If you’ve heard of ray tracing but not quite sure what it means to your business or the world outside of Gen Z gamers, huddled alone in dark basements; we’re here to give you the lowdown.

What exactly is ray tracing?

Ray tracing is the process of following the path of a ray of light as it travels and bounces off of surfaces.  This technology has seen a surge in popularity due to new gaming consoles and graphics cards able to perform real-time ray tracing. This gives users a more detailed and realistic image of their content. While you may have just recently heard about the wonders of ray tracing, it was actually first discovered in the 16th century, back when peak gaming consisted of chess, checkers and a rousing contest of backgammon. But there are more applications than meet the eye.

Engineers dig it.

As engineers, ray tracing is essential to us in developing all kinds of innovations in multiple fields; including optics, architecture, automotive, and many more. Ray tracing software provides realistic lighting scenarios by simulating the physical behavior of light and tracing the path the light would take when travelling. When we combine it with 3D design software, it kicks it up a notch and allows us to observe the effects of light on a prototype before the prototype is built. This helps to save time and money in the prototyping process.   

Ray tracing goes mainstream.

Ray tracing has real world uses, like when a designer is developing automotive headlights. Ray tracing software is essential in determining the overall light field, and the intensity at different degrees off of the main focus of the beam. The beams are at their brightest in the  midline of the car’s path and progressively get dimmer the further away from the center focus of the beam. This is an intentional design choice that stops the headlights from blinding oncoming traffic. If you look at your headlights there are reflectors and lenses that help shape the light. An engineer can build a prototype to test these patterns, however by using ray tracing technology an engineer can make adjustments and see the effects of those changes throughout the process. This saves time and money. Compare today’s car lights to those manufactured in the 90’s. While you were rocking out to Pearl Jam and driving to Blockbuster, you probably didn’t notice your car lights were much dimmer and not as effective at dispersing those light rays. You also may not have noticed that older lights have a softer progression from the brightest point to the outer diameter of the light. Newer cars have a much sharper contrast on the outer edge of the light cone so as not to blind oncoming traffic and to better focus the light. Credit the progress in ray tracing technology for allowing engineers to run tests before a prototype is ever built. Being able to narrow down design options makes our lives a little bit easier and saves time and money while getting products to market more quickly.

Ray tracing – fighting the good fight.

Today, industries all over the world are using ray tracing technology to create photo-realistic images of the heart, brain, and other vital organs in order to better target tumor growth and treat other medical defects. Ray tracing can also combat viruses such as SARS, H1N1, and COVID by helping to determine the light intensity and the effectiveness of UV light in eradicating airborne viruses. PWI’s sister company Aero Biotek used this very technology to create a revolutionary method of continually cleaning the air in aircraft. Check out how Aero Biotek neutralizes viruses with a little help from ray tracing, at www.aerobiotek.com . In short, ray tracing technology has progressed far beyond enhancing the gaming experience, to helping mankind fight real-world battles. Ray tracing – it’s not just for gamers anymore.

We have seen the future and it is 3D printing! 

Not quite…in reality, the first commercially available 3D printer was actually released in 1984. So, if you indulged in the 80’s bomber jacket and big hair, but you didn’t end up purchasing a 3D printer, you were not alone. Few 3D printers were sold at that time. It’s only been in the last ten years that 3D printers have become more common in all types of industry.

So, what’s the best 3D printer for your manufacturing purposes? Here’s a breakdown of some of the more popular choices.

The Stereolithography or SLA printer, is the Grand Pappy of all 3D printers. This was also the first commercially available 3D printer. The SLA uses a UV laser to trace resin one layer at a time. The UV light further cures the resin as additional layers are added. The use of a laser makes this process incredibly accurate and some machines even use multiple lasers to speed up this process and maintain accuracy. However, you can guess the downside to this style of printer-it’s not nearly as fast as other types of 3D printers. Also, if you increase the number of lasers, it can increase the overall price tag of the unit as well as increase the current draw from the wall. 

Up next, the Digital Light Processing printer or DLP. If SLA is the Grand Pappy of the 3D printing world, this is the quick and agile whippersnapper. In the same vein as the SLA this printing process uses UV light to cure layers of resin. However, the difference is that instead of a laser this uses an LCD screen to cure an entire layer at one time. Curing an entire layer at once drastically increases the speed of the 3D print. The limiting factor on this style of printer is the resolution. Just like on a TV, the resolution on the screen makes a massive difference in the image clarity. Looking at a 4K screen, you get a clear, crisp picture. By contrast, looking at a 720p screen is bound to be pretty blurry. Depending on the resolution you prefer, more post process work like sanding or polishing, may be required. On the up side, this style of printer is very reasonable priced. FYI-the higher resolution screens will cost you a bit more.

Lastly, let’s take a look at the Direct Metal Laser Sintering or DMLS. Now, to introduce the big boy of the printer world (we prefer to say he’s just big-boned) – the DMLS! Physically these units are much bigger, have a lot more moving parts and are truly able to be used in end product manufacturing. While the other 2 types of printers are used primarily for prototyping or one-offs, the DMLS can be scaled up to produce many parts at once. Just like the SLA, the DMLS uses lasers to create the forms. A thin layer of metal is deposited as the laser creates the forms, then the part is moved down and another layer of metal is deposited to be set in place by the laser again. As you can guess, the cost of this large-and-in-charge printer will set you back a bit, but if you’re looking for a highly specialized or large quantity manufacturing printer, can justify the purchase of the DMLS.

Here at PWI, we use the Fused Filament Fabricator or FFF. When customers need prototypes or we engineers need a design brought to life, the FFF gets the job done. The FFF can use a variety of filaments, but we prefer polyethylene terephthalate filament (PET) or poly lactic acid (PLA) filament because they’re nontoxic and fairly versatile. These filaments work great for when customers need a quick prototype or when we engineers need to truly visualize our concepts. 

3D printing offers limitless opportunities for all types of companies. You never know when a 3D prototype will be helpful to close a deal or take your presentation to the next level. Let’s face it, you’ll also have a bit of a cool factor when you can casually say, “Let me fire up my 3D printer and I’ll get you a prototype, ASAP”. 

When you hear the word “Spark”, many images come to mind…like electricity, maybe an idea, or an ignition, maybe even fire? That’s the idea behind the launch of PWI’s first  blog, titled The Spark

With The Spark, we hope to ignite inspiration, curiosity, understanding and maybe even solutions. Our new blog will center around a variety of topics including coding, magnetometers, UV light, transistors and much more. As you may have guessed, these topics relate to engineering – specifically electrical and software engineering but there may be a rogue topic here or there. We also want you to help call the shots. If you want to discuss or explore more on a topic, let us know! We probably want to dive into the details just as much as you!

So, who will be offering up these pearls of wisdom, information and advice? PWI is proud to have a team of engineers and drafting ninjas that boast more than 100 years of combined engineering experience. They are knowledgeable about the latest in engineering trends and topics as well as new ideas that will make a difference to you!

A new Spark will light up our website about every six weeks so we’ll also give you a heads up when it’s posted. In the meantime, tell us what you want to understand and discuss! Email us at blog@pwi-e.com if you have a suggestion or you just want to chat. We’d love to hear from you. Every fire starts with a spark. Click here to read the next installment of The Spark and discover more about the future of manufacturing! Hint: it’s printable!