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Ignore the Shortfalls

Researchers Use Imprecise 3D Printing to Build Telescope

Picture of Hanna Watkin
by Hanna Watkin
Jun 7, 2018

In an effort to show how useful 3D printing can be when you only take the benefits of the technology and work around the negatives, researchers from Sandia National Laboratories have developed a 3D printed telescope in a third of the time and at a fifth of the traditional cost.

A team of researchers from Sandia National Laboratories decided to use 3D printing to build a telescope and demonstrate that it’s possible to take the strengths of the technology and embrace the weaknesses.

The idea behind the three-year Laboratory Directed Research and Development project was to approach additive manufacturing as though it were a brand new design tool. During this time, they moved away from the regular process of going from hand drawing to computer-assisted design to machining parts.

Rather than concentrating on printing precision parts, the researchers’ idea was to fabricate imprecise parts, quickly, which could then be assembled and perfected using precise tools.

The result was a ground-based telescope which was designed, rapidly prototyped and manufactured in about a third of the time of that required for a traditionally made telescope. It also cost just a fifth of the price and was lighter in weight too.

For this project, 3D printing, module design and image-correction algorithms all helped to save time and money. Ted Winrow, a mechanical engineer who led the project explains: “That’s the nuance that seems to get lost, that you have to design differently. It doesn’t plug into a standard design process.”

Using 3D Printing as a New Design Tool

The researchers explain that it’s possible to make a precision structure in two ways. Either you make every piece to exact tolerances or you make rough pieces and use precise assembly to compensate for any imprecise dimensions.

With the method used by the researchers, Winrow explains that you can shift money from recurring costs, “where every part has to be precise, to nonrecurring costs, where you’re just buying one set of tools that you can use for maybe 10 years… So when you’re making production runs you get cost savings. You’ve got time savings because you’re not waiting for each piece to be made.”

As we already know, 3D printing can produce lightweight complex parts that regular machining processes struggle with. However, the machining process can create a very precise part. Winrow explains that the real issue is whether we can design a system which is “insensitive to the things that additive is not very good at” so you can take advantage of the good things.

Interestingly, the team also approached the lens of the telescope in a similar manner – taking advantage of benefits while designing ways around shortfalls by developing software to maintain image properties.

Winrow adds: “If you talk about things you can give up, things you can compensate for after the fact, it opens up realms on the design side.”

Although the project has now ended, Sandia structural designers will be taking the learnings from it to benefit further designs. To find out more about the researcher’s work and the lenses they developed, read more on the Sandia website.


License: The text of "Researchers Use Imprecise 3D Printing to Build Telescope" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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