Tuesday, December 10, 2013
To many businesses in Maine, three-dimensional printing is more than just a gimmick or a fad.
Christopher Dunn, a mechanical engineering student at the University of Southern Maine, removes an object he printed with a 3D printer. Experts in Maine say 3D printing can be used to make virtually anything.
Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
Consultant Sarah Boisvert, an expert on 3D printing, shows a napkin ring she made with a 3D printer.
A growing number of companies are taking advantage of recent improvements and cost reductions in 3D-printing technology to design new products more quickly and inexpensively, business owners and engineers say.
While many recent headlines about the technology discuss the possible dangers of 3D-printed weapons, experts in Maine say 3D printing can be used to make virtually anything and is particularly useful for prototypes, customized products and complex geometric shapes.
Advocates for 3D printing in the state say not enough companies and consumers are aware of what the technology can do, and why it is so important to the future of manufacturing.
University of Southern Maine staff member Gregory Cavanaugh and 3D-printing consultant Sarah Boisvert have teamed up to organize a conference scheduled for Friday at USM in Portland.
The inaugural Digital Fabrication & 3D Technologies Conference & Expo will showcase the latest in 3D printing, computer-aided design, 3D scanning, laser-based manufacturing and other cutting-edge digital design and fabrication technologies, they said. The conference is designed to offer something to both companies and educators.
“A lot of manufacturing has left this country, and 3D printing is a way to bring some of it back,” said Cavanaugh, assistant director of experiential education at USM’s College of Science, Technology and Health.
Several companies in Maine already are using 3D printing to make a diverse array of products ranging from robotics to jewelry, said Boisvert, owner of 3DMicroFactory, a digital design and fabrication firm based in Rockport.
“My guess is that a small number of Maine companies have made the leap – maybe 5 to 15 percent, but more are interested in how to get started,” she said. “That is one of the big requests we got from Maine manufacturers and educators about the subjects for the (conference) talks.”
Three-dimensional printing, also called “additive manufacturing,” involves special printers that can construct a solid, three-dimensional object from a digital design.
The term “additive manufacturing” refers to the fact that objects are constructed by adding layer upon layer of the building material, often plastic, rather than by removing or cutting away material.
Printers come in a variety of types. One of the most common uses plastic “extrusion deposition,” in which a plastic filament is fed into a nozzle that heats the plastic to a liquid state, then pipes it out like icing through the tip of a pastry bag.
Meanwhile, the printer head moves left, right, backward and forward over a metal plate, known as the “stage,” slowly building the 3D plastic object one layer at a time.
In some printer models, the nozzle rises slightly after each layer of plastic is laid down, while in other models the stage lowers slightly.
The proliferation of 3D printers has caused some concern among law enforcement that they could be used to create weapons. Earlier this year, a law student in Texas posted directions online for making a 3D-printed handgun. Authorities in Europe, which has stricter gun-control laws than the U.S., have also said they fear the technology will make it easier to obtain a weapon.
Despite the recent introduction of relatively low-priced consumer 3D printers on the market (as low as $300 for a Printrbot Simple), experts said it requires at least a mid-range consumer printer such as a Makerbot Replicator 2 ($2,200) or a Cubify CubeX ($2,500) to reliably produce small commercial products.
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Duvall Design of Rockland designed this bracelet using 3D printing. 3D-printed jewelry is a hot fashion item this year, said owner Charles Duvall.
Courtesy of Charles Duvall