3-D printing is revolutionizing the world.
From prosthetics to manufacturing to living tissue, the process of making three-dimensional materials by using digital files is driving the next industrial revolution, some experts say.
Locally, Faro Industries Inc. and Finnovation Product Development LLC each use the technology to their advantage. And some printing industry players, such as Xerox Corp., view the 3-D printing arena as a new opportunity.
Victor, Ontario County-based LSI Solutions Inc. recently helped save a Brighton woman’s life by using the technology. A 3-D print of her heart paired with a non-surgical technique helped to replace a failing heart valve, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.
New dimensions for 3-D printing ahead
The firm, located on East Main Street, also supplies its 20 manufacturing clients with virtual prototypes and design models.
In 2012, Ian Finn, the company’s founder and sole proprietor, bought a selective laser sintering 3-D printer for $500,000. Finnovation’s parts are found throughout Europe, Canada and China, officials said.
“The next year I experienced certainly growth, but within two years my business was up 60 percent from the previous year,” Finn said. “It has been bottle rocket since then. When an engineer from a company contacts me it really roots itself through the company (and) the wheel starts turning and everybody now has ideas—so the volume of parts from those manufacturers increases exponentially.”
Faro Industries Inc. on Lyell Avenue purchased a 3-D printer that uses fused deposition modeling technology for $200,000 in 2013. The company can produce parts in three different types of plastic.
“The parts that we 3-D print range from extremely intricate small parts to large fixtures, housings or covers,” said Matthew McConville Jr., sales manager. “All parts are made to exacting tolerances.”
The printer is credited for much of the firm’s growth over the last few years.
“In general, 3-D printing is rapidly changing the way people think about manufacturing,” McConville said. “The possibilities are virtually limitless. Almost daily, they are coming up with ways to 3-D print new materials or substrates.”
The investment was well worth the upfront costs, he said.
“It is a long-term asset for a company like ours, mainly because it leads to high-volume/production work,” he said. “At Faro, we have always worked with our customers from the initial design stage through the prototyping stage, then ultimately into mass production of their plastic parts.
“Those stages in the whole process used to take many weeks. Now, because of our 3-D printing capability, the process can be done in a few days. This has contributed greatly to the growth of our company.”
The market for 3-D printer sales, materials and associated services reached $2.5 billion globally in 2013, reported Canalys, a technology analyst firm. It anticipates the market reaching $16.2 billion by 2018, representing a compound annual growth rate of 45.7 percent from 2013 to 2018.
Research firm Gartner Inc. in 2013 predicted 3-D printer shipments will grow 95 percent to 1.1 million units sold in 2017 with end-user spending to grow 82 percent to $5.7 billion.
At least a few companies sell 3-D printers here, including Syracuse-based CAD Dimensions Inc. and Staples Inc.
Also known as additive manufacturing, the 3-D printing process is not new. The technology has been around for some three decades, but the original patents expired five years ago, lowering the cost of the machines and making them easier to support professional or personal use.
Minnesota-based Stratasys Ltd. originally held the patents for 3-D printing. Its subsidiary—Brooklyn-based Makerbot Industries LLC—caters to consumers and hobbyists. Both firms are driving the product’s range of uses in many industries, including aerospace, automotive, consumer products, medicine, dentistry, education and entertainment.
“To the best of my knowledge, nobody in Rochester is making 3-D printers as of right now,” said Denis Cormier, Rochester Institute of Technology’s Earl W. Brinkman Professor. “That answer could change depending on whether or not regional companies with print expertise find the business case to be sufficiently attractive. For now, MakerBot in New York City is the state’s major player in the 3-D printing world.”
The price of printers that print plastic materials, such as a small Makerbot for consumers, which costs $2,000 to $3,000, has fallen dramatically. Commercial grade 3-D printers that produce plastic parts can range from roughly $50,000 up to $250,000, depending on which process is used, Cormier explained.
“For commercial 3-D printers that produce metal parts, the prices start at around $600,000 and can go well north of $1 million,” he said.
In the lab
High Tech Rochester Inc. has four MakerBot 3-D printers costing about $3,000 each.
HTR’s First Prototypes Lab—which opened last September—has had roughly 50 projects going through it a month, focused primarily on the optics and medical device industries, Director Michael Riedlinger said.
The lab is available for HTR clients and employees of firms in the Lennox TEC facility and for the Rochester BioVenture Center, both of which include many startups and small businesses.
First-time users of the lab start with downloading a simple item from an open-source library called “Thingy-verse” so they can learn about the process of using the equipment and 3-D design software, officials said.
