3-D Printing

Locals embrace the reality of anything possible

By Joan Trossman Bien 03/06/2014


One of the hottest topics in the blogosphere right now is 3-D printing. Schools are getting 3-D printers. Small businesses are buying 3-D printers. There are 3-D printers for your private home use. Medicine has discovered the 3-D printer. NASA wants to put one on the space station. Even Victoria’s Secret used a 3-D printer to create an intricate open-weave overlay for one of its barely dressed models.

It has been declared that 3-D printers have the ability to shift the global business model away from China and back to the U.S. The benefits of 3-D printers are limited only by our imagination. You’d think that this quantum leap forward in manufacturing was, well, new. Or sort of new.

Actually, the development of 3-D printing employed many creative engineers back in the 1980s. Since then, there have certainly been refinements and developments but the basic model for 3-D printing has remained the same for a generation, lying just beneath the radar of public exposure.

The spotlight has now found the 3-D printer after nearly 30 years, mostly due to two developments. The printer can now use a few more materials in the making of the objects, and the price for the most basic printer has come down quite a bit. The wonderful things it can produce, especially in the medical field, and the terrible things it can be used to do, such as creating a metal-free gun, make it a tool with the potential to match the most creative goals.

Bob Lynn
Bob Lynn, master jeweler and designer, explains the details of “growing” a ring prototype from his 3-D printer while displaying a recently printed piece at Lynn’s Jewelry Studio in Ventura.


What is a 3-D printer?
The 3-D printer has vast potential in its applications. It can produce something as enormous as a house or as ultra-small as a layer of human cells. This is called additive manufacturing. The way it works is fairly simple.

The first step is to create a 3-D image of the item using a computer-aided design (CAD) software program. That design is then sent to the printer, which can be large enough and mobile enough to create a house or it can be small enough to fit on the kitchen counter. Prices range from less than $1,000 up to $600,000.

Production begins with a platform where the item will be built. The printer then lays down a very thin layer of material, usually plastic. Then, in multiple layers, the item is built from the ground up. Whatever has been programmed is what will appear.

The printer has been most popular in designing and producing manufacturing prototypes and models as it allows the manufacturer to examine what has been printed instead of setting in motion the expensive process of tooling up a factory to make something that there hasn’t been a chance to test.

Dan Bronsten is the engineering manager at Magnuson Ventura, a company that sells superchargers for cars. The company has been using 3-D printers for several years.

“One thing that we are doing more and more is using 3-D printing to create tooling,” Bronsten said. “In our business, we make aluminum castings. To make those castings you have to machine metal and there’s a big, long, drawn-out process to make permanent tooling for castings. We are using the 3-D printing technology to make castings and skip that longterm tooling process.”

Magnuson Ventura does not own a 3-D printer. Instead, the company uses a different model: it rents a printer when needed.

“We actually don’t have a 3-D printer in house,” Bronsten said. “We have access to one right next door that we use one or two times a month. We can’t justify buying one of the really high-end machines for the amount of volume we do, so we farm it out. While the cost is kind of expensive for 3-D printing, for our companies and I think for a lot of other companies, we call it cheap insurance on proving your design before you go to the length of investing a lot of money in tooling that will cost a lot to change later on. So 3-D printing is a way of checking that your device is sound before you invest lots of money.”

Human on a chip
You’ve probably heard about the exciting potential of 3-D printers for medical uses. The Holy Grail is the ability to reproduce human organs. But living cells often die quickly, even before leaving the platform. One of the most challenging but important organs is a viable human liver.

A nonprofit organization based in Springfield, Va., the Methuselah Foundation, supports medical research into regeneration. It is offering a $1 million prize to the first organization that is able to print a functional liver.

Pharmaceutical companies can also benefit from 3-D printing in their research and development of new drugs. If they could print sustainable human tissue instead of animal tissue, the results would be more accurate. Experiments are under way to successfully lay down a thin layer of human tissue for pharmaceutical research. It is called “human on a chip.”

Doctors have discovered a way to build human parts from scratch using 3-D printers to make a temporary scaffolding, a structure that supports cells that will form blood vessels. The scaffolding is made out of sugar glass, the same substance used in movies for breakaway bottles and broken windows. Once the mold is filled with human cells, the sugar glass melts away.

Researchers at Princeton have created a functional human ear with bionic, or superhuman, hearing ability. It can hear radio frequencies well beyond the normal range of human capability. The electronics for the ear were developed right in the petri dish.

Researchers in the Netherlands saved the life of an 83-year-old woman who had to have her lower mandible removed due to a severe infection. The 3-D printer was able to create a new lower jawbone. The day after the surgery, the woman could speak and swallow normally.

