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You’re at the gas station, filling up, in a bit of a hurry. The nozzle finally clicks, you jam it back in its dock, you tear off your receipt and haul away–as your gas cap bounces off in a cloud of exhaust behind you. Whoops.
Not a problem, though: you can just print out a replacement cap at home.
In today’s context, that might be a little absurd, but the evolving field of 3D printers–able to produce usable objects, even with moving parts–has imaginations whirring and markets on watch. The applications are numerous, even entering the realm of organ transplants: reportedly possible this year is the first 3D-printed liver.
Tom Kurke, an expert in 3D digital modeling, realizes that’s all a bit much to process, especially for the uninitiated, and that some of the imagining goes far beyond today’s reality. But during a talk at UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on Thursday, he assured the excitement over the field is not only justified, but encouraged.
“People should be excited about the technology, even knowing its current limitations,” Kurke, former president of 3D software company GeoMagic, said in an interview. “Put it in the context of where it’s likely to go.”
A 3D printer works by layering material–usually a plastic or metal–in the shape of a digitally scanned or designed object. In the most basic sense, whatever design is sent to the 3D printer becomes a reality.
It can be a jet engine part; it can be a plastic turtle.
Kurke warned against smothering the technology’s realities with sci-fi; we’re not at the stage of 3D printers in every home, and they’re not like the replicators featured on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
But, he said, “If you’re a business owner thinking about new and cool things to do, this is taking an existing technology and finding a very interesting way to tap an unmet market need.”
He even noted food-making printers during an interview Thursday.
Out of the head, into the hands
While the consumer market is sort of at its dawn, the technology isn’t new; manufacturing and product development fields have used 3D printers for years–decades, actually–and they’re well exercised in the Wilmington area.
Loren Gulak of Wilmington’s Gulak Design Studios has worked with the machines for more than 10 years, his company dealing in product design and prototyping.
“It’s mainly a way to get ideas out of my head and into my hands to test or use, for myself and for clients,” he said.
It’s also made Gulak’s life more convenient. He related how he’d wanted a way to hang his headphones on the side of his computer. Rather than shrug, he digitally drew up a design that he zapped over to his 3D printer. It created a plastic part that did the job.
“For someone who sees a lot of opportunity to make life easier through solving physical problems, a 3D printer is an amazing tool to quickly come up with solutions and try out new ideas that can either become economically viable or just fun to show off,” he said.
Product development firm New Potato Technologies, headquartered off North College Road in Wilmington, first acquired a 3D printer in 2006 to create parts for prototypes with speed and accuracy.
“3D printing is pinnacle these days for transforming product concepts from the napkin to production in the shortest number of steps,” said Stuart Ross, the company’s CEO. “Whether realizing design concepts, checking out the look and feel of a new product, or simply verifying the engineering of components, the 3D printer is invaluable in turning tasks that once took weeks into a matter of hours.”
Cape Fear Community College has been 3D printing for a decade in its manufacturing courses. Randy Johnson, chairman of the school’s engineering department, said it routinely supplies students with machine parts and prototypes they need, relatively quickly. The printer uses a polymer base, sprayed into the shape of an object they’ve designed.
“We’ll design something, a component or part of some nature, then we’ll send it to the 3D printer so that the 3D printer runs overnight. So when we start working again the next morning, we’ll have that prototype in our hands,” Johnson said.
Among the technology’s cutting edges is the ability to print with metal, Johnson said, though the printer at his school isn’t as updated.
But the advances, which are coming steadily, could force local programs to evolve as such.
“It’s becoming more prevalent in manufacturing,” Johnson said, “and therefore becoming more and more of a substantial component in our training processes.”
Kurke said studies of the 3D printing industry give it a present day value of about $2 billion, and that entrepreneurs here will want to follow its progress.
Although hype abounds regarding consumer uses, he said exciting ideas are swirling.
“I would not be surprised if next year you have a place where you can have a 3D printed [Christmas] card or 3D printed ornament for your tree. There’s no reason why somebody isn’t going to make 3D printed toppers for your wedding cakes. There’s going to be people who use 3D printers for orthotics,” he said. “There’s a lot of incredible tech opportunities … and I couldn’t even begin to think about all of them.”
It’s also called for ethics and legal discussions: could this be a counterfeiter’s dream machine?
“I think we’re on the cusp of the next Napster era,” Kurke said, referring to the old file-sharing program highlighted for music and movie piracy issues.
On another front, firearms have already been printed.
3D printers are available today for as low as $1,000; more often they’re between $2,000-$3,000. (Those models are not to be confused with the more industrial-grade, metal-printing models, which cost considerably more.)
Wilmington resident Robert Woodhead said he purchased one about a year ago, and he sees the machines going through the same type of evolution that personal computers experienced in the late 1970s-early 1980s. At first, it’ll be an exclusive, club-type crowd of 3D-printer owners. As the market evolves, they’ll become more common.
“The printers will get easier to use and the resolution will go up, plus they will be usable on more types of materials,” he said. “They will get used more and more for small, low-quantity production runs.”
Woodhead, a game designer, robot builder and founder of Japanese-film company AnimEigo, said he’s used his model to created a number of around-the-house objects.
“I’ve made a lot of math-based baby rattles,” he quipped.