I’ve been following the development of 3D printing for a few years now, but until recently it seemed like all it was good for was printing out fun plastic trinkets. The age of the tchotcke, however, is coming to a close for 3D printing. More and more people are recognizing it as an incredibly disruptive and empowering technology that will profoundly change the world as we know it. Utah’s first 3D printer store, Zeni Kinetic, founded by Utah Valley native Nicco Macintyre, is now making this technology available to the general public.
When I first met Macintyre a few years ago, he was working on perfecting his pocket-sized factory for making two different kinds of 3D printing plastic filament, known in the trade as ABS and PLA. His warehouse space was stuffed full of complicated rigs that fed plastic pellets into hoppers to be melted down into a kind of plastic wire that can be spooled up and then fed into the back end of a 3D printer.
Since then, he has gone into production with this stock and has been selling it to 3D printing enthusiasts for some time. The shop front on State Street is his showcase to reach out to the non-geek public, and show them what 3D printing can really do.
The shop is full of items that Macintyre and his team have printed out, including full-body scans that they have created using a system based off of the Microsoft Kinect gaming camera, and shelves behind the counter are filled with brightly-colored spools of plastic. The scanning is very popular with pregnant women who use it as a high-tech alternative to the belly portrait, but the real impact of 3D printing is far more profound.
“The great thing about this process,” Macintyre says, “is that you can make anything at all with it, and you can prototype things very quickly and cheaply.” Indicating an object that looks like a machine casing of some kind, he elaborates: “This was the first version of an object that we printed to precise measurements, and it was eventually cast in stainless steel, directly off the PLA corn-based polymer print. They took the final print that we made, packed it into a sand mold, and just poured the stainless steel right into it. The PLA burned out as the steel filled the mold, and the customer was able to get a single version of the thing he needed. You just can’t do this any other way.” He showed me several objects that would have cost over $1,000 to prototype in a traditional manner. His shop printed it for less than $20 worth of materials.
In fact, the more you look at 3D printing, the more impressive it gets. The annual CES technology conference held in Las Vegas last month saw the number of 3D printing companies represented more than double, and they were showcasing 3D printed everything, from chocolate to dental implants to integrated circuit traces. There are companies right now selling printers that will create veneer try-ins from scans of patients’ mouths, right there in the dentist’s office. Other companies are creating scaffolding for replacement noses and ears, and bespoke artificial joints. People have been using ultrasound images to 3D print the faces of their unborn children, and utilizing CT scans it can print precise models of a patient’s organs so that doctors can visually prep for surgery.
The open source aspect of 3D printing means that the technology can be used and improved upon by anyone at all. Last year, a man named Michael Balzer used MRI scans of his wife’s sight-threatening meningioma tumor and some free software to create a 3D model of the tumor as it sat inside his wife’s skull, and was able to work with a neurosurgeon to pioneer a minimally invasive surgery. A Colorado teen named Easton LaChapelle has created a 3D-printed robotic hand prosthesis, and recently released all of his files as open source so that anyone with a 3D printer can print one for themselves. The average robotic prosthesis costs $60,000, but LaChapelle’s prototype cost him about $350 to make. Someone with the power to print their own prosthesis can also take the initiative to upgrade it or tailor it quickly and cheaply, and the files needed can be emailed. NASA even emailed a wrench to the International Space Station last December.
“This opens up so many opportunities for people who want to create a cottage business,” Macintyre says. “Someone with a few 3D printers and a good business plan could support a family. The old centralized manufacturing paradigm, the ‘big factory’ paradigm that we’ve been in for the past 100-plus years, that is all about to change. Manufacturing is going to come home from China.” Zeni Kinetic is making and selling its own version of the 3D printer, the Origin, which retails starting at under $1000.
Alice Toler is more of an analog gal, and claims she won’t be in the market for a full-scale 3D printer any time soon. But after four friends posted a video of the hand-held 3Doodler 3D printing pen to her Facebook timeline, she broke down and funded their Kickstarter. She is excited to receive her Jetsons-style pen-of-the-future in April.
Meet 19-year-old inventor Easton LaChapelle: http://tinyurl.com/qfkknak