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3-D printers are triggering an explosion in global innovation

When Nancy Sterman met her true love Alex Fernandez at Canalside, it was no wonder they hit it off from the start. Both artists and teachers, they bonded over their passion for children’s education and the Buffalo arts community. He invited her to the Belle Center where he taught technology to kids as a volunteer.

Today Fernandez is a professional teaching artist at Young Audiences of Western New York, where Sterman is director, and uses 3-D design and printing to integrate math, science, technology and engineering into lessons about art.

So when the couple got engaged last month, he popped the question with a plastic ring – one they designed together and created using a 3-D printer.

“It was a perfect way for him to do it,” said Sterman, whose permanent engagement ring was modeled after the 3-D prototype in diamonds, emeralds and white gold.

Soon, every consumer may have their own story about how 3-D printing plays a role in their lives. The printers – once something of science fiction – are now available in retail stores, and their uses are growing.

There is the 7-year-old North Carolina boy who, born without fully formed fingers on his left hand, received a new prosthetic hand printed in less than 24 hours and costing less than $20. There’s the Teletón Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Mexico, which has been able to reproduce critical medical equipment for a fraction of its commercial cost, the Foodini in Barcelona capable of printing a five-course meal using edible materials, and the astronaut at the International Space Station who printed a wrench for use in outer space. There are also the thousands upon thousands of “maker” hobbyists who use the technology to create everything from custom chess sets and remote-control cars to house lamps and speakers.

‘Market of one’

The 3-D printers are expected to empower consumers, and disrupt businesses, like never before; much like the iPhone changed the face of consumer photography and MP3s changed the way we enjoy music.

“3-D printing is going to change a lot of the ways we go about our daily lives,” said Kemper Lewis, chairman of the mechanical engineering and aerospace engineering department at the University at Buffalo. “We’ve moved from manufacturing for a market of millions to a market of one.”

Also called “additive manufacturing,” 3-D printing allows users to create three-dimensional objects from a digital file. Either a Computer Aided Design file is made using a 3-D modeling program, or a 3-D scanner is used to replicate an existing object. The printer, guided by the file, constructs the object by laying down layer upon horizontal layer and turning each two-dimensional slice into a full, three-dimensional object. In some processes, the layers are created by a laser fusing together powdered pieces of glass, metal, ceramic or plastic. In others, layers are created by softened material that squirts out, like frosting being squeezed onto a cake.

Copier Fax Business Technologies, a company on Ellicott Street with offices in Rochester, added Konica Minolta 3D Systems printers to the line of products it sells to commercial customers. The Cube, which can produce objects up to 6½ inches high, retails for $999. The Cube Pro, to make up to 10 inches high, starts at $2,799. Cubify Design software associated with the printer simplifies the CAD process – bringing it from something that formerly required a staff of engineers to operate, down to a more accessible, user-friendly format. The “ink,” spools of melted plastic filament, are $50 apiece. An iSense 3D scanner, which mounts to an iPad and translates scanned images to digital files via a free app, sells for $499.

The company already has found a core market among educators who, like Fernandez, use the printers to bring lessons to life in the classroom. Biology and chemistry students can print cross-sections of organs or models of molecules, geography students can print topographical maps, engineering students can print parts to make articulated models, even robots.

“We had BOCES in here and they flipped out,” said Al Scibetta, the company’s president. “The educational market is unbelievable.”

Future uses

The device’s commercial uses are plentiful. Companies can create prototypes within hours, as opposed to the traditional weeks-long wait. Designers and architects can transform renderings into scale models with ease. Manufacturers can print their own replacement parts for their machines and modify products quicker than ever before.

Not only is it expected to change how products go to market, it’s also expected to change how products get into consumers’ hands.

“A car manufacturer, say, will no longer sell parts, they’ll sell you a file,” said David Scibetta, executive vice president at Copier Fax. “You’ll print up your own door handle or the knob for your radio. That’s the way the business model is going.”

That scenario cuts out manufacturing and shipping costs for companies. But it may not be long before consumers cut out commercial producers entirely in some cases.

Fast moving

A price drop and wider availability of consumer-level 3-D printers has opened the technology to everyday consumers. High-end commercial and scientific printers can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but already, you can find a 3-D printer for less than $1,000 at Home Depot and spools of filament for less than $30. Less expensive printers can be had for about $300 online. And thanks to a devoted community of hobbyists, there are hundreds of thousands of open source files available for free on the Web at sites such as Thingiverse, GrabCAD and YouMagine. Files – for everything from dragon figurines and action figures to camera lens adapters and women’s shoes – are being added and improved every day.

The Central Library downtown has a 3-D printer in its community Launch Pad Maker Space. Once patrons complete a one-on-one preparation course to learn how to use the machine, they can use it for free, paying a few cents per gram on each printed product.

Someday, consumers may have custom-fit eyeglasses printed while they wait at the optometrist’s office. Diners could print foods personalized to their own specific nutritional needs. Forget drones, Amazon could have products delivered through your printer rather than your doorstep. If UB engineering professor Deborah Chung can successfully complete a concrete printer she is working on, it could vastly change the face of construction and architecture as we know it. And on-demand product manufacturing could usher in an era of truly sustainable products.

Global creativity

But while the possible applications of 3-D printing are endless, some of the science involved needs to catch up to the human imagination.

“We really don’t understand some of the core material processes yet,” Lewis said. “We are limited by some of the core understanding of current materials and how they’re processed, but we’re also limited by the finite number of materials that we can actually print right now.”

New printing materials are constantly coming to market, and not a lot is known about how they behave under certain conditions. There also have been issues with material quality and consistency. That can prevent some creations from reaching their full potential, or lead to finished products that don’t function properly.

Also, while the democratization of design is something to be celebrated, Lewis said, designers without an understanding of engineering may not know how to make products that are viable and can perform, instead of just looking good. To remedy that, research is being done to figure out ways of capturing the qualitative engineering knowledge of the average engineer and automate it within 3-D modeling programs. And because of the collaborative nature of open-source files and Creative Commons licensing, consumers can work together to troubleshoot problems and make improvements.

“From an innovative perspective, that takes advantage of the collective capital across the globe and taps into people’s creative consciousness and innovative abilities,” Lewis said.