A promising technology

3D printing “puts the power of making into the hands of the common man and will revolutionize the world of objects,” predicted Arthur Hash, who provides technical instructional support at the Digital Fab Lab at SUNY New Paltz.

The college first bought a 3D printer in 2007, planting the seeds for its digital laboratory. The lab, now equipped with three machines and two computer-aided design software packages, is now enabling students at the School of Fine and Performing Arts to design and print out all kinds of objects, from a model of a brain to jewelry to fans to an LED lantern.

Some of the printed objects are solid. Others are hollow, constructed of interlocking parts. Still others are built of linked modules, including a crochet-like rubber fabric that’s dishwasher-safe. Such work is spurring an ambitious new economic development initiative that seeks to make 3D printing the springboard for economic growth in the region, from training the workforce of the future to creating new jobs around an innovative manufacturing process.

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The Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center, as it is called, will be based at the SUNY New Paltz Digital Fab Lab, announced Laurence Gottlieb, president and CEO of the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation (HVEDC), at a breakfast at SUNY New Paltz last Thursday, May 30. More than 300 people attended, including small-business owners, artists, hobbyists, entrepreneurs and representatives from nonprofit organizations, colleges, and library systems.

Gottlieb said he expected the Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center would transform the region into “a global leader in 3D printing.” He predicted it would overshadow HVEDC’s successful initiatives for biotech and food and beverage clusters.

Ulster County businessman Sean Eldridge, founder and president the local small-business investment fund Hudson River Ventures, announced a million dollars in funding for the initiative. A three-year matching grant from Central Hudson will provide seed money for the lab to purchase more equipment and develop a full curriculum. Community colleges in the region will have access to the center, where students will be able to design, test and create new products and manufacturing processes.

Meanwhile, a working alliance of nine SUNY schools in the Hudson Valley and Mohawk Valley regions were late last week awarded a $15 million state grant in the second year of the NYSUNY Challenge Grant program. The SUNY Manufacturing Alliance for Research and Technology Transfer (SMART) is one of four projects uniting SUNY schools that will receive equal shares from a $60 million appropriation in the 2012-13 state budget. SMART will operate as the educational core for the Kingston-based Center for Global Advanced Manufacturing (CGAM), which will directly support manufacturers by coordinating workforce education and training and by providing business incubation, acceleration and technology transfer facilities in the two regions.

As the technology opportunity opens up, local businesses will soon be able to rent the equipment and create their own prototypes. The technology is being adapted to a number of industry sectors, including aerospace, consumer products, dental and medical, entertainment and even fashion.

Eldridge is committing up to $500,000 to invest in companies in the region that incorporate 3D printing into their business. He said he believes 3D printing could be an economic engine for the area, building on the Hudson Valley’s tradition of manufacturing innovation. “We have skilled workers, world-class universities, access to the largest markets in the world, and now we will have the equipment, training and investment needed to lead the charge on 3D printing,” he said.

Printing in plastic

The technology prints out objects layer by layer from blobs of melted plastic or other material utilizing a digital file containing a computer-aided design. 3D printing has been around since the 1980s, but it’s only in the last few years that it has become affordable enough for adaptation by companies. The starting price for a basic machine, suitable for a hobbyist, is $1,000. Hash said some artists have launched Kickstarter campaigns to raise the funds to buy one.

Prices continue to come down. Applications range from rapid prototyping to replacing broken parts in consumer goods to more experimental uses, such as printing out living cells and potentially even replacement organs. According to Gottlieb, the 3D printing industry has mushroomed from 355 printers in 2008 to more than 23,000 in use today. It is expected to grow to $3.7 billion worldwide by 2015 and exceed $6.5 billion by 2019, he said.

The world leader for 3D printers is Stratasys. The SUNY New Paltz lab has a Stratasys machine. The Minneapolis-based firm’s vice president of marketing, Sharon Smith, presented a synopsis of the technology showing how companies are using it to speed up their design and manufacturing process. (Stratasys sells three lines of printers, marketed to individuals, designers, and manufacturers.)

As an “additive” manufacturing process, the technology avoids wasting materials, as would be the case with a traditional “subtractive” method, according to Smith. Products can be created on demand, eliminating the need for maintaining inventories and allowing for manufacturing close to markets.

The technology speeds up the product development process. Companies can print out a prototype, tweak it, print out another version, and so on. They can correct design flaws before the product goes into production, pointed out Smith. In short, the process is much less expensive than the traditional way of doing things.

3D printers also can produce a variety of products, so a company doesn’t have to retool its manufacturing facility. Plus, expensive customized products, such as hearing aids and prosthetic limbs, can be created at relatively low cost, according to Smith.

Smith gave examples of 3D printed prototypes developed by a variety of companies, including a jet-turbine engine produced at less than half the cost of the previous method), a cell phone, and special effects for movies. Other examples were actual products, such as air vents manufactured for MD-80 jets and parts for microscopes used by a medical research lab. The educational applications Smith cited included models of human organs that enabled medical students to practice procedures without using real-life humans. She concluded with an inspiring video showing how a lightweight prosthetic-type device created from 3D printers enabled a little girl to regain use of her arms.

Digital design didactics

The center also presents an opportunity for SUNY New Paltz to develop more creative synergies between its fine-arts and its engineering and technology departments, according to SUNY New Paltz president Dr. Donald Christian. In the fall, the schools will collaborate to offer a certificate in digital design, a non-credit program targeting entrepreneurs. Eventually, the college plans to offer an accredited program, Christian said.

Currently, the college offers two classes in digital design a semester. Prior to coming to SUNY New Paltz Arthur Hash developed a digital fabrication lab at a college in Virginia. Each was full, and the program is quickly expanding. “Half of the fine-arts classes [offered at the college] utilize the lab,” he said.

After the breakfast Hash gave a tour of the lab. The group included a representative from a nonprofit organization interested in using 3D printing to create a model for a planned park and the owner of a graphics firm who was interested in transferring his company’s two-dimensional designs into three-dimensional products. Graduate student Katherine Wilson showed a few of the objects she had designed and printed, including the LED lantern, which resembled a flower with movable petals, and a soft, pliable “fabric” that resembled crochet work.

Hash said 3D printers could be used to make tools for metalworking and other crafts. “Artists could create art without having a studio space or expensive equipment,” he said. The ramifications of the technology are potentially unlimited, he added.

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