EYE ON INNOVATION: Watch the Final Four in VR? A Slam Dunk, Almost.

So your office pool NCAA tournament bracket has long been busted. And March Madness has just made you Mad in March. At this point, you may not even care who wins this weekend.

Photo: Associated Press

Well, here’s a cool way to break out of your funk: Watch the Final Four in virtual reality. The NCAA announced earlier this week that this weekend’s Final Four and National Championship games will be, for the first time ever, live-streamed in virtual reality, including a virtual scoreboard with live stats, game commentary and arena sounds.

Sweet, right? Well, mostly sweet. As TheVerge.com notes, the NCAA is using the term “virtual reality” a bit liberally. First, basketball fans will need to get hold of a Samsung Gear VR to download the NCAA March Madness Live app in the Oculus Store. Second, the streamed video will only occupy 180 degrees — not the full 360-degree sphere. Finally, if you don’t have a Gear VR, the NCAA is making a 2D version of the 180-degree stream available on the web, and 360-degree highlight footage will be posted to the NCAA March Madness page on Facebook.  Continue reading

3D-Printed Molds vs. Aluminum Tooling

Industrial 3D printing has made a tremendous impact on the manufacturing world. Rapid prototypes are possible within a day, material selection continues to grow stronger and parts with un-manufacturable designs have found their happy place. Recently, some companies have begun using this important technology to produce injection molds.

Molds made with thermoplastics-based 3D printing are kind of like the plastic storage sheds some of us put in our back yards. They’re a little cheaper than metal sheds. They go up quickly and are fine under light loads. Pile too much snow on them, however, and they’ll collapse like a house of cards.

A 3D-printed Digital ABS mold built in an Objet Connex machine.

Still, printed molds have their place, and some shops have had good success with them. Proponents argue that 3D printing produces molds up to 90 percent faster and 70 percent cheaper than using traditional moldmaking processes. And while this may be true in some circumstances, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of printed plastic molds compared to those machined from metal.

Quality is king. 3D printing builds parts in layers. Because of this, printed parts can exhibit a stair-step effect on any angled surface or wall. Printed molds are no different, and require machining or sanding to remove these small, jagged edges. Holes smaller than 0.039 in. (1mm) must be drilled, larger holes reamed or bored, and threaded features tapped or milled. All of these secondary operations eliminate much of the “print-to-press” speed advantage associated with printed molds.

Size matters. Part volumes are limited to 10 cubic inches (164 cm3), roughly the size of a grapefruit. And although modern additive machines have impressive accuracy, they cannot compete with the machining centers and EDM equipment at Proto Labs, which routinely machine mold cavities to +/- 0.003 in. (0.076mm) and part volumes up to approximately 59 cubic inches, about six times larger than parts made with 3D printing.

The heat is on. To make material flow properly, injection molding requires very high temperatures. Aluminum and steel molds are routinely subjected to temperatures 500°F (260°C) or greater, especially when processing high-temperature plastics such as PEEK and PEI (Ultem). Aluminum tools can easily produce many thousands of parts, and can also serve as bridge tooling until a production mold is available. Molds produced with SL and similar 3D printing technologies use either photoreactive or thermoset resin, which is cured by ultraviolet or laser light respectively. These plastic molds, though relatively hard, break down fairly quickly when subjected to the demanding thermal cycles of injection molding. In fact, printed molds typically become ineffective within 100 shots of soft, hot plastic such as polyethylene or styrene, and may produce only a handful of parts from glass-filled polycarbonate and other tough thermoplastics.

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WHITE PAPER: Choosing the Right Material for 3D Printing

We have a saying here at Proto Labs, “Materials Matter.”

To learn more about selecting the right material for 3D printing, download our free white paper.

Indeed, material properties are an especially key piece to consider in the case of industrial 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, which is different from traditional manufacturing methods.

To help you sort through the properties — from tensile strength to yield strength, elongation at break to hardness — we’ve published a comprehensive new white paper, “Selecting the Right Material for 3D Printing.” The paper explores recent improvements and advancements in materials used in 3D printing, and then goes in depth to cover materials that work best for three frequently used technologies: direct metal laser sintering, selective laser sintering and stereolithography.

This new white paper is part of a range of resources in our online library of 3D printing content that includes design tips, case studies, videos and other white papers. We also have a staff of experienced customer service engineers who can discuss design questions that may arise. Find us at protolabs.com or call us at 877-479-3680.


The New Automotive Disrupters: Tech Giants

The automotive industry has stood as the life blood of American manufacturing for decades. It is the heart of the Detroit economy and in recent years has faced many challenges, but some of the greatest challenges have just begun. Tech giants such as Google, Apple and Tesla, to name a few, are poised to drive new levels of competition. It’s fair to say these companies qualify as a Big Bang disruption that is a major industry change instigated by non-traditional players in the market.

Most of us still think of the automobile primarily as a tool to bring us from point A to point B, but cars and trucks have become so more than just transportation. Many modern cars are a fully connected infotainment system that just happen to be on four wheels. The automobile has become a mobile conglomerate of computer and technology devices — a true command center supporting the driver with much more than just driving.

Another way to look at this shift is with the electronic device industry. A decade ago, the handheld GPS was a very common and useful tool. Today, GPS navigation is almost an afterthought on your smartphone since it’s as simple as downloading a user-friendly app. This is just one of many seismic digital shifts in the past 10 years.

However, while the technology-based companies leading the electronic infiltration into the automotive world certainly have the computing chops, the knowledge, depth and infrastructure that comes with manufacturing electronic components for the automotive industry is still developing. These tech giants must acclimate to model years and multi-year platforms compared to frequent software updates — two fundamentally different ideologies colliding.

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Awards Season at Proto Labs

Proto Labs and its employees have been lucky enough to receive recent awards from one national organization and two Minnesota-based publications.

Manufacturing Leadership Award
We took home Frost & Sullivan’s Manufacturing Leadership Award in the Customer Value category. The nomination was based on the customer value created through Proto Labs’ interactive quoting system with DFM analysis. Other winners in the same category include Cisco Systems, Diebold, Lexmark and Dow Chemical.

Community Impact Award
Minnesota Business Magazine presented us with a 2016 Community Impact Award in the Youth Initiative category for the efforts of the Proto Labs Foundation and its contributions to STEM programming. Since 2014, the Foundation has provided nearly $350,000 in large grants to nonprofit organizations, like Code Savvy, for their programs and initiatives that support STEM education.

Titans of Technology
Proto Labs’ EVP and CTO Don Krantz was selected by Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal as an honoree at its 2016 Titans of Technology awards, which celebrates outstanding technology professionals. Krantz was recognized in the CIO/CTO category, which honors a top IT executive of a public, private or nonprofit company.