“When the users are comfortable with the software and equipment, they have printed items ranging from specialty enclosures for optics devices to parts for mechanical assemblies to ‘looks-like’ examples of finished laboratory equipment,” Reidlinger said.
RIT’s Cormier is a more than 20-year veteran of the 3-D printing industry. He founded one of the country’s first 3-D printing labs—then called a rapid prototyping lab—at North Carolina State University in the mid-1990s.
“Almost exactly 20 years ago I bought my first rapid prototyping machine. There were very few universities back then that were doing it. In 2003, we bought one of the first metal 3-D printers in the United States,” he said.
Cormier and his team were addressing the needs of the aerospace industry then.
“North Carolina has a lot of Navy (operations)—the Cherry Point Depot—they do repair and overhaul of helicopters and airplanes and they’re trying to keep those planes in the sky for a lot longer than the original designers intended,” he said. “So they have metal parts that break and then they don’t have the molds and dies that were made.
“The companies had gone out of business that made the original parts.”
The other form is plastic 3-D printing, which many companies use for single products or prototypes. It has drastically changed the production process. With 3-D printing molds, companies add to their bottom line.
“The general trend is we have to introduce new products at a higher rate, and from a manufacturing perspective the challenge with that is every time you discontinue one product and start a new one, you have to machine new molds and dies,” Cormier said. “Those things can cost hundreds of thousands, too. If it’s a really complex one, it can be over a million dollars.”
Printing human organs may be decades away, but it will happen based on current uses of 3-D printing in medicine, local experts said. Living tissue is being printed with technology to test for diseases such as cancer.
“It will definitely happen,” Cormier said. “The organs that go in people—that is absolutely long term; that’s at least 20 years out I think realistically.”
He sees near-term application in which researchers can print living tissue and do drug testing and other procedures on tissue in a petri dish.
“So they can print different types of tissue and then put cancer drugs, things like that, on there. If you take that route you’re working on living tissue, which is obviously important, but you’re not working on people (or) monkeys,” he added.
Other uses of the machinery include Invisalign braces or hearing aids. Invisalign braces, manufactured by Align Technology Inc. in San Jose, Calif., represent one of the first products of the technology.
“That’s the largest real-world application of 3-D printing, and they’ve been doing that for more than 10 years,” Cormier said.
The lower cost of 3-D printers allows the average person to flex their creative muscle. Any innovative or inventive ideas can live or die in upwards of 15 minutes, depending on the size of the item printed.
“There’s a spectrum of the hobby grade 3-D printers and so you’ve seen some of the maker spaces around town that have popped up in the last two years,” Cormier said. “It’s nice in the sense that it lowers the barrier for what I would call the ‘evil mad scientist’ element of the population, where there are a lot of people that have good ideas but, up until these 3-D printers were available, it was hard to get good prototypes made. Now it’s relatively easy.”
Eastman Kodak Co. and Xerox Corp. have some of the best commercial printing minds in the world. Yet neither firm, nor Hewlett-Packard Co., has made a big splash in the 3-D printing arena so far.
“I think up until this point the big printing companies, if you talk about a Xerox or a Kodak or a Hewlett Packard, or any of those big printing companies, the 3-D printing market was not big enough to get their attention,” Cormier said. “I think it now has gotten big enough to get their attention.
“They’re definitely late to the game, but on the good side is that they are experts in high-speed printing technologies, which is exactly what the 3-D printing industry needs,” he added.
Santokh Badesha, Xerox Fellow and manager of open innovation at the Xerox Innovation Group, said, like others in the printing industry, Xerox views 3-D printing/additive manufacturing as a potential opportunity that is worth exploring.
“Due to its adjacency and our heritage for innovation, Xerox has made some investments in this area over the past decade. These range from core internal research on materials and processes to working with existing 3-D manufacturers with our printheads,” he said.
Xerox has the tools to make entry into the 3-D printing market seamless, officials said.
“Xerox technology business has historically been based on 2-D printing of powder- and-ink-based systems,” Badesha said. “The 2-D printing infrastructure is highly relevant to 3-D printing/additive manufacturing that could provide natural entry into the market.
“A consumables trend of 3-D printing falls nicely into Xerox business model,” he said. “Xerox continues to actively look for new opportunities for growth, and 3-D printing coupled with other new technologies such as printed electronics and smart objects have potential.”
This is the first of two articles on 3-D printing. Next: the 3-D printing of tomorrow.
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