Need a Wrench? Hit Print.
by Francine Kopun, Business Reporter
Motorola has six. RIM has three. Soon you may have one in your home to print out spare parts or toys.
Three-dimensional printers are old news in the product research and development industry. To anyone outside of it, they are magic. And that magic is on the cusp of being available to everyone.
Just as desktop computers and printers revolutionized publishing, 3D printers could revolutionize manufacturing. They don’t print paper. They print physical objects. They can print out a wrench, gears, gaskets, dials and cell phone shells, or anything you can dream up or download from sites like www.thingiverse.com, a library of free digital designs.
Do you need hangers for your shower curtain? You can print them out. A doorknob? Print it out.
The technology has been around for more than 20 years, but like the first computers, early 3D print technology was expensive and bulky. It has been tumbling in price and size and growing in efficiency since and has now reached the point where individuals can own one or buy the parts and build one.
The printers work by laying down thousands of layers of acrylic-based resin or rubber or plastic on top of one another until an object is formed. The pattern is computer-programmed.
In August a company called MakerBot Industries in the U.S. secured $10-million in financing – including financing from Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos – to bring their 3D printers to everyone
“I want the next generation to grow up making things, not just blindly consuming them,” MakerBot founder Bre Pettis told the Star.
“We’re focused on young people having access to a machine that can make anything, so that instead of saving their allowance to buy toys, they could design and make them.”
Pettis, 39, is also a founder of NYCResistor, a hacker collective in Brooklyn, and co-founder of Thingiverse.com.
MakerBot sells custom fully assembled 3D printers for $2,500, or kits for assembly for $1,299.
“If you’re a Lego wiz I’m sure you’d be fine,” said Pettis. “If you’re someone who’s not comfortable putting IKEA furniture together, you should get some help.”
MakerBot works using ABS thermoplastic, (like Lego).
The potential of the MakerBot is endless, said Pettis. One Thingiverse.com contributor named Cathal Garvey made a printable centrifuge for $26, capable of extracting DNA from fruit.http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1483
“It’s very magical,” said Pettis.
One of the most exciting things about a MakerBot is it reduces the cost of failure, according to Pettis. If you have an idea, you can print it and if it doesn’t work, just print it again.
“This ability to fail inexpensively is the core of innovation,” he said.
The technology has been available in Toronto for years, but has mostly been used for R&D.
At Proto3000 3D Engineering Solutions in Vaughan, a $250,000 Objet 3D printer in the lobby is their workhorse. The printer travels swiftly back-and-forth over a flat, black tablet, laying down micro-thin layers of acrylic-based resin that is hardened using ultraviolet light.
As the resin builds up, the tablet moves down incrementally, so additional layers can be added, making the object thicker and giving it dimension.
Over hours the layers build up into an actual object. It takes about two hours to make a working hand wrench prototype.
The Objet printers start at $20,000 U.S., but engineer Eyal Geiger of Proto3000, also believes they will one day be used in ordinary homes.
Geiger said he has sold a couple to individuals inventors who want to work on their ideas in total secrecy.
Toronto patent lawyer Elias Borges says inventors with a functional prototype stand a better chance of getting investors onboard.
Those who want to protect their ideas, need to be careful when they register their patents, trademarks and copyrights.
Copying an object for experimentation is legal. If someone copies your patented object entirely, that’s an infringement. But if they change it enough, it’s legal.
“The wording of a patent is all-important. Literally millions of dollars will turn on a word,” says Borges.
Victor Yeung, 33, an inventor from North York, says his product Mistystix, which uses dry ice to make smoke pour out of drinks, would never have got to market without 3D printing, which made it relatively cheap and easy for him to perfect the design.
“If you don’t have a 3D printer, your next step is to manufacturing and that’s pretty heavy,” says Yeung, who hopes to launch a retail version of Mistystix in December.
He says he spent about $200 on each iteration of his Mistystix.
Robert Dickie, president and founder of Spark Innovations in King City, is one of Canada’s most prolific inventors. His company prints 3D prototypes using ABS materials.
“If you want to know where this is going…imagine the knob on the lid of your favourite cooking pot cracked or broke. You could go to the company website, download the file of the knob and print it. That’s what they’re saying could happen,” says Dickie.
“You know what? Look at the computer power we have on our desktop. That didn’t seem like a reality 20 years ago either.”
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