Thursday, July 24, 2014 · 5:39 p.m.

The boundless possibilities of 3-D printing

3-D printing helps business, manufacturing, education break the mold

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James McNutt, who works with The Public Library and Engage 3D, demonstrated how to use a computer program to create objects to be printed on a 3-D printer. (Photo: Staff)

Just as it took years to realize the potential of a desktop computer, the Internet or a search engine like Google, it has taken time to grasp and start to implement the possibilities of 3-D printing. But that process is picking up, and it’s only the beginning.

“There are so many applications [for 3-D printing]; really, the possibilities are only limited by our own imagination,” Melissa Ragsdale, president of NovaCopy, said.

NovaCopy is a company that sells and services 3-D printers. It has an office in Chattanooga, and NovaCopy is one example of how 3-D printing is impacting and changing businesses.

Even though 3-D printing technology is more than 20 years old, it’s only relatively recently—in the past five years or so—become more popular and more accessible to the public. 

In addition to Ragsdale and NovaCopy, there are many leaders in Chattanooga who are excited about the possibilities of 3-D printing and who are working to help area community members and companies understand and utilize the technology.

The Chattanooga Public Library has a 3-D printer that is available for use to members of the public, and leaders with organizations such as Engage 3D, The Company Lab and The 4th Floor are helping bring the technology to the local masses.

James McNutt, who works with The Public Library and Engage 3D, said that part of the reason the technology has caught on recently is because it has become more affordable.

The downtown library has a 3-D printer that members of the public who have a library card can use to print objects. (Photo: Staff)

How does it work? 
First, it takes imagination. A person envisions an object, then uses a computer program to create that 3-D object on the screen.

There is an array of programs that range in level of complexity. Some are made for children's use.

A person can use a computer program to drag and drop shapes, meld them together and create their design. 

Then, the printer lays out material in that shape.

Many 3-D printers use plastic that builds on top of plastic to create the design, but there are a range of different materials that can be used in 3-D printers, such as sugar and living tissue, although some of those possibilities are further along in advancement than others.  

On some printers, objects can also be scanned into the computer and then printed. 

Click here to watch a video showing an example of how it works. 

NovaCopy
NovaCopy started about 23 years ago as an office equipment company that sold copiers and production print machines, Ragsdale said.

But with the increasing shift from print to digital, the company has added 3-D printing to its business plan.

About 18 months ago, NovaCopy leaders signed on to become a dealer of 3D Systems, a top brand of 3-D printer.

The company sells to other businesses that have a variety of uses for the technology.

From automotive to footwear, there is an array of industries that use NovaCopy’s 3-D printers, Ragsdale also said.

Business benefits
The technology of 3-D printing helps businesses save money and time.

Types of common 3-D objects and their uses

—Concept models: Evaluate and optimize product design without the time and cost of machining or outsourcing. Used in early stages of product development, models reduce costs and shorten development timelines.

—Functional prototypes: Create functional models tough enough to test and optimize early in the design cycle.

—End use parts: Create low-volume parts tough enough for integration into the final product without the expense of machining.

—Manufacturing tools: Produce jigs, fixtures, tooling masters and production tooling in hours—not days.

Source: Melissa Ragsdale, NovaCopy

With 3-D printing, companies can make prototypes in hours instead of weeks. This helps shorten product development cycles and increase production.

NovaCopy leaders have found that some businesses see a 70 percent cost reduction in the process because of reduced shipping and packaging costs.

Prototyping is often outsourced overseas; and that creates a number of challenges, such as purchase minimums, language barriers, a four-to-eight-week return time and additional fees.

Instead of working with overseas parts suppliers, business leaders can create a prototype locally with 3-D technology.

Mike Bradshaw, who is currently the entrepreneur-in-residence for summer incubator program Gig Tank, is passionate about 3-D printing. Bradshaw also has 15 years of experience in directing software development projects, and he was a founding member of Compact Publishing.

He said that 3-D printing is having and will have a huge impact on manufacturing.

Bradshaw pointed to the fact that the CEO of GE recently said that the technology could change the way the company does business.

“That becomes a generational call to action,” Bradshaw said. “That’s hugely powerful.”

Because it’s less expensive now, 3-D printers are becoming more accessible, and that has other business impacts, Bradshaw said.

“You’re going to see them pop up on shelves at Best Buy,” he said. “[They could] be bundled with toys, [so you] manufacture basic models, customize and print it out yourself.”

Education
In addition to the practical business purposes, the scope of which remains to be seen, 3-D printing has the potential to engage people and attract them to technology, math and science, Bradshaw said.

He remembers a time when the mention of computer science would put someone to sleep. Today, computers are a part of most people’s everyday lives, and if you mention you work with computers now, many more people perk up and ask how to get more website views, Bradshaw said. 

Much the way website design got more people—especially women—interested in coding, 3-D printing has the potential to get more people interested in robotics, technology, math, engineering and science, Bradshaw said.

“Business students are running around thinking and talking about engineering,” he said. “An effective relationship between business and engineering is needed. This is such a bridge. This technology represents this bridge into STEM education as much as anything I’ve ever seen.”

The library's 3-D printer created this church replica. (Photo: Staff)

Change in perspective
Chattanooga resident Tim Youngblood is the co-founder of CodeScience and also runs a community workshop call Chatt*lab Makerspace, which offers a space to learn about everything from soldering and electronics to arts and crafts and 3-D printing.

Like Bradshaw, Youngblood likened 3-D printing to computer technology.

Youngblood said that when he was 12 years old and got his first Apple II computer, it seemed on the surface like the computer could be used to do things like write a program, print the word “hello” 1,000 times or balance a checkbook.

But that was only the beginning. 

“It changed the way I think about logic problems,” he said.

Technology can change the way people think, create and solve problems; and 3-D printing is no different.

To be able to imagine an object, design it on a computer and have it print the way it was imagined is powerful, Youngblood said.

“To actually conceptualize in your mind and create a 3-D object—that’s a huge, huge thing," he said. “It changes [people’s] perspective on how they think about making stuff. It liberates their mind a bit.”

Medical possibilities
McNutt said he is most excited about what 3-D printing can do in the medical field.

From creating entirely new organs to grafting skin for burn victims, there are many possibilities.

McNutt gave an example about a local man who has sleep apnea but can’t find a mask that fits well to his face. So the man is making a mold of his face and using a 3-D printer to customize a mask.

Click here to read about more possibilities in the medical field.

NovaCopy also recently donated its services to create a prosthetic foot for a duck named Buttercup that had a deformed foot.  

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