Coming to a Computer Near You: 3D Printing

Alpha 3D 2Maybe it’s not yet exactly commonplace, but for 3D printing, that day is coming soon.

What was once science fiction morphed first to merely exotic and is now mainstream. Like computers and other technology before them, 3D printers are getting better, smaller, and cheaper. Machines are more prevalent in both manufacturing and education, from college down to elementary schools. You can find them at Amazon, Best Buy, even eBay and Craigslist. They are available for as little as $350 – or as much as $100,000.

Philip Leete, a teacher at Traverse City West Senior High who oversees the program there, believes 3D printing is the wave of the future, and it’s time to get on board.

“It’s changing the way kids see the world. Every school, every kid should have experience” in 3D printing, he said, allowing them to create anything they can imagine, he said.

Chris Nesbit is a believer. The owner of Alpha 3D Professionals, he has a 3D printer farm in his office and clients across the country for whom he does consulting and creating. He came to the industry with a leg up, with a father who owned a computer store and a mother who was just as forward-thinking.

“I had a computer way before they were cool or necessary,” Nesbit said. “When I first saw a 3D printer online, my mom said we should get one.” Today his office is filled with them.

Printing Prototypes, Saving Money

Local manufacturers such as TentCraft, Skilled Manufacturing Inc. and RJG Manufacturing are utilizing 3D printing for a variety of applications, primarily for prototypes or limited runs. Creating the product with 3D printing is typically much less costly. A mold for a prototype might run as much as $10,000, whereas manufacturers can disperse the investment cost of even a higher-end 3D printer among several such mock-ups. And time is money: A traditional prototype could take two or three weeks, where printing it in 3D reduces that time to days or even hours.

Matt Bulloch, CEO of the Traverse City tent and banner manufacturer TentCraft, has seen the benefits of 3D printing close-up. The company was paying its plastic supplier $500 per prototype for such items as its tent fittings. Then it brought aboard Tyler Cobb, a senior at Traverse City West Senior High School and TBA’s Career Tech program, who’s working an intern. TentCraft outfitted him with a 3D printer, and Bulloch said the investment has already paid for itself.

“We have a high school senior doing the work of an engineer,” Bulloch said.

“The 3D printer has been great,” he continued. “If you would have asked me two years ago, I would have said it (a 3D printer) is not in our core business.”

Now he said they can print an object and immediately have everyone look at it and critique it, then make any necessary modifications before sending it out for production.

“We’re not making production parts – yet,” said Bulloch. “But for prototypes, time is money and money is money. Now we can get them the next day rather than in three weeks.”

He said because they can create prototypes in house, they are able to be more exacting in their models. They no longer have to be satisfied with “good enough.” If they decide to slightly modify things, they can do so without waiting another three weeks for a new version.

“We can try a little touch-up without it being a big deal,” he said. He estimates they’ve used 3D printing to make at least 25 pieces in-house.
While most use it for prototypes right now, 3D printing can also be used for one-off or limited run objects. One example comes from the Old Town Playhouse production of Shrek, for which Nesbit made Donkey’s hooves.

The process is also sometimes known as additive manufacturing. That may actually be more accurate, as it has nothing to do with ink, toner or paper. But that’s not the name that caught on. “When I’m talking about what I do, additive manufacturing makes sense. It’s a better description, but it’s not a buzzy word,” Nesbit said, with a smile.

As the industry continues to grow, more materials are being introduced. Resins, ceramics, metal, even biodegradable corn-based plastics are among the substances being used. As the processes evolve they could prove to be a boon to the medical industry, lending itself to everything from prosthetics and bone replacement to knee replacements, even facial reconstruction.

It’s even invaded the world of matrimony. Nesbit has had discussions with his friend Madeline Begley, a local event planner, about creating 3D images of the bride and groom to place atop the wedding cake.

Teaching Tool

Ultimately, it gets back to the educational component. Most of the schools in the Traverse City district have them, and the next step is to get them into the other schools in the TBA-ISD.

“Our program is just two years old,” said Drea Weiner, who serves as the coordinator for the 3D Printing PLC (professional learning community), a mix of educators, professionals, and students within the Traverse City Area that gather to share the knowledge that they have gained about 3D printing. “In five years I’d like to see printers reaching more outlying districts.”

She said the printers inspire students, providing them hands-on experience creating something that is theirs and theirs alone. For teachers, it’s another tool to teach scientific or mathematical principles, or a carrot to reward students for completing other tasks. “If you want to do the 3D printer, you have to do your homework,” Weiner said as an example.

Ed Bailey is the Technical Division Director at Northwestern Michigan College. He said the 3D Modeling Class is one of the core classes for the college’s engineering tech program, and one of its most popular as well.

“Kids are more interested because it’s really cool technology,” he said. “It pushes students to think like entrepreneurs.”
Bailey said greater opportunities in elementary and secondary schools will enable the college to provide further instruction. “The more skills they gain before they get to us, the more we can do with them,” he said.

The manufacturers are just as supportive of the educational aspect as their in-house applications. Mike Groleu at RJG is part of the 3D Printing PLC. They see that students armed with such knowledge will be the workforce of the future – their future.

“Our biggest challenge is to create the infrastructure,” he said.

What’s next? Those in the industry are confident prices will continue to drop and the process will move further into the mainstream. “We never expected it would take off so fast, especially at the elementary level,” said Groleu.

But predicting what exactly the future will hold is apparently asking a bit much. Nesbit said there’s unlimited potential as innovations are being made at an incredible rate.

“It’s going to change a lot in ten years,” he said.