CUMBERLAND — When architects at Populous wanted to show off their design for part of the new Atlanta Braves stadium, they asked Cobb-based 3D Printer Technology to make a tiny prototype.
“They needed to do a presentation, so we just printed the architectural model for them,” said CEO Ron Robinson, an IT and engineering veteran who founded 3D Printer Technology in 2011.
Another customer, Lockheed Martin, came to the company with a different challenge: Isolated by the weather in Antarctica, contractors for a federal science program needed a better way to get spare parts. “For three or four months out of the year, nobody can even fly down there,” Robinson said. “Lockheed is doing a feasibility study to see if it can put 3D printers in Antarctica: metal printers, plastic printers, whatever is needed. They want to be able to make their own parts so they don’t have to have them flown in.”
Other customers — including Kids II, Taco Mac, Simmons Bedding Co., Robins Air Force Base, Randstad and IA Interior Architects, to name a few — have bought 3D printers from 3D Printer Technology or commissioned print jobs for everything from toy hippo heads to minesweeper tips. Headquartered at 400 Galleria Parkway, the company offers training courses on using 3D printers by manufacturers such as MakerBot and 3D Systems. It also conducts seminars on the benefits of the technology and helps clients with prototype design as needed, said Jason Daenzer, vice president of business development.
Businesses of all types and sizes are catching on to the benefits of 3D printing, Daenzer said. In a new report on the phenomenon, specialist research firm Wohlers notes that 3D printing grew by 35 percent in 2013 to become a $3 billion industry. Price reductions are a contributing factor: 3D Printer Technology was one of the first 10 businesses in the country to resell printers by MakerBot, which start at about $2,000, Robinson said.
In 3D printing, a computer-controlled device builds highly detailed objects by adding successive layers of material such as plastic, metal or flexible filament. This makes it easier for businesses to create the models and prototypes they need to get new products off the ground. It also marks a big improvement over older manufacturing techniques such as injection molding, Daenzer said.
“It can cost thousands of dollars just to have an injection mold created for a prototype, and with injection molding you have to be happy with your design because you can’t change it once it is made,” he said. “With 3D printing, you can make many iterations and refine your design before you manufacture it.”
A local startup recently bought a four-color 3D printer from 3D Printer Technology so that it could manufacture a whimsical product: customized bobble-head dolls. “They basically have a portable facial scanner that takes multiple snapshots of your face,” Daenzer said. “Then they print a bobble-head doll with that person’s face superimposed on it.”
But while some applications for 3D printers are highly creative, others are far more serious. Robinson and Daenzer recently met with Scott Hollister, a University of Michigan researcher who 3D-prints a life-saving medical device to stop babies’ bronchial tubes from collapsing. It is even safely reabsorbed into the body once the children outgrow the condition at around age three. “One baby was living in the intensive care unit but was able to go home after the surgery,” Daenzer said.
Medical researchers are using so-called “bio printers” to make kidneys and other internal organs, with living cells as the raw material. “In the future, they might be able to basically duplicate your own organs utilizing your own cells,” Daenzer said.
Some even predict 3D printers will be household objects along the lines of microwave ovens and dishwashers in a few years. In June, Robinson and Daenzer flew to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to demo their technology at the 2014 Fiber to the Home Conference and Expo. The organizers, who provided them with a free booth and paid their airfare and other expenses, wanted to show how 3D printing could be a part of a high-bandwidth home, Robinson said.
But Robinson and Daenzer are excited about another idea—commercial hubs filled with best-in-class 3D printers made available to everyone. Today, most consumers find it easier to pay retail businesses to print their digital images rather than futzing with ink and photo paper at home. Likewise, commercial print hubs could efficiently meet people’s 3D-printing needs, Robinson says. In fact, Robinson and Daenzer are now courting venture capital to launch precisely such a 3D print shop of the future.
“What if there was a place just like Kinko’s, but for 3D printing?” Robinson said.