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From dreams to reality, 3-D printers make their mark

by John Burfisher
Nov 20, 2012


Courtesy of Solidscape Inc.

3-D printers like these may look just like a traditional printer but they have the capability of producing tangible objects.


John Burfisher/MEDILL

3D Systems Corp. has grown tremendously in the last fiscal year.


John Burfisher/MEDILL

Rachel Brooks is co-founder of Citizen Made,a company that provides smaller businesses with customization software for products. Here Brooks holds up a 3D printed product.

Sarah Fentem/MEDILL

Brooklyn based Makerbot has grown to be a global leader in 3-D desktop printing.

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Citizen Made
A cover for a smartphone. Invisible braces to straighten teeth. An architectural model. What do the three have in common? There’s a very good chance they were manufactured using a fast-growing technology known as 3-D printing.

Three-D printed products are made like this: A computer image is sent to what looks like a traditional printer. The printer takes the image and uses a nozzle to layer liquid material onto itself. Layer upon layer the printer makes a solid 3-D object that looks exactly like the computer image.

“The printer squirts out plastic at the exact place where it’s supposed to be,” explains Erica Roberts, an industrial design graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When Roberts made a model of a chair for a class project, she used a 3-D printer that fabricated the model for her with the help of computer-aided design software, also known as CAD.

It’s not just architecture firms that love the technology.

Medical companies also are using 3-D printers to make customized products for patients such as Egyptian twins Mohamed and Ahmed Ibrahim who were conjoined at the head. A medical modeling company was able to provide 3-D printed tools that were made for that particular surgery, and after a daring 34-hour operation, the twins were successfully separated.

Other medical conditions such as aneurisms are being researched with 3-D products. The printers can actually cast the model of an aneurism so researchers can visualize the process of removing it.

Three-D printing actually has been around for 26 years, but just in the past year has it become more widespread. Even the traditional manufacturing industry may start feeling the effects because now everything from plastic to chocolate can be 3-D printed.

Not all of the potential products are benign. Cody Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas, is interested in making guns this way. Libertarians such as Wilson may not see the danger of anyone being able to make a weapon, but others do.

“3-D printed guns would pose a significant safety risk,” warns Ladd Everitt, director of communications for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. The good news, he says, is “It's not easy to print 3-D guns at this point. The technology is not quite there yet.” But it could be in the next 10 to 15 years, he adds.

Despite those concerns, lots of companies are already staking their future on the technology. 3D Systems Corp., which manufacturers the printers, is one of them.

The company just announced that it is acquiring Rapidform, a company based in South Korea, to provide 3-D scan-to-CAD software. The purchase is expected to contribute $15 million in revenue in 2013. It will add 90 resellers to its global distribution network, according to James Ricchiuti, an analyst with Needham and Co.

Stratasys Inc., another major publicly traded 3-D printer company, has grown both domestically and overseas in the past year. Revenues for the company were up 31 percent to a record $49 million.

A third player, Solidscape Inc., specializes in manufacturing smaller printers that can make and produce jewelry. Its printers can print to one-twelfth the size of a human hair. Not only do these printers make products, they also provide tremendous capabilities for research, industry experts say.

As 3-D printing becomes more prevalent, companies are making it so users without a technical engineering background can operate the printers.

In the next five years the printers are expected to get smaller, easier to use and more affordable. The most affordable product 3D Systems currently offers costs $1,300 and allows the average user to just plug in and print. “We are not just about democratizing access, we are about democratizing creativity so everyone can create in 3-D,” said Cathy Lewis, a spokeswoman for 3D Systems. “Students and educators need a tool kit to get engineer students to grasp the process and give them the right tools to get out there.”

Rachel Brooks is cofounder of Citizen Made, a company that provides smaller businesses with customization software. Citizen Made is partnering with Shapeways, the largest 3-D printing company in the world, to allow people to 3-D print without knowing how to use CAD software.

“The problem is people don’t know how to engineer in CAD. It’s very highly skilled technology so you have to know a lot and you have to go to school for this,” Brooks said. “This technology can only go so far if it is dependent on that skill.”

Lewis agreed, “The challenge today is our imagination. It is important to give people the tools they need without asking them to learn a whole new language.”

While the number of 3-D-printed products is growing, traditional manufacturing is not going away anytime soon. “To print a million of something still requires a traditional approach,” Lewis said. It depends on what companies are trying to accomplish and customize. Even though 3-D printing can be used in an office setting, it only has a limited capacity.

Still, others argue it’s time to change the face of manufacturing. Typically, manufacturers charge a hefty tooling and molding fee to companies who want prototypes of their products made. Solidscape spokesman Bill Dahl said that 3-D printing speeds up that process and reduces costs: “Now with 3-D, we can create an accurate part out of CAD design and it’s a matter of hours before you can cast and go into manufacturing.”

That also benefits small companies that can’t afford big contracts with overseas manufacturers to print their designs and find local sources to make the products, says Roberts, the industrial design student who now works as a junior product designer at Pottery Barn Kids.

Citizen Made’s Brooks agrees: “It’s going to change how production happens. It’s going to change manufacturing.”

3D Systems spokeswoman Lewis is very excited about what the next generation will be able to accomplish. “Over the 26 years in the history of 3-D printing maybe a half million people had touched 3-D printing. Now you put it in the hands of 6 or 7 billion and what they are going to create is going to be amazing.”