3D printing

Italo Travez holds up two versions of the same medical device, one in each hand. Both fit inside a machine that helps would-be surgeons simulate the feeling of puncturing human flesh, navigating narrow arteries and bumping against bone.

The first device, made largely of metal, is configured from individual nuts, bolts, wires, clips, levers, screws and plates. The second, made of rugged plastic, was printed (yes, printed) as a single object, with a few screws and wires tacked on afterward.

The machine that fashioned the device is called a 3-D printer, and there are plenty of early adopters in the Washington area.

Travez’s company, Ashburn-based Prototype Productions Inc., was among the first small-scale manufacturers to purchase one in 2001.

The cost of 3-D printing technology and its availability to the average consumer and small business has changed substantially since PPI shelled out nearly $900,000 for the company’s Sinterstation 2500 Plus.


Teddy & The Bully Bar, a restaurant on 19th Street NW, is decorated with items that were custom-printed. (Teddy & The Bully Ba)

In May, for example, Staples became the first national retailer to sell a consumer-grade 3-D printer, called the Cube, at select stores. Produced by 3D Systems at its facility in Herndon, the desktop device retails for $1,299.

Still too pricey? Starting last week, you could use your library card to sign up for time on a machine at the District’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.

Proponents hail 3-D printing as one of today’s most revolutionary technologies. They say like personal computers and, more recently, smartphones, the devices will eventually be in every American home and fundamentally change the way we procure simple items.

Missing the battery cover on your remote control? Print one. Need a bracket for a home improvement project? Print it. After all, higher-end 3-D printers can already fabricate artificial body parts and functioning handguns.

Mass adoption is still years of way — if it ever does happen.

“In terms of adoption on the consumer side, I would say it’s really, really low currently. And I don’t see that increasing a great deal in the near future just because 3-D printing isn’t easy,” said Amy Machado, senior research analyst at IDC, a market research firm. “There’s a lot of steps that go into a final product.”

For the home

Nova Labs, a space for craftsmen and hobbyists in Reston, is housed in the former storefront of a tile distributor.

There is a workshop atmosphere with wall-to-wall folding tables cluttered with laptops, strands of wire, tool kits and half-empty Chipotle cups. The air smells like something is burning. That’s because something is burning. A laser cutting machine is searing through leather.

On a recent Monday evening, members of Nova Labs tinker away on rudimentary 3-D printers that they’ve built from a box of parts. Once assembled — the fastest was built in about eight hours — they use plastic filament to print small trinkets and widgets.

“We lowered the bar enough that a lot of folks who would never even think about [building a 3-D printer] would talk about doing it,” said Brian Jacoby, president and co-founder of Nova Labs. “Most folks, if they can figure out which end of a screwdriver is which, they could actually put it together.”

The needle on Scott Harris’s 3-D printer slides from left to right, front to back, pouring a thin stream of molten plastic into the shape of an open brushless gimbal. The gizmo, which will be used to affix a camera to a flying quadcopter, has been printing for more than an hour.

Harris first learned about the 3-D printing group at Nova Labs in March during a presentation on the technology at a library in Chantilly. Harris said he’s “always been one of those people who takes things apart,” but not everyone harbors the do-it-yourself itch.

“Can it make that leap to getting in every house? PCs did that ... and the software to match,” Harris said. “What’s far more likely is every FedEx office will have a row of 3-D printers.”

3D Systems would disagree. The Rock Hill, S.C.-based company is one of the largest 3-D printer manufacturers and launched a consumer line through its Herndon-based Cubify operation in January 2012.

The Cube sells for $1,299 and comes in silver, lime green, hot pink, blue and white. Images on the firm’s Web site showcase such final products as customized plastic sunglasses, a small vase and children’s beach toys. CubeX, a $2,499 model, can print items as large as a basketball, in multiple colors with multiple materials.

“We originally launched it for kids from 8 to 80,” spokeswoman Alyssa Reichental said. “What we mean by that is there’s something for everyone, whether you’re an artist or designer, and this becomes a business platform for you, or you’re an adult who is trying to unleash some creativity.”

Still, some of the biggest promises of 3-D printing — that it can change the way consumers buy products and disrupt entire industries — isn’t likely to come to pass with existing at-home models, said Machado, the IDC analyst.

“Maybe [in] the next five years you could see it as a creative outlet, but not necessarily a functional outlet,” she said. “I’m probably still going to go to the AutoZone to get the parts I need [for my car], I’m not going to print those at home.”

For the office

The business applications for 3-D printing are much more established, though they’ve traditionally been limited to certain industries. Companies such as PPI in Ashburn, for example, have used the machines to create prototypes of products.

But as printers have become more sophisticated and the objects they generate more professional, the devices can be used to create final products or components of final products. The machines with those capabilities come at a cost — and a steep one at that.

“In the past five years, you’ve seen more end products, especially on the medical side,” Machado said. “We’re talking about machines that cost half a million dollars or a million dollars, that’s a huge acquisition cost.”

The machines used by a firm like PPI may come with such a hefty price tag, but some professional-caliber machines can now be bought for a few thousand dollars. That’s made them available to small businesses, including some here in Washington.

District-based Design Operative acquired a printer in May and used it for the interior design at Teddy & the Bully Bar, a Theodore Roosevelt-inspired restaurant on 19th Street NW. Warren Weixler, the owner and creative director, used the machine to print miniature versions of Mount Rushmore that cover an entire wall like tile, among other projects.

“Before we would search the Internet long and hard to find something that was ‘almost’ what we needed,” Weixler said via e-mail. “Now we design and print ‘exactly’ what we need.”

“This breaks down the barrier between what we can and cannot do for a client. We can now offer more and as we expand our knowledge of the machine and its capabilities, I’m sure we will be able to expand the offerings again and again,” he added.

The Smithsonian Institution created a 3-D Lab as part of the Digitization Program Office, which has been charged with creating 3-D scans of some of the institution’s many artifacts.

Once scanned, replicas can be printed for use by other organizations, as part of hands-on exhibits or in classrooms. The Smithsonian has printed replicas of President Abraham Lincoln’s life mask for the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of America History, for example.

“Three-D scanning and printing is just beginning to revolutionize how museums support conservation, public access and research ... currently we are only scratching the surface of possibilities,” 3-D Digitization Coordinator Vincent Rossi said via e-mail.

Global architecture and design firm Gensler has long created three-dimensional models of its redevelopment projects. That process typically involved a highly skilled model builder, either in-house or outsourced, which was time-consuming and expensive.

The firm has now shifted some of that work to 3-D printers. As a result, the time between concept and model is shorter, and changes to design plans can be made more easily.

“We benefit greatly from being able to rapidly build components and work with them soon after the first sketch,” Jordan Goldstein, co-managing director of the Washington office, said via e-mail. “We can work on a design during the day, and send the file to the printer to work overnight. In the morning, our design is waiting for us.”

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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