A duck born with a mangled leg in Arlington, Tenn., now has a prosthetic leg that was “printed” on a 3-D printer. Scientists at Princeton University are researching the feasibility of using 3-D printers to create human ears out of organic materials. And some have even designed printable guns and ammunition magazines.
3-D printing is the latest technology trend that is entering the mainstream as prices drop low enough ($2,000 or less) that even individuals can afford such a contraption. And as of this year, people can buy 3-D printers in Oklahoma City, from Maker's Tool Works, led by CEO and founder Jeff Davis.
After a period of beta testing, Maker's Tool Works began selling its MendelMax printer for about $1,600 to the public in January. Davis said he has shipped the ready-to-build printer to U.S. cities and to countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Russia, Poland and Switzerland.
Previously, this type of technology, known as rapid prototyping, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Manufacturers used rapid prototype machines to test and tweak objects they had designed before mass-producing them; universities also would use them in architecture or engineering programs.
But the 3-D printing process, as Davis recently demonstrated in his office just west of downtown Oklahoma City, is simple: Find a ready-made design available on the Internet, tell the computer to print it and watch the object grow from the base up. Those who want to create their own designs will have to know how to use computer modeling software.
Before visitors arrived, Davis downloaded to his computer a pyramidlike design called a broken obelisk, available on the Web, to show them. When they got there, he typed on his computer to start the process, and the 3-D printer machine sitting on his desk nearby beeped and whirred into action.
A bright green spool of filament — the plastic used to create the design similar to ink on a paper printer — sat on top of the printer, feeding a heated nozzle used to build the pyramid. Materials for that small of an object cost just a few cents, Davis said.
“Literally it starts out with the plastic up top,” Davis explained as the device began drawing the pyramid's green square base on a heated flat surface. “It goes down into the print head, which has a motor in it that pulls it in, and it's very precise so it knows exactly how to control the flow. And it still to me is almost magic.”
As the printer created the object one level at a time, Davis showed off other things he had recently printed — a cartoonlike dragon head, a plastic Quadcopter part and a replica of Darth Vader's TIE Fighter from “Star Wars.”
The possibilities for 3-D printing have many people amazed. Whether they want to use the process for their businesses, homes, school projects, artistic endeavors or hobbies, nearly everyone can think of something they'd like to print from scratch.
As vice president of sales and marketing for Global Software Corp., Eric Thompson of Edmond has some ideas for using a 3-D printer as a marketing tool and hopes to try one out soon.
“I've read about it. I've kept up with it online, but I've never seen it in person or used it,” Thompson said. “I think that people will use it (3-D printing) to create more gadgets or more trinkets. ... I see it more for tinkerers.”
Others would like to print replacement parts for their home appliances and other devices. Collectors of action figures would like to design and create their own.
Kyle Gandy, art director for NewsOK's audience development team who has gotten interested in 3-D printing, asked Davis to print out two accessories for cameras — a hot shoe attachment and a table dolly to hold a camera for slow, gliding shots on a table top. Gandy also said he wanted to use a 3-D printer to print parts to help him organize tools in his garage.
‘The start of anything'
To explain the 3-D concept, Gandy suggested thinking of it like children using colored pencils to create items from their imagination. Currently, materials used in 3-D printers include plastics, nylons and even a wood-like mixture. He has even read about a fashion show that included all 3-D-printed clothing items.
“People have started thinking in terms of ‘can I make this?' ” said Gandy, adding that he envisions seeing 3-D printers in the appliance section of stores in the near future. “It's hard to tell people what a 3-D printer is good for because what is it not good for? ... It can be the start of anything.”
As for firearms, an organization named Defense Distributed has made blueprints for gun parts and ammunition magazines available on the Internet. This has sparked some debate but doesn't appear to break any laws. According to ATF.gov, manufacturing a firearm for personal use is legal in most cases.
Those in the industry think that in the future, people will buy 3-D printers for their homes as readily as they do ink-paper printers.
During the recent visit, Davis was in the process of calibrating his MendelMax printer for the first time, so he wasn't happy with a few ridges on the final print of the pyramid. He had sped up the process for onlookers in a “fast draft” kind of way.
However, he is an enthusiastic ambassador for the industry.
“From art to engineering to hobbyists, I mean it really transverses the gamut from one side to the other,” Davis said. “That's one of the neatest parts of it.”