3-D printing: market hype or the ‘next big thing’?

COMING ALIVE: Andy Coutu, president of R&D Technologies, and Gemma Downey inspect a 3-D-printed car seat. / COURTESY R&D TECHNOLOGIES
COMING ALIVE: Andy Coutu, president of R&D Technologies, and Gemma Downey inspect a 3-D-printed car seat. / COURTESY R&D TECHNOLOGIES

There’s something unusual about the doorstops at R&D Technologies Inc.’s new Quonset Business Park offices in North Kingstown.
Instead of getting them at a big-box store or clicking on the website of an online office supplier, company employees drew them up on a computer, walked down the hall and printed them.
Rhode Island’s only retailer of 3-D printers, R&D Technologies believes that in the not-too-distant future, most companies and many individuals will make a wide array of products themselves, many more complicated than doorstops, now made in factories and sold in stores.
Like the Internet or robotics, 3-D printing entrepreneurs say the technology has the potential to cause an “industrial revolution” capable of reshaping traditional manufacturing and retailing.
“I have said in 20 years everyone will have one of these in their home,” said Andy Coutu, CEO of R&D Technologies. “You break a spoon and make another one; a switch breaks on a washing machine, you will download a plan for it from Maytag and print it.”
As advances in 3-D printing accelerate, a growing number of Rhode Island designers, academics and business leaders want to make sure the state is driving this disruptive technology instead of reacting to it.
At organizations such as Betaspring and AS220, groups of designers, tinkerers and entrepreneurs are getting together to work on products, inventions and opportunities to take advantage of 3-D printing.
And early next month Bryant University’s Chafee Center for International Business is hosting a conference called “3-D Printing: Creating a Maker Culture in Rhode Island.” The event will feature not only 3-D printing experts, but executives from some of the leading companies in the state, including GTECH S.p.A., Ximedica LLC and Astro-Med Inc.
“Still right now only about 1 percent of manufacturers are using it, but growth is expected to be exponential in the next several years,” said Ray Fogarty, director of the Chafee Center. “We are trying to keep looking at global and national developments to learn from what they are doing that can make our manufacturing more progressive.”
Although many people may not have heard about it until recently, 3-D Printing has been around since the 1980s and is used by a wide range of industries, including manufacturers and architects, mostly for prototyping and modeling. The printers both look, and in some ways operate, not unlike conventional paper printers, with print heads running across a flat surface laying down a precise pattern of materials.
But in 3-D printing, instead of just making one run across paper, the printer keeps adding layers on top of each other until a form rises up off the flat surface and takes on the distinct shape of the item being made.
Using 3-D printers in production is considered “additive manufacturing” to differentiate it from traditional processes in which items are made by subtracting raw materials through molds or tools until the desired shape is revealed.
In concept, additive manufacturing has an inherent cost advantage in that it produces no waste material and does not require tools to be made for each individual item.
Like early flat printers, 3-D printers, until now, have been limited in speed, quality and what materials they were capable of using.
Compared with traditionally molded or tooled parts, 3-D-printed objects didn’t have the same surfaces or exacting tolerances.
The printers were also slow, especially when trying to make large runs of a single object, and were generally confined to plastic, as metal is even more difficult and expensive to manipulate.
As a result, while many businesses have used 3-D printers for years to test prototypes or make demonstration models, only a few large companies have ventured into actually making finished products with the technology.
But with the quality of 3-D printers rising and their prices falling, those barriers have begun to fall.
“What’s going on nationally is a silent revolution for larger assemblies that people don’t realize is happening,” said Tyler Benster, a Betaspring maker fellow, founder of startup Azavy Inc. and self-described 3-D printing evangelist.
“At General Electric, they have 3-D printers with resolutions one-fifth the diameter of a human hair and are making fuel-control nozzles for jet engines,” he said. “What used to require 18 different pieces attached together now comes out in one solid piece and is a great example of where the total cost comes way down.”
Benster is a co-founder of Azavy, a startup that won the student-track Rhode Island Business Plan competition this year and intends to create an online marketplace for 3-D printing. Benster, who is speaking at the Dec. 5 Chafee Center event, said Azavy is currently tweaking its business model to focus on manufacturing-quality printers instead of consumer level.
A few key 3-D printing patents are set to expire in the next few years, Benster said, which should spur new innovation and price declines.
On the broader future of 3-D printing in Rhode Island, Benster said the state could be perfectly positioned to become a leader in use of the technology because of its design talent and higher education resources.
“The third industrial revolution is coming,” he said. “The challenge now is there is not enough design talent. You have to think differently if you are making different shapes.”
Fielding Manufacturing in Cranston, which makes miniature metal and plastic parts, has used 3-D printing since the 1990s for modeling and prototyping, but President Steven E. Fielding says the speed, quality and cost still aren’t close to what he needs in his business.
“I follow it closely and it is a long way off,” Fielding said about 3-D production. “At end of the day it is a slow process … and materials are not advanced to make functional parts that are as strong as they are now.”
Fielding said right now the “hype” surrounding 3-D printing may be getting ahead of the technology as people search for the next big thing.
Whether low-cost, in-home or in-office printers will attack simple, cheap, mass-produced items from the other end of the manufacturing market anytime soon is more debatable.
The medical-device designers at Ximedica in Providence have used 3-D printers in prototyping and modeling for decades, but Director of Engineering Breck Petrillo said the technology is just now crossing into production. Although Ximedica hasn’t used 3-D printing for products being sold yet, they have for clinical preproduction.
“We are there,” Petrillo said about the use of 3-D printers for production. “It is just a matter of when it is the right fit.”
Petrillo doesn’t think 3-D printers will totally wipe out traditional manufacturing processes, which will remain optimal in certain markets, but soon they will start capturing large segments.
“Where the equipment used to be cost prohibitive, now there are a handful of devices falling into the affordable range for home and a generation of tinkerers taking advantage as well,” he said. •

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