The implications for veterinary medicine are also enormous. Take Buttercup the duck. Poor Buttercup was hatched in a high school biology lab with his left foot backward. The teacher was unable to turn the foot around and Buttercup could not survive in that condition. So veterinarians amputated his foot and built a new prosthesis for Buttercup. He is now living a normal duck life. The silicon foot was similar to the tail that was made for a dolphin that became the subject of a film, Dolphin Tale.

From the essential to the elegant
Finely gauged auto parts are best modeled with a 3-D printer. Imagine what the printer can do in the hands of a rocket scientist turned jeweler. Bob Lynn, owner of Lynn Jewelry in Ventura, has been a 3-D printer fan for nearly 20 years.

“I’ve used a 3-D printer for my work since 1996,” Lynn said.

The work of a jeweler can be hard on the body. Lynn said the poor posture took a toll. “Being a bench jeweler is terribly hard on the body. You sit at a bench for eight to 10 hours a day for five or six days a week for about 20 years. It is really hard on the back, neck and shoulders because basically you are draped over a bench like a watchmaker. In the 1980s, I started getting ‘carpal’ everything and I knew I had to find another way to do things or I had to become someone who was just a seller like the average jeweler out there.”

Lynn said the printer allows him to show his clients models of what has not yet been created. “It is kind of like being on the downslope of Space Mountain (at Disneyland) and all of a sudden it is like, ‘Whoa! What a ride this is going to be!’ Some of this is not on the cutting edge; it is on the bleeding edge.”

Enthusiasm is tempered by contemplation when Lynn sums up what the 3-D printer has allowed him to create.

“You have to remember that the best of engineering and the best of artwork are indistinguishable,” he said. “A good example is the Golden Gate Bridge. Ultimately, all of the technical work is just prep work to wind up with a piece of metal that has to be changed from this rough thing into something that is gorgeous.”

Weapons and War
You have probably heard about a company that has used a 3-D printer to create a functional and metal-free gun. Solid Concepts of Austin, Texas, modeled its prototype on a 1911 Browning firearm. The purpose was to show that the company could make usable weapons. The printer was extremely expensive in this case but there are other printers that are affordable and can also print a gun. Defense Distributed, another Texas company, has designed a gun specifically to be made from those home printers.

When it comes to war, the supply line makes or breaks an army. Until now, if soldiers ran out of bullets in a firefight, the new supply had to be called in and physically shipped to the soldiers. If they have a 3-D printer, they can print out their ammunition right there during the battle. In a region like Afghanistan where so much of the fighting has been in remote mountains, the printer makes sense. Dartmouth College business professor Richard D’Aveni spoke with the Associated Press on this idea in May last year.

NASA is entering the market for 3-D printers for the same reasons that it would be vitally important for the military. It is planning to launch a printer into space this year. The challenges presented by the environment of space are being worked out. But a printer on the space station would eliminate the need for inventory and nothing would be scarce or irreplaceable. NASA is also looking into using the printer to make food in space.

Hershey’s is using the 3-D printer to create unique chocolate concoctions, a pairing that seems obvious. It may even sound like the Replicator from Star Trek where you told a machine exactly what you wanted to eat and it did its best to create it. Not exactly the same but it’s a start.

A good investment?
Some people believe that 3-D printers will change the way the world does business. They believe that manufacturing will no longer be the province of large corporations with factories. They point to China, which has benefited from its cheap labor force in the global rush to supply the world with goods produced for the US. Stocks of makers of the printers have shot up in value this year.

Ironically, the efficiency of the printers may ultimately be the reason that production is limited. You just don’t need a factory to print out extra buttons or even a new organ. Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm out of Fort Collins, Colo., reported that only 28 percent of the printer work they followed was actually finished parts or products, with a total revenue last year of around $2.2 billion. Sounds like a lot but that was less than 0.01 percent of worldwide manufacturing.

Then there is the complexity of the item being printed. Fully functional items don’t just pop out of the printer whole. They are made with many pieces that have to be fitted together. Sometimes, the equipment needed to handle the elaborate job is just too expensive to justify being used for that purpose.

If you want to make limited use of a 3-D printer, you don’t have to spend a fortune. Dennis Huston is the head CAM (computer aided manufacturing) instructor at the Technology Development Center in Ventura. His program offers something unique: an extremely low-cost service.

“The machines used to be expensive but now you can get one to fit in your desktop for under $1,000,” Huston said. “We do the work for free. If they pay the price of the materials, we’ll help the community with their projects. So instead of it costing $200, it will cost $20.”

Huston’s enthusiasm for the technology is gaining momentum. “The 3-D printer is no longer the future; it is what is going on right now,” he said. “In the next couple of years, you are not going to believe what they are going to do. They’ll be going to the moon and Mars with it. They’ll be making habitat with 3-D printers. It depends on the materials and where your imagination lies. That’s what we’re limited by, where our imagination will go.”

So what does Huston think is the best way to profit from the printers? “When I retire, I’m going to put three or four in the garage and they will be working 24/7 and that will be my mad money.”  

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