Business Monday

The future in 3D printing: New innovations harness older technology

Remember when the Jetsons wanted to eat? All they had to do was select a menu, push a few buttons on the machine and their meals would magically appear.

Well, the future is here through the magic of 3D printing. Producing piping hot pizza, fish and chips, and even heart-shaped chocolates is one of the more novel approaches to a technology that has been taking the world by storm over the past few years. Today 3D printers assist not only the culinary-challenged but also provide more practical uses for medicine, the arts and everyday business. With the right software and printer, it is now possible to send an image through a computer and create anything from a hammer, a gun, an earring, or a precision tool for airplane maintenance or even delicate life-saving surgery.

Even NASA has been experimenting with 3D printing — not to create Space Age food — but to provide members of the International Space Station with the ability to create their own tools. In a test last December, an astronaut created a ratchet wrench from a computer image transmitted from NASA. The experiment demonstrated that a mission could continue even if a critical tool broke or was missing. After all, it would have been rather costly and time-consuming to return to Earth for the tool.

Today, 3D printing affords artists the opportunity to envision what Venus de Milo might look like with arms and scientists the ability to actually customize mechanical arms for amputees and people with birth defects. Doctors can now hold a life-size model of an individual patient’s heart in their hands so they can clearly see where they have to operate. Even a Boeing 737-800 can be scanned in 3D so that a local business in Doral can retrofit passenger jets into cargo carriers.

Although 3D printing has been around for nearly three decades, only in recent years has the technology caught the imagination of the masses, in part because a rudimentary 3D printer can cost less than some iPads. In the past year, there has been a spike in 3D printing use. One trend tracker, the Wohlers Report 2014, noted a 21 percent increase in the 3D print service provider sector over the previous year. The worldwide demand for 3D printing has increased so dizzily in the past year that Wohlers increased its original projections. Just two years ago, Wohlers predicted the worldwide market would grow from $3.07 billion in revenues in 2013 to $10.8 billion by 2021. They doubled that projection last year, now stating the market should exceed $21 billion by 2020.

The publicly traded 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD), founded by Charles Hull, credited with inventing the process that made 3D printing possible, saw a 27 percent year-to-year increase in its sales into design and manufacturing from 2013 to 2014, growing $609.8 million in sales. The company portfolio shows sales into healthcare increased 80 percent, from $71.7 million in 2013 to $129.3 million in 2014. There was also a big jump in consumer sales, with a growth of 26 percent, from $34.8 million in 2013 to $43.8 million in 2014, according to 3D Systems investor Presentation, Manufacturing the Future.

Pundits have speculated on how 3D printing may signal a reversal of the Industrial Revolution, as the evolving technology will make it possible for businesses to shift from mass production to individualized manufacturing on demand. Dartmouth professor Richard A. D’Aveni addressed this issue in the Harvard Business Review, pointing out that China will likely have to cede its position as the “world’s manufacturing powerhouse.” While the U.S. and other countries lost jobs by outsourcing to China, whose massive workforce could produce products for pennies on the dollar, 3D printing will be a game changer, D’Aveni predicts.

“No workforce can be paid little enough to make up for the cost of shipping across oceans,” D’Aveni wrote. While the Chinese market won’t entirely implode, the change in production that 3D printing affords will be significant. “China won’t be a loser in the new era; like every nation, it will have a domestic market to serve on a local basis, and its domestic market is huge. And not all products lend themselves to 3D printing. But China will have to give up on being the mass-manufacturing powerhouse of the world. The strategy that has given it such political heft won’t serve it in the future.”

Local companies

In a way, this is the golden age of 3D printing. Locally, several South Florida companies are helping to bring the technology to the classroom and the boardroom. Today, computers are commonplace in the classroom, and the same is expected for 3D printing. Proponents of 3D printing expect that as the technology becomes more widespread, its uses will also become more varied.

“When we showed the technology to the Ringling [College of Art and Design in Sarasota], they said it was a solution in search of a problem, sort of like when lasers first came out and they were using it to pop balloons,” says Walter Puls, CEO of 3D Chimera, a Coral Gables company that both sells 3D printers and provides 3D printing services for government agencies, businesses and individuals. He had gone to the college last summer to demonstrate their printers for the school’s creative lab.

