Advertising

Originally published December 26, 2011 at 8:00 PM | Page modified December 27, 2011 at 12:26 PM

3-D printing on way to becoming affordable

More and more companies are selling 3-D printers within the price range of consumers. Most machines several years ago cost tens of thousands and were sold primarily to architects and engineers. Cheaper commercial self-assembly kits now go for about $1,100.

Seattle Times business reporter

quotes You realize, of course, that when Ganter starts working with mashed potatoes, the first... Read more
quotes Can the Star Trek food replicator be far behind? Earl Grey, hot. Read more
quotes 3d fax machine .....hmmm! Wait till the porn industry gets a hold of the technology. Read more

advertising

University of Washington professor Mark Ganter sees the future, and it's printing apple pies.

And maybe vital organs, furniture and buildings.

Ganter experiments with using alternative materials to print three-dimensional objects, part of growing efforts to make 3-D printing more diverse and accessible to consumers.

The machines print layers of material to produce the models. Some printers add layers of powder and liquid binder, while others melt layer upon layer of plastic.

At the UW's Solheim Rapid Prototyping/Rapid Manufacturing Lab, which Ganter codirects, he's constantly asking students: "What did you make?"

The results have included, among other things, pineapples made out of mango iced-tea mix and miniature plaster replicas of Easter Island's colossal Moai statues,

Ganter estimates his team of "printistas," the term he's coined for professional 3-D printers, has worked with almost 50 different materials. He jokes that he'll stop when he's tried 1,000, and has talked about experimenting with mashed potatoes.

Ganter's lab is not alone in the changing landscape of 3-D printing.

More and more companies are selling 3-D printers within the price range of consumers. Most machines several years ago cost tens of thousands and were sold primarily to architects and engineers. Cheaper commercial self-assembly kits now go for about $1,100.

"As the bottom end blows up, there are many more households than there are industries," Ganter said about companies beginning to cater to home users.

2Bot, a Redmond-based startup, is interested in the bottom end of the 3-D printing market, though others in the industry prefer to classify machines such as 2Bot's in the more general category of rapid prototyping devices.

The company advertises to classrooms as a machine that's cost effective for students to use.

Founder and CEO Paul Nye compares the current 3-D printing industry to the early PC market.

"Out of 50 or so players, all of the sudden a few popped up," Nye said. "I see us as being one of those companies to pop up."

Its ModelMaker uses subtractive technology, removing material to sculpt the models, unlike traditional 3-D printers, which combine layers of material to create the final product.

The device sculpts foam, among other materials, many of which make the cost of printed models less than those produced by other machines.

"We're kind of breaking the rules in this space, so it's hard to describe what we are," Nye said. "It's just a very different class of machine."

Back at the Solheim lab, Ganter describes the price comparison between the machines and materials for 3-D printing as that of razors and razor blades; the cost of printing materials sold by the manufacturers can quickly exceed the cost of the machines.

Commercial printing plastic can cost more than $100 per pound, and printing powder can cost about $30 per pound, not including the cost of the binder.

"We have the capability to push the boundaries of materials in 3-D printing, and we're going to keep doing that if we can," Ganter said. "I think we're just starting."

He predicts that the technology may become as prevalent as desktop inkjet printers, but it's not anyone who can pour powdered glass into one of these machines to make a model; Ganter's lab goes through multiple recipes for each material before being able to print a solid final product.

Because of the skill required to operate some of these machines, Ganter says he could also see a future for 3-D print shops.

Metrix Create:Space in Capitol Hill is heading in this direction; the business operates as a coffee shop for the design and tech communities. Customers include robotics hobbyists, professionals looking for affordable models, jewelry makers and engineers, to name a few.

The space provides a communal work area with tools and craft supplies, including 3-D printers.

The big attraction is Metrix's laser cutter, but owner Matt Westervelt said he's seen an uptake in the use of his 3-D printers over the past year. He began with machines that print plastic and added a powder printer to his collection in January.

"You bring us a file, we'll give you a thing," Westervelt said.

He said clients sometimes ask for help to operate the machines themselves, while others ask the business to do the printing.

"We've done stuff that people have sketched on napkins," he laughed.

Thursday nights, clients bring in their own, self-assembled 3-D printers to Metrix to fine-tune the machines and work on printing projects together. Robot parts, figures designed for video games and a topographical relief map of Washington state have all been printed at Metrix.

Ganter is a regular at the space.

Westervelt says 3-D printing is expanding beyond this niche community. His shop makes and sells the parts needed to build more 3-D printers for $50 per set — a cloning project of sorts. They produce the parts using other 3-D printers.

"It's coming," Westervelt said. "It's going to be a mainstream thing."

Alexis Krell: 206-464-3263 or akrell@seattletimes.com

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon




Advertising