In our world, music, books, blueprints, retail stores, games, and even our identities are routinely lifted out of the tangible world and reproduced in a digital environment. Virtual pets, online farms, digital aquariums, cyber coffee shops, Internet social networking—there appears to be no limit to the digitization of our lives.
Quietly, however, the technology sways the other direction too: the digital world taking on physical form. Thanks to advances in 3D printing, we can at last, quite literally, sink our teeth into all those ideas and concepts rattling around inside our heads.
Bill Watson and his company, Anvil Prototype & Design, are making it real for Charlotte by bringing the latest in 3D printing technology to our city.
What is 3D Printing?
A 3D printer is exactly what it sounds like. In simple terms, it takes a digital image and prints out a physical, 3-dimensional double that you can hold in your hand.
Printing technology varies, but all printers begin with an image and employ an additive process. Printing begins with a thin layer of solid material that is gradually built upon to create the completed item. In some printers, binder is sprayed onto a substrate and in others beams of light are used to harden heat-sensitive plastic. Some printers lay material down in a thin stream. The technology can be modified to accommodate almost any material: resin, plastic, metal, sugar, even living human cells.
The ZPrinter 450 in the Anvil Prototype office looks like a larger version of a standard office copier, with a domed lid and a window for watching the action. It begins printing a set of writing pens by smoothing a thin deposit of powdery substrate inside an 8” x 10” square. The print heads move steadily across the square, making a sound similar to that of a flatbed scanner. They spray the substrate with special binding material, plus color from an inkjet print cartridge, to produce the first layer of material.
Next, the powdered square moves downward by a fraction of an inch, a second layer of powder is smoothed over the first, and the process is repeated. Approximately one and a half hours later, the powder is 8 inches deep, with a set of four ink pens nestled in place below the surface. To use, simply remove the pens, vacuum the powder off, and put the parts together with an ink cartridge.
Another printer in Anvil’s showroom uses a slightly different technology, in which a bath of heat-activated liquid plastic lies below an LED projector, and the image is literally projected onto the liquid like a lesson plan onto a wall. The plastic responds by hardening where the image shines, producing each layer of a solid plastic piece.
In all cases, the printer must begin with an image from which to print the model, and usually the image originates in an engineer’s CAD file. Occasionally, the image begins its life in animation or gaming software, is converted to CAD format, cleaned up, and then sent to the printer. Scanning technology can take it a step further to create a virtual version of something physical, and then print a physical double from the virtual version. If your head is spinning, hang on tight—the ride is far from over.
3D Printing Applications
The world of 3D printing, and its potentially mind-blowing implications for our future, only hit the mainstream consciousness relatively recently, fueled by media coverage including a February 2011 piece in The Economist with the tantalizing title, “Print Me a Stradivarius.” But industrial and mechanical engineers have been using similar technologies since the late 1980s to produce rapid prototypes, which is still its most common application.
“Mechanical and industrial engineers really get this technology,” says Watson. “Before you order a container full of an item from China, you want to know it’s right. When you hold something in your hands, versus a picture, it really comes together.”
Now, architects use 3D printing to create models for public comment or to work out potential pitfalls that may not be obvious in two dimensions. 3D models of piping and electrical plans can be useful in identifying parts for repair long after installation. Site engineers can download GIS information about a site and have a three-dimensional model printed, including gradients and existing structures, for use during the conceptual phase of planning. Later, entire city blocks or complex constructions can be physically modeled before the first brick is laid.
Some industries are even printing parts for consumer use, from customized doll heads to match the owner’s face, to full-color avatar figures from online gaming worlds. Researchers and innovative engineers have created a wild variety of interesting applications such as the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan’s printer that uses raw liquid foods (such as chocolate) to create culinary delights you may literally want to sink your teeth into.
The potential implications of 3D printing are heady, far-reaching, and highly debatable. Could 3D printing take the place of traditional manufacturing? Will we someday download physical products from the Internet and print them at home, much the way we currently download digital products such as music and books?
Watson says we’re still a long way out from science-fiction-style replicators, and he hesitates to guess whether we’ll ever get there. For one thing, the cost of printing is still higher than the cost of large-scale manufacturing such as is available in China. Further, he points out that the range of materials may be almost unlimited, but each type of printer does have limitations. For instance, we have not yet figured out how to print an object that requires more than one type of material at a time.
But some industries are embracing the technology for small-scale manufacturing. Anvil offers printers that can produce items as large as a lawnmower seat, some of which are currently in use in our area. A few large retailers are beginning to stock CAD images of appliance replacement parts for print-on-demand instead of stocking thousands of actual parts that may never be needed. Other companies are using clear urethane to print replacement tail lights and similar car parts.
Furthermore, 3D printing is making inroads into medical technology in astonishingly futuristic ways. For instance, using scanning technology and silicone, doctors recently printed a prosthetic ear for a burn victim, based on the shape of her daughter’s ear.
Perhaps even more remarkably, researchers at Wake Forest University and other major facilities are experimenting with printing human organs. In one method, tissue about the size of a postage stamp is taken from an organ recipient’s body and then cultured in the laboratory to create a large bank of cells containing the recipient’s own DNA. A printer is then loaded with the cells plus a scaffolding material, and a new organ is quite literally printed for implantation. In at least one approach, the organ can even be printed directly into the recipient’s body.
Many of 3D printing’s most whizz-bang applications are still years in the future, but Watson is doing what he can to ensure Charlotte remains on the cutting edge by distributing the latest 3D technologies and introducing them to new industries. The company operates, sells, and leases Z Corporation color 3D printers, high-resolution plastic prototype printers, and 3D scanners, in addition to offering 3D printing services and the latest in CAD software innovations.
The Anvil Prototype showroom, located at the back of an unassuming one-story office building complex, holds very little of monetary value other than a few slightly over-sized printing contraptions. Yet stepping in the door places visitors in front of a dazzling display of fascinating goodies, all produced in-house on the printers standing by the wall. Among the assortment there’s a toy with gears that work, a Nestlé chocolate milk carton prototype, doll heads with the features of Penn and Teller, a model of ground zero in NYC complete with the new One World Trade Center building, a giant red “Panic!” button, and a collection of gears and connectors and unidentified engineering components.
Watson oversees the display with quiet pride, enthusiasm sparking in his friendly smile. He says this business is a natural for him. Like many young men, his first car was an “old beater,” and he fell in love with tinkering on it. From high school, he went to Georgia Tech to study mechanical engineering while also working on diesel engines at Cummins Engine Company. A Charlotte native, he might have gone to work in the NASCAR industry, but he says he wanted to do something more innovative and design-oriented.
So he moved on from school to work for Caterpillar in the late 1990s, which is where he first saw rapid prototyping at work. He loved the wheel loaders and the backhoes and the design component of his job there, but by the early 2000s he had developed an interest in the marketing and business end of engineering, and headed to Wake Forest where he completed his MBA in 2004.
At Wake Forest, he says he “caught the entrepreneurship bug.” He worked for a while for IBM, but at the same time was developing a business plan and looking for his opportunity. In 2005, a friend told him to check out Z Corporation, and he recognized his moment.
“There was no full-color 3D printing anywhere in the Carolinas at the time, and we wanted to be the first people to do it,” he says. “We started with a reprographics model, and after a year, Z Corporation asked us to help sell printers too.”
The 3D printing industry is growing at close to 25 percent per year, so it’s not surprising that Anvil has posted growth every quarter since inception, despite the tough economy.
The largest portion of Anvil’s business involves selling and leasing Z Corporation equipment throughout the Southeast from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta. Anvil also offers printing services to businesses, including small engineering and architecture firms and companies that print for a retail market such as Thatsyourface.com, which makes custom action figures and dolls.
Watson says that although Anvil is the only company in the area offering Z Corporation technology, and only a very few others offer any sort of 3 dimensional printing, the 3D printing industry is highly competitive. But at least in Charlotte, the competition is friendly.
Watson explains that each type of printer offers different features: Some print in color, but not at a high resolution; others can offer large sizes but no color; some are quick and cheap; others provide a high level of resolution but no color. No single printer, yet, does it all. So his job, and that of his competitors, is to determine which type of printer best meets their needs and then to sell them that—or to send them to a competitor who has something more appropriate.
In addition, he often works as a consulting partner, advocating between engineers and upper management to understand and communicate the value of new 3D technology in firm business productivity terms.
No one knows where 3D printing may take us, but Watson has firm ideas on how it will take his company into the future. He is heavily involved in promoting the technology in new industries with a current focus on placing printers with reprographics companies. He also sees a strong future for the company in CAD software innovations.
And he’s certain that Charlotte is where it will be for him. The incredibly rich and vibrant design community here serves as a powerful backdrop for innovation and entrepreneurship.
“I’m a Charlotte boy and I love Charlotte. I just love being in North Carolina,” he grins. “I want to see Charlotte become known as the design and innovation center that it is.”
Now that’s an idea worth replicating!