Founded in August 2013, 3D Chimera is already assisting local entrepreneurs with their projects to create anything from a portable ski lock to headgear designed to help people afflicted with attention deficit disorder remain focused. Puls has also helped students from Gulliver Prep design a helmet for firefighters and a fifth-grader with his invention of a backpack for soldiers that can both charge their batteries and purify their water while in the field.

WB Engineering, a father-and-son company based in the Design District of Miami, has been producing 3D prints since 2007 as part of an overall package for clients seeking engineering and design solutions. The demand for 3D printing has increased steadily to the point where last year, WB (which stands for founder Werner Blumenthal) and his father, Alfredo Blumenthal, created a second company —1Click3DPrint — to serve those clients who simply want to print 3D objects or buy printers and supplies for their own use. WB Engineering, on the other hand, provides engineering solutions using sophisticated software that highlights design flaws prior to production. It’s a modern take on the “measure twice, cut once” philosophy that saves their clients time and money.

Located on Northwest 36th Street, WB Engineering and 1Click3DPrint are easy to find because the exterior of their building serves as a mural for the sleepy-eyed designs of artist David Anasagasti, aka Ahol Sniffs Glue. Werner, who is a friend of Ahol, ultimately convinced the street artist to lend his eyeball design to 3D printing. They ended up making necklaces, pendants and earrings out of sterling silver and gold. The gift shop at the Standard Hotel in Miami Beach sold some of the works, and others are still available at the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

Another longtime player in the industry is The SolidExperts. The Fort Lauderdale-based company has been in the business since 2005. According to company president Michael Pomper, The Solid Experts help clients select the best software and printers for their businesses, as well as train them on the equipment. For those clients who want to outsource the work, The Solid Experts will either do the 3D printing in-house or outsource the work to a company that has the necessary equipment for the job. In addition to other products, Pomper sells from the line of 3D Systems, founded by Chuck Hull, the widely acknowledged father of 3D printing.

Technology, cost

Although there are many ways to create objects through 3D printing, the technology is additive, meaning it involves layering material to build a three-dimensional object. It’s the opposite of what a sculptor does when chipping away at a slab of marble.

One common method involves mechanically extruding liquid plastic onto a surface, much the same way that frosting is piped onto a cake. Another involves using a laser to fuse powdered metals together. The process, known as sintering, makes it possible to layer metal without having to reach its melting point.

In the 1980s, Chuck Hull developed the first stereolithography rapid prototyping system, which made it possible to convert a computer-assisted design (CAD) into a three-dimensional object by repetitively layering liquid plastic. According to Puls at 3D Chimera, a rule of thumb is that it takes an hour to create every inch in height. Of course, the time needed to finish the job also depends upon how wide and deep the object will be. So, a sprawling architectural rendering will likely take longer than the creation of a simple earring or small figurine.

For advocates of 3D printing, the sky’s the limit as to what the technology will be able to do. For now, the science is bounded by a few limitations. The size of the 3D printed objects is limited by the size of the printer box. Typically, most jobs can fit within a 12x12x12-inch cube, but some commercial-grade printers can handle a much bigger volume. Another limitation is what materials can be used. To date, no one has figured out how to print out human tissue to repair or replace damaged organs.

The cost for 3D printing ranges as widely as the quality of the objects produced. Anyone with $500 can buy a rudimentary 3D printer and produce plastic trinkets at home. For a more finished commercial product — the kind needed for medical or precision tooling — 3D printers can cost as much at $250,000.

Local uses for

3D printing

Artists

When local artist Emmett Moore started experimenting with 3D printing at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2009, most of his colleagues didn’t know what to make of the technology.

“People using it in this playful way — people were scanning and printing their bodies,” Moore told the Miami Herald. “It’s fun and cute. And that’s how people are starting to think about 3D printing — things that you could buy or you could just print it, and it’s kind of like novelty — but the direction that it’s going in is pretty wild. It’s going to be integrated into everything.”

Initially, most of Moore’s fellow designers used the technology to design the same furniture that they could make by hand. Moore saw greater possibilities. While it was next to impossible to create an 80-sided object by hand, especially if you wanted the sides to be symmetrical, Moore figured he would let the 3D printer handle that aspect and he would complete the design with other elements added on by hand. The process not only has changed how he produces his work, but also his creative vision.

“A lot of my work is about the intersection of digital and handmade,” says Moore, who to date is the only local artist to exhibit at the prestigious Design Miami fair during Art Basel Miami Beach. “When you start thinking in this way, you look at physical objects differently. They kind of appear more malleable, and you kind of see things without scale or their physical sensibilities as you would if you were working with physical material every day.”

In mid-May, Moore exhibited his latest creations at the Patrick Parrish gallery. His tables, desk lamps and pendant lights all were created using computer-designed images that include hammer heads and wrenches, Ferrari rims and revolver cylinders, mechanical gears, forks, springs and paper clips. Created in plastic or steel through the miracle of 3D printing, Moore was also able to design strategically-placed holes in the objects so that they could fit together seamlessly. He says some of those holes would have been impossible to do by hand, given their location and trajectory.

“That’s what my show is all about in New York — not only conceiving unimaginable things, but things that would not be possible without some kind of printer,” Moore says.

Usually, it takes a month or so to make each of his sculptural designs through the 3D printing process, Moore says, explaining that the computer-assisted design (CAD) takes about a week. Then the images are sent to New York, where a company called Shapeways prints out the images as three-dimensional sculptures. A week later, he has the sculptures in hand. Sometimes when in a rush, Moore says, he will have a Miami company handle the work. That only takes a couple of days, he says, but the price is usually double because the New York company has so much volume that it can reduce its costs.

While some people foresee every household having a 3D printer, much the way computers have become an everyday fixture, Moore predicts the technology will become universal — so much so that people won’t need their own printers to get their work done.

“The technology is advancing so much that for me,” he says, “there’s no way that it can be more cost-effective to buy a printer.”

Instead, Moore says, he will continue to use the services of various 3D printing companies in New York and Miami.

Medical

Dentists and doctors have been using 3D printing for everything from improving one’s smile to successfully repairing aneurysms and even broken hearts.

Last March, a nonprofit company in Florida used 3D printing to create an Iron Man prosthetic limb for a 7-year-old boy. Robert Downey Jr., who plays the Iron Man superhero, presented the limb to Alex Pring, who was born without his right arm. It was the first arm donated by Limbitless Solutions, a nonprofit run by students at the University of Central Florida. The arm reportedly cost $350, compared with the $40,000 price tag for traditional prosthetic limbs.

Here in Miami, doctors use 3D printing to analyze medical conditions and make the necessary repairs. Sometimes the technology even helps prevent mistakes. In one instance, the doctors decided to use a different device on a patient after examining a 3D printout of the patient’s anatomy, says Dr. Barry Katzen, founder and chief medical executive of the Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute on the Baptist Health campus.

“The 3D model actually showed us something in three dimensions that we didn’t fully appreciate using the 2D model,” Katzen told the Miami Herald. “The 3D models that we had actually caused us to change the device that we were going to use.” The procedure, known as EVAR, which stands for endovascular aneurysm repair, involved placing a catheter in the femoral artery to correct an aneurysm. Sometimes doctors use a straight device, other times they use one that flowers at the end. When they saw the 3D model of their patient, the doctors realized they had initially planned on using the wrong device. “I think I would have known because I’m a fairly senior individual who is used to seeing a lot of subtle findings and picking them up,” Katzen says. “But I think with the model we used, it made it more obvious to anyone with any level of experience that there was a potential problem here.”

Katzen is a strong advocate for 3D printing for optimal treatment of patients. Currently, Baptist Health outsources its 3D printing needs, but he hopes to change that.

“When you add the 3D prints and the models to it, we see that in terms of the future, as something that’s really going to improve patient care, quality and outcomes,” he says. “We on the cardiovascular side and the medical imaging side are working together to try to bring that to Baptist Health.”

Business

For smaller businesses and those that do not use 3D printing on a regular basis, it still makes sense to outsource.

The Solid Experts list NASA among its customers. They also do a fair bit of business reconstructing accidents and building architectural models, including mock-ups of hotel suites. 1Click3DPrint includes Pepsi, Compliance Meds Technologies and ABCO Products. 3D Chimera has created models for Miami Beach life guard stations and a map of the Jackson Memorial Hospital campus.

But perhaps on 3D Chimera’s more interesting clients is that of Aeronautical Engineers of Doral.

In February, they hired 3D Chimera to scan the fuselage of a Boeing 737-800 jet.

“We saved hours and hours and hours,” says Ricardo Fernandez, engineering manager at Aeronautical Engineers. “Typically, if we are doing a design by taking 2D drawings and scaling them up and down, you’ve got to play with the numbers, we’re talking a month or two of work that we cut down by having a scan of the aircraft.”

It took about 10 hours to scan the fuselage and a couple of weeks to complete the computerized model, Fernandez says. But it was worth it, he adds, explaining that the job cost his company roughly half of the $7,000 to $10,000 cost he anticipated if they did the work in-house.

The future

Future inventions and adventures into 3D printing are limited only by the imagination. Perhaps one day someone will make and sell a flying car using the technology and we will truly have evolved into the Jetsons era.

3D printing: a sampling

3D printing is a growing business in South Florida, with a growing number of companies that both use and offer the technology. The Miami Herald examined a sampling of those companies providing the service: an emerging company in Coral Gables, an established firm in Miami, and a longstanding business in Fort Lauderdale.

3D Chimera

Founded: August 2013

Owner: Walter Puls, CEO and founder

Employees: 6

Revenues: Projected $1.5 million for 2015

Location: 5246 SW Eighth St., Suite 101-C, Coral Gables

Features: This startup company is making a name for itself as a young, nimble firm that “takes whatever business comes in the door” and offers anything from sales of equipment to 3D models to training students as early as elementary school. Clients include architects, artists, hobbyists, inventors, museum archeologists, and members of the entertainment and fashion industries.

Contact: 786-615-5182 www.3dchimera.com

WB Engineering/1Click3DPrint

Founded: WB Engineering founded in 2007, added 1Click3DPrint in 2014

Owners: WB Engineering: Werner Blumenthal

Employees: 13

Revenues: Due to proprietary interests, the company will not provide specific figures, but it puts its annual revenues over $1 million.

Location: 203 NW 36th St., Miami

Features: Father and son (Alfredo and Werner Blumenthal) offer their customers a full range of engineering services through WB Engineering and 3D printing and sales through 1Click3DPrint. Clients range from PepsiCo and the makers of specialty pill dispensers to ensure patients take their medications as needed and do not accidentally overdose. Several artists, including local artist Ahol Sniff Glue use the 3D printing services to create anything from jewelry to cutting-edge furniture.

Contact: WB: 305-756-4401 www.wb-3d.com; 1click: 305-507-4770 www.1click3dprint.com

The SolidExperts

Founded: 2005

Owner: President is Mike Pomper, who studied architecture and holds a bachelor’s of design from Florida International University. Vice President Neil Bourgeois, located in Jacksonville.

Employees: 13

Revenues: Due to proprietary interests, the company will not provide specific figures, but puts its annual revenues in excess of $1 million.

Location: 2005 West Cypress Creek Rd., Suite 105, Fort Lauderdale

Features: This Florida owned and operated company supplies software, as well as printers and equipment, training and technical support. Among other products, the company sells commercial-grade 3D Systems equipment. His professional profile states that The Solid Experts are “Florida’s premier Value Added Reseller (VAR) for the full line of SOLIDWORKS 3D design solutions and for 3D Systems rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing 3D printer products.”

Clients range from architects, dentists and doctors to NASA.

Contact: 954-772-1903; www.TheSolidExperts.com

See video online

Go to MiamiHerald.com and click on Business Monday to see a a brief video clip by 3D Chimera that shows how the fuselage of a Boeing 737-800 jet was scanned.

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