Geek out, New Paltz

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Brooklyn-based MakerBot is considered the world leader in desktop 3D printers. Company founder and CEO Bre Pettis has received all kinds of media accolades, including being named one of the world’s top ten thinkers in 2013 by CNN.

MakerBot’s “thingiverse” website, from which more than 100,000 objects created by users of its machines can be downloaded and printed out, demonstrates how technology is bringing about a cultural revolution of sorts, which some experts see as transforming passive consumers into creative manufacturers.

SUNY New Paltz is getting in on the action. The nation’s first MakerBot Innovation Center was unveiled at the campus’s Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center (HVAMC) last Tuesday, February 11.

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Launched last May as a digital design center for students and touted because to its accessibility to area businesses as a potential engine of economic development, the facility received a million dollars in seed funding from Hudson River Ventures, a local venture-capital source, and Central Hudson. But with only three 3D printers, each of rather bulky size, use of the center by students was limited.

That’s all changed. Thirty new cutting-edge MakerBot desktop printers, black, clear-plastic topped machines with accompanying MakerBot computer-aided software and equipped with nozzles fed by spools of colored plastic filaments, have now greatly expanded the scope and opportunities for training and experimentation. Each of the 24 students in two digital design classes can now create and develop objects on his or her own machine.

“We’re taking a step forward into a frontier where we haven’t gone before by putting a very powerful technology in front of students,” said Pettis at the February 11 ribbon-cutting ceremony and press conference. “We’re giving students and the community an opportunity to be two steps ahead of the world. There will be solar-powered cars developed here, and things we don’t even know will emerge because of the seeds we’re planting today.”

Officiating at the ceremony with Pettis was SUNY New Paltz president Donald Christian. Also present were Dan Freedman, director of the HVAMC and dean of the School of Science & Engineering; Paul Kassel, interim dean of the School of Fine & Performing Arts; Laurence Gottlieb, president of the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corp.; Sean Eldridge, founder and president of Hudson River Ventures; and Katherine Wilson, a SUNY New Paltz graduate student who works as a graduate assistant in the center.

Christian referred to Pettis as “the Steve Jobs of the desktop 3D printing revolution.” He said the new innovation center was a natural fit for the college, integrating the strengths of its engineering and computer technology departments with its fine arts department. Last August, the university began offering a certificate for digital design and fabrication, a three-semester program also open to area entrepreneurs.

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that prints out objects layer by layer from blobs of melted plastic or other material utilizing a digital file containing a computer-aided design. The MakerBot printers come in two versions. The Replicator 2, which utilizes a single nozzle to extrude a spaghetti-like strand of ABS plastic, retails for about $2000. The experimental 2X, which costs $2700 and has two nozzles, enables one to create an object using two colors at once. One of the advantages of the MakerBot printers, Pettis said, was that the plastic material is extremely affordable, enabling the user to print out several versions of a design and hence to have the opportunity to perfect it. Two pounds of ABS plastic cost $48, enough to make 392 chess pieces, he said.

“It’s what differentiates us,” he said. “Users don’t freak out because of the preciousness of the material.” Iteration is the handmaiden of innovation, and having the freedom to fail multiple times makes it possible “to realize your dream,” said the entrepreneur.

“I have high expectations for the students who come in here and geek out. Frankly, I want to hire those folks,” said Pettis.

With his black-framed glasses, black shirt and pants, nascent sideburns and amiable smile, Pettis looked the part of the Brooklyn entrepreneur. He worked as an art teacher in the Seattle public schools before developing his first 3D printer in the Brooklyn hacker collective he co-founded.

“It was like the holy grail to make something that can make something. It’s magic…it’s a generosity machine,” Pettis said. He founded MakerBot in 2009 with 20 machines, which sold out immediately. Last June, the company was acquired by Stratsys, Inc. for $403 million. (A Stratsys machine also sits in the SUNY New Paltz lab; Stratsys helped kick off the lab last May.)

MakerBot has approximately 500 employees and is continually recruiting, said technical account manager Adam Sandler. The company has opened retail stores in Manhattan, Boston, and Greenwich, Connecticut.

 

Telescopes, prostheses, parts and props

One of MakerBot’s biggest customers is Lockheed Martin, which is