Demand “Building” For 3D Printing

For Chris Nesbitt, the lure of 3D printing came from his work with manufacturing. For Ross Clement, it stemmed from his desire to keep Laser Printer Technologies on the cutting edge for consumer printing.

The two have teamed up to bring 3D printing to northern Michigan, though for very different client bases.

“Ross is focused on the consumer level. My company is in industrial manufacturing,” said Nesbitt, head of Alpha 3D Professionals.

Even some of the nomenclature is different. While 3D printing has become the primary term, Nesbitt still sometimes uses the phrase “additive manufacturing.”

That’s perhaps a more easily understood term, in that the process is not done on paper at all. The various printers use plastics, resins, extruded fiber, even ceramic or metal.

Nesbitt said the 3D printers slice an on-screen computer image into thousands of layers. It then “prints” those layers one atop the other, similar in concept to the way some inkjet printers work.

That piece produced may be a prototype model, or it may be an actual finished product. Either way, “It’s a fascinating piece of equipment,” said Nesbitt.

Clement pointed out that the two have not entered into any kind of formal agreement, but rather assist one another in working with clients and helping them understand the process. “We’re colleagues, not competitors,” he said. “We want to enhance what the other one does.”

The advantages of such a process is obvious in terms of time and money. Producing a working prototype for an industrial application could take weeks and cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. By using the 3D printing process, Clement said going from concept to print is reduced to days or even hours.

The automotive and aerospace industries are among those already making use of the process but industrial users aren’t the only ones looking at 3D printing. The medical profession is also investing in this wave of the future. Clement highlighted the ability to create artificial body parts in the precise size for the patient.

“Think of 3D printing (artificial) knees,” said Clement. “Knees come in all different sizes, not just small, medium and large. Doctors can do an MRI and get a 3D image, then print it at exactly the right size.”

The printers sold by Clement and those with which Nesbitt work also come with wildly different price tags. Clement’s consumer-level MakerBot printers start at $1,000 and go up to about $6,000.

For those unsure whether the price tag is worth it, Clement also offers in-house printing through his storefront at 1379 Trade Centre Drive in Traverse City.

The prices for the machines Nesbitt works with are a bit higher – as in $500,000 and up, to as high as $6 million.

Nesbitt said the industry started some 30 years ago, but it’s only in the last few years that it has become truly useful and marketable. “We’re still in the infancy of the process,” he said. “When the patents got released, it allowed people to market them independently.”

He said that has also allowed start-up companies to flourish. “The ability to gain capital will allow companies to push printers through at a lower price point,” he said.

How low will they go? Nesbitt believes that within a few years prices may drop to as little as $100.

While Clement’s company grew from providing printing services and machines to businesses in northern Michigan, Nesbitt’s company was the result of the merger of two former 3D companies, SkyLab 3D and Streamline Prototypes. Alpha 3D Professionals boasts a network of 3D printers, designers, engineers, manufacturing specialists and patent lawyers that serve the Midwest.

Nesbitt said his company’s mission is threefold: Education, production and consultation. Both Clement and Nesbitt said the process of educating consumers and users is key to the industry’s future.

“Right now, the biggest gap is in education,” Nesbitt said. “That’s a gap we’re happy to fill.”

Filling that gap includes hosting classes, whether online or in either their own facilities or at their clients’ sites, as well as servicing the machines they sell.

Both Clement and Nesbitt see bright days ahead for their companies and for the industry as a whole.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” Nesbitt added. “This technology is going to change the world.”