The exploding popularity of 3-D printing ought to be surprising. Not because it’s new, but because in terms of innovation, the technology is a dinosaur at nearly 30 years old. Over the past year there has been talk of desktop 3-D printers in every home, but commercial versions have appeared on the manufacturing floor regularly for as long as seven years, according to some experts. They have changed the pace and cost of creating industrial prototypes, a benefit that is just now trickling down to consumers.
The printers’ ability to produce things that were previously impossible is a major part of why they’ve captured the public imagination. Because it generally creates items by building a series of layers, Bill Watson of Anvil Prototype and Design in Charlotte suggests a 3-D printer could make a model of the Statue of Liberty inside a solid steel block. Most often the applications are more practical, falling right in line with inventors’ intentions.
A Brief History of 3-D Printing
3-D printing was born in the Upstate. At least, one of its parents was here. The first machine that ever printed a three-dimensional object still sits in the workshop of Bill Masters, an Easley native who invented and did business in Greenville. He holds three of the six patents that paved the way for today’s 3-D printing, and uses mercifully simple language to describe the processes.
“Shoot drops, make parts” is Masters’ shorthand for what was otherwise known as ballistic particle manufacturing, and he compares the extrusion process to squeezing frosting out of a cake decorating tube. The process that uses surface tension to gently print layers of living tissue is called “eye dropper,” which, unlike a pressure-dependent “cow milking” process, does not damage living cells.
All of these additive technologies were patented in the late 1980s, yet they languished mostly unused for years. Industries were loath to adopt a complex technology that did not fit easily into current processes, said Masters. What’s more, there was a lot of disagreement over standards that would govern the use of the technology in the same way that computer-coding language was already standard across the manufacturing platform.
A few key factors together changed that situation in recent years. The creation of an open-source printer at Bath University in the UK in 2007 spurred a spread of the technology. When costs finally began to come down about a decade ago, widespread industry adoption took off. Printed objects have rapidly become more durable.
Cathy Lewis, spokesperson for Rock Hill-based 3D Systems, said increased software options and ease of use also made a difference. The 26-year-old company is the largest maker of 3-D printing machines serving the Carolinas and Georgia.
“When you bring those things together, you have a technology anyone can adopt,” Lewis said.
Better, Faster, Cheaper
So who is using 3-D printing?
“The question is almost who isn’t using it,” Lewis said. “Pretty much every company that delivers a physical product uses the technology.”
That includes GE, BMW, Cryovac, Michelin and Bosch. Then there are biomedical device companies that make products such as hips and monitors to be used in the human body. Major users in the Carolinas include the automotive and energy sectors, and the technology is beginning to be embraced by the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sectors.
Greenville’s TPM has sold 3-D Systems machines for 20 years. Yet general manager Chris Fay said only in recent years have the technology and cost created conditions for widespread use.
“Probably five years ago it was a little bit cost-prohibitive, and the technology wasn’t really there as far as fast good parts,” Fay said.
A testament to the technology’s popularity, 3D Systems has reported more than 40 percent growth for the past two years, and is planning an expansion in the next six to 12 months to meet expected demand in the Carolinas.
Most people in the field agree that 3-D printing has had an almost revolutionary impact on research and design across the board. Just as the printing technology becomes better, faster and less expensive, so does R&D. Machines that create durable, detailed parts can cost up to $250,000. A low-resolution machine costs $45,000-$100,000 and would allow a company to quickly create prototypes of a shoe or something of similar size for about $40 apiece.
“If you own the machine, you’ve got 10 iterations for about $500, but the value of that on the back end is huge,” Fay said.
Having a product in hand helps designers see exactly where improvements are needed, and the ability to repeatedly prototype and test any changes is incredibly valuable. 3-D printers are said to be able to take a few weeks off of a four-month design process, or a few months off of a two-year process. As a result, companies can get their products to market faster.
Most of the rest of us caught onto 3-D printing with the launch of the Cube home 3-D printer in January 2012, though Masters thought his inventions would have become mainstream long before now.
“I thought by [the year] 2000 we’d have a printer on everybody’s desk. And you know the one I really wanted? I wanted it to be the erector set for kids,” he said, imagining that children would be able to print their own version of the classic building blocks.
Heightened awareness outside of manufacturing has also brought to the fore questions about some of the technology’s potential risks. Some worry that counterfeiting of all sorts of products will become so easy as to be unstoppable. There are even concerns about potential printing and selling of organs on the black market.
Yet there are people such as the members of the Greenville Makers Group, who are raising money to purchase a printer for community use. The group’s community outreach officer, Susan Molnar, purchased her own printer for $450. She uses it to add plastic glow-in-the-dark items to the home-based jewelry-making business she started after illness forced her to leave her job more than a year ago. The printer gives her advantages similar to larger companies.
“You can just imagine a design, which brings my graphics background into it, and I can make it happen without having to special order it,” Molnar said.
Design of a complex piece may take a couple of days, but she can move from design to product in 15 minutes. She continues to tinker and learn the machine, and is excited about new materials available for her printer, such as a new composite that looks like wood.
Still, Fay said it’s going to be a while before the “printer in every home” dream comes true.
“That’s really far-fetched for now,” Fay said. “There’s a lot of opportunities right now in manufacturing, biomed, and AEC, but I think widespread consumer adoption is still a ways off.”