to store the data from the sensor or we need to send that data somewhere else, otherwise it’s not a truly smart object, right?

Can you talk about your work developing materials?

3D printing is one piece of what we do. But we have a lot of firepower in the new materials design space in general. We help our clients design, develop, and demonstrate new materials for a variety of applications. Our team has made some really interesting progress in terms of evolving new materials for existing 3D printing processes. We’re interested in inventing materials that have new functions or combine different properties. So maybe it’s rubbery or maybe it’s shiny. Maybe it’s conductive and rubbery or perhaps thermally insulating and really robust. We’re looking at different combinations.

Gloved hands holding an eyedropper

Are the worlds of software and materials science almost merging?

In a way, yes. I had a discussion once with someone who said innovation is now largely about software. They said, ‘Well, look at Silicon Valley.’ I said, ‘Yes, silicon! It’s a material.’ There is a lot of innovation in software and services, but honestly, what makes a hard drive? What stores data? Materials. Material innovations are part of what has led to the dramatic increase in computing power. Materials are an enabling component of just about everything.

How did you become interested in materials science?

I’m a curious person by nature — so asking questions and trying to figure things out is just something I’ve always done. When I was going through my chemistry degree, I took a class in material science. I was intrigued because it felt like the closest thing to real life, application-oriented kind of science. I became really interested.

After I finished my undergraduate degree, I decided to go to graduate school. Our group was studying photochemistry and photo-physics, and projects related to some key photochemical reactions. But I was much more drawn to the projects that were about how we leverage chemistry to get interesting properties out of materials.

From there, I ended up working on projects in sunscreens, and sensors, and all sorts of interesting things. It became really clear that was where my passion was — making science work.

How did you come to work at Xerox?

While I was doing my PhD I wasn’t really aware of science that was happening at Xerox, particularly in chemistry and material science. But I had the chance to run across a research scientist from XRCC, who described the kinds of exciting things that were happening. They were looking for a photo-chemist at the time so I gave them my CV.

I visited the center and was really impressed by the science and even more so by the incredible group of people I met. There were really smart, interesting people working on projects that had actual, real-world applications. The non-technical environment and feel of the center at the time was also really welcoming. I definitely noticed how balanced the center was from a diversity perspective, which I thought was really interesting. In engineering and the physical sciences in general you still tend to be a minority as a woman — XRCC didn’t feel like that at all.

As soon as I joined, I started working on an inkjet ink project. It was eye-opening, I had no idea, really, the kind of science behind producing materials for printing. I think that started my romance with printing.

Scientist with 3D printer

What do you like about working at Xerox?

I think part of what’s really neat about working at a place like Xerox, or a research center like XRCC, is that it’s a really dynamic environment, things are always changing. I’m also really inspired by the people I get to interact with in tackling hard problems.

I think that bringing together people of different backgrounds and experiences is in the DNA of the way that the Xerox innovation group works. I love working in a multidisciplinary environment and having a multidisciplinary team. I love that nobody ever really agrees, I love that everybody’s got a different perspective. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I get really uncomfortable when I’m in a room and everybody’s agreeing with me! Luckily it doesn’t happen very often.

I also really enjoy talking to our customers, when someone comes with an idea or a problem — really cool things come out of those conversations. This comes back to my passion for applied science. I love science that works. At XRCC I have the opportunity to work with smart and creative people to develop new understanding and then leverage that knowledge to do something new and useful. That’s what’s great about working here.”

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