From skulls to jet engine parts, 3D printing is taking off in Ohio
History has come full circle for Ethan Dicks.
The long-time Columbus IT professional used to attend grassroots gatherings of personal computer enthusiasts during the 1980s to swap insights on the emerging technology.
Now he coordinates one the nation’s largest regional hobbyist groups dedicated to exploring the "printing" of three-dimensional solid objects from computer models.
"I saw 3D printing in exactly that same space as PCs," said Dicks, who coordinates the group out of the Columbus Idea Foundry
fabrication lab. "This is a place where people can learn and present…they help each other share their art."
A 3D printer follows digital designs to produce and fuse together successive layers of liquid, powder or sheet material. The technology has existed for two decades, and has been largely used within industry for prototypes to test new product designs.
But many believe the technology is nearing an inflection point of widespread use for short-run production -- officially known as "additive manufacturing." And Ohio is ground-zero for this renaissance.
Last fall, Youngstown was announced as the headquarters for a $70 million public-private pilot institute to scale the use of additive manufacturing – the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute
(NAMII). Approximately one quarter of the 70 dues-paying industrial, educational and nonprofit partners in NAMII hail from Ohio.
"We want to remove the technological, cultural, workforce and other barriers to move additive manufacturing into the mainstream of manufacturing," said Acting NAMII Director Ralph Resnick. "Additive manufacturing is not cheaper or faster than conventional technologies, but it allows you the design freedom that completely changes the way products look and function."
Teams of consortium partners will submit proposals to NAMII by the end of January for applied research projects using the technology.
Even without this investment, additive manufacturing has started to take root. Morris Technologies
in Cincinnati introduced additive metal manufacturing to the United States in 2003. GE Aviation in Evendale acquired the company in November as parts of its strategy to print jet engine parts, said Resnick.
Proponents argue that 3D printers may be ideal for low-volume, complex production projects requiring a high degree of customization. For example, an Avon Lake company counts exact reproductions of actual human skulls amongst its products. Rapid prototype + manufacturing LLC (rp+m)
replicates CT scans of skulls with trauma injuries to help doctors prepare for complex surgeries.
Thogus, a custom plastic injection molder, spun off the company in 2011. Rp+m Chief Engineer Patrick Gannon estimated that 30-to-40 percent of the company's activity in 2012 was additive manufacturing.
"We're finding more and more with lower-volume applications, that this is what people want," said Gannon. "They are tired of paying for tooling that ends up costing more than the parts."
For example, he said rp+m is executing an Ohio Third Frontier grant to develop cost-effective additive manufacturing processes for the aerospace and possibly automotive industries. He also felt the potential medical applications were boundless for creating precise-fitting implants.
"You could make a perfect implant that can fit and reduce surgery time by taking CT data from the damaged area," said Gannon. "Dental labs are already using additive manufacturing actively now to help create tooling for crowns."
But there are historical barriers to widespread adoption that NAMII hopes the research projects will help overcome. Outcomes include creating document libraries for: manufacturing process standards to ensure quality control, material capabilities for potential industry applications and cost-effective production steps.
"We want to see early wins and quick implementations," said Resnick. "These are diverse problems requiring diverse teams. We want to take the technical advances in labs and universities to that next step…and transition them to industry, small business and start-ups."
Resnick said he anticipates additional proposals from NAMII and projected widespread adoption of additive manufacturing practices within five years, when $30 million in federal seed money expires. Further, he said the cost of printers is falling as patents expire and more companies get into the printer business.
Dicks said one of his group members has already launched his own business assembling and selling 3D printers – including printing some of components parts. He also envisions entrepreneurial growth for 3D software designers. "People will go to a shop and say, 'I want to make this thing' and sit with a cocktail napkin."
Other key challenges involve access to the technology and workforce development.
Dicks said the user group is an ideal strategy to tackle both issues. Availability of open source software and falling technology prices (hobbyist printer kits start at $500) bring both the "tire kickers" as well as "tinkerers" to the group’s monthly meetings.
The group recently attracted 71 members to a "global meet up"
on 3D printing sponsored by Make Magazine – the largest attendance of any site in the world. Enthusiasts brought 10 different 3D printers and produced objects ranging from a sasquatch head to the plastic body for a flashlight kit.
"Here is Columbus. We may not be as large (as other areas), but we can produce people who are passionate and enthusiastic to get ahold of this as early adopters," said Dicks, who also teaches 3D printing at the Columbus Idea Foundry.
Likewise, Resnick said NAMII and the Youngstown Business Incubator
converted an abandoned furniture warehouse into a state-of-the-art lab filled with donated 3D printers and software. He envisions it as a "hotbed" to help small- and medium-sized businesses better embrace the technology. Partners unable to travel to Youngstown can also access a variety of virtual tools.
Moreover, part of the NAMII proposal criteria includes integration of education and training at the secondary and post-secondary levels.
Gannon, who will soon start teaching course at Case Western Reserve University on design and manufacturing, said rp+m employs high school and college interns. He added the company is helping guide curriculum at local schools, and even loaned a printer to one school to hold a design contest for IPOD covers.
"We were supposed to pick just one winner, but we decided to print them all out," he said. "We need to graduate more kids who are prepared for what's going on now."
Tom Prendergast is a Mansfield-based freelance journalist. He has significant experience in public policy, higher education and economic development issues.
Michael Cao of IC3D LLC is pictured in the photo above.