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BY Brad Fougere
 

When industry heavyweight 3D Systems recently partnered with a bioengineering firm to print an exoskeleton returning mobility to a paralyzed woman, excitement reached fever pitch in the rapidly‑growing 3D printing industry

It seems many manufacturing-related sectors are experimenting with this innovative technology to not only drive down costs, but to reduce production time and develop better, more innovative products.

While this isn’t an overnight success story — the technology was first developed 30 years ago — the evolution of this technology has not just grown by leaps and bounds the past few years, it’s also becoming more integrated beyond manufacturing operations, in every-day life. And as a result, regular citizens are becoming manufacturers in their own right, from the comforts of their own homes.

The current downward trend in cost of entry was driven by the expiry of a major patent in 2009. The effect was an explosion of consumer-level printers into the market and both leaders swallowing up a number of startups.

The result a mere five years later is 3D printing everywhere.

Hackers, tinkerers and early adopters were added to the equation and they fueled the maker community, ensuring barriers to entry in this exciting wave of manufacturing have continued to lower.

Today, 3D printing is not so much about prototyping as it is solving next-generation manufacturing challenges, today. Many auto-makers are well into the development of manufacturing the first 3D-printed car, while a University of California professor has developed his own printer that can actually print an entire house in 24 hours.

But this is just the beginning. The real impact of 3D printing has been in the bioengineering and medical fields where physicians and scientists are combining their innovation and creativity to make massive strides, including the ability to now print tissues, bones and likely by the end of this year, organs.

While the bulk of the innovation is taking place south of the border, many Canadian companies are also leading the charge.

In Ottawa, arts spaces such as ArtsCourt have allowed for those with the drive to push past the pains of do-it-yourself builds, calibration woes and elementary abilities. Open source designs from communities such as Thingiverse, created by Brooklyn, New York upstart MakerBot, which was recently purchased by Stratasys for $403 million USD, can be printed for personal use without advanced mechanical design skills.

“It’s a space for people to explore the technology,” says Britta Evans-Fenton, the technical coordinator for Art Engine’s modlab at ArtsCourt. “We realize some start-ups may happen here, but, we’re not about manufacturing.”

What it seems to be, though, is part of a growing niche for 3D printing. Basement hobbyists and early adopters have all added to the community of software and ­knowledge that is leading us toward some exciting changes.

Jeff Ross runs STEM design labs in Ottawa. He is currently working in partnership with the Ottawa Public Library ahead of the opening of their maker space where anyone will be able to access 3D printing.

Touring a 3D printer around to various libraries, Ross is putting the technology on display for the next generation of mechanical designers, makers, or possibly consumers, young students.

While he isn’t sure we’ll ever see a machine as ubiquitous as the 2D printer, he does acknowledge that this is a “revolution of what we can make.”

“It’s not going to ever be fast,” Ross says, “not to the speed of injection molding which is pressure injection as opposed to layered melting.”

He does see a future where designers can have a 3D printer on their desk and a company can exist generating custom small versions of usable parts.

3Dprintler is an Ottawa based startup that has seen the future. In a single-level walkup, CEO Michael Golubev has developed his own microfactory. An early adopter, Golubev started experimenting with 3D print technology in early 2013. After discovering that a popular drone with a camera had capabilities the initial version of the remote controller didn’t access, he used Google’s SketchUp program to quickly design a part that would. He posted the part to Thingiverse and soon had people requesting that he print the part for them.

“We sold thousands,” says Golubev, “It’s so amazing, I’m not an engineer. I did it over the weekend, I started sales and in a week I had paid for my printer.”

Sales of the part funded expansion to his native Russia, Serbia and Singapore where 3Dprintler offices print the part for local markets and house key employees at the growing company.

“I think right now is the prime opportunity for other people to jump on board. Anybody with an idea can start a global business and that’s what we did,” he says.

“As we speak, billions of dollars are being created in this space that didn’t exist before.”

With desktop machines set to launch this year for $199 USD and patents expiring which will allow for the development of entry-level models capable of an ever-increasing range of materials and precision there is an emerging market.

For now, maker spaces and early adoption doesn’t have to be the only way to test out the capabilities. Algonquin College has publicly available 3D printers which range from hobbyist to engineering quality.

“In Ottawa, there’s no one else that has a machine like this, other than engineering companies” says Nick Hadad, Algonquin’s 3D print specialist of the Objet30 printer by Stratasys.

The printer was purchased late last year by the college with Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant funds. To date it has been used in a number of programs for term projects and as part of the college’s applied research initiative.

One such project saw the design and manufacture of an award-winning sealed water-cooling system for the graphic processing unit in computers. That printer, which is highly accurate, is available to the public for use.

“Fuel Industries, they’re one of the biggest interactive game companies in Ottawa,” and one of the current clients says Hadad. “McDonald’s wants to design new characters and they need prototypes so we’re 3D printing the characters for them.”

A higher-end Objet model, released last month that sells for $330,000 USD allows the combination of materials from wood to textiles into a product. “You can make shoes, helmets and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between this one and one you can buy in the store,” says Golubev.

Therein lies the problem of the future, he says. Copyright infringement is already rampant in the 3D communities with companies using open source ­designs available online for start-up projects.

“Sure, there’s a copyright statement ‘not for commercial use, just for personal use,’ but, they don’t care because nobody’s checking,” says Golubev.

“We’re creating a small claims court case,” he says. “In a way, this will be the first case in Canada, maybe the world, where someone is suing someone else for .stl files.”

Exchanges do exist for the secure transfer of 3D files, Golubev says and he feels this is a sign of the growth potential of the industry. For their part 3Dprintler have high ambitions.

“We’re a laboratory, we’re testing out technology, seeing where it’s going,” says Golubev of the direction his company is hoping to take in the future. “I think the year of 3D printing will be the year 2016, potentially.”

Of his company’s own ambitions Golubev is confidently coy.

“We’re building something really, really special.” 

Photos: 3Dprintler by Alexei Kintero

3Dprintler is an Ottawa-based 3D-printing consulting agency, specializing in the design and production of custom 3D-printed RC parts. 3Dprintler has recently opened two new offices—one in Serbia and one in Russia—allowing the company to compete on a global scale. 3Dprintler is committed to turning ideas into tangible objects, empowering creators and teaching people about this exciting new technology. In fact, nearly 2,800 students have enrolled in 3Dprintler’s 3D-printing web courses. For more information, please check us out at http://www.3dprintler.com.

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