October 31, 2013

3D printing providing edge to Maine businesses

A conference Friday in Portland will showcase advances in digital fabrication.

By J. Craig Anderson canderson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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.

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Even those printers don’t always work the way they are supposed to, Boisvert said. It’s not unusual for them to get off track and end up producing what looks like a pile of plastic spaghetti.

The more expensive commercial-grade 3D printers are far more precise and reliable, but they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Also, higher-end printers can combine multiple colors or materials, while lower-end printers can’t.

The plastic filament isn’t cheap, either, costing as much as $50 for a spool that weighs about 1.5 pounds.

Cavanaugh noted that using a 3D printer to produce, say, a simple plastic cup, would cost many times more than buying one at the store. “Sure, you could do it that way, but it would be a very expensive cup,” he said.

The process is especially useful for producing one-off designs and complex geometric shapes that would be difficult to manufacture any other way, Boisvert and Cavanaugh said.

To mass-produce a product, they said, it is far cheaper and faster to create a mold, set up an assembly line and produce multiple copies. But what if you only need one copy?

For example, Invisalign braces, which are made of clear plastic, are custom 3D-printed to fit each user’s teeth. It would be far more expensive to make them using a traditional manufacturing process, Boisvert said.

Aerospace companies also are interested in 3D printing because they can use it to make porous structures that are strong and light, Cavanaugh said.

“You’re able to achieve geometry that you couldn’t get any other way,” he said.

Steve Franklin, engineering manager at Westbrook-based Lanco Assembly Systems, said his company uses 3D printing to make plastic prototypes of certain parts before sending the designs off to be machined in metal.

Lanco produces robotic assembly-line equipment for the mass-production of automotive parts and other mass-produced items. Every job Lanco does for a customer requires a custom design, which makes 3D printing ideal for prototyping, Franklin said.

“We know if (a part) will work within a matter of hours, rather than within days or weeks,” he said.

Creating designs for a 3D printer also can spur the creative process and result in something new and unusual, said Charles Duvall, owner of Rockland-based Duvall Design.

Duvall, a computer-assisted designer with a diverse background, said he is leaving for Europe in November to show off his 3D printed jewelry at fashion shows in London and Paris. He calls his accessories “architectural wearables” because of their complex, multilayered structures.

“It’s sort of a different way of thinking about jewelry, so you end up with a different result,” Duvall said.

For more information about the Digital Fabrication & 3D Technologies Conference & Expo, visit digifabconference.com or call 780-5450.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or:canderson@pressherald.com@jcraiganderson

 

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Additional Photos

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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

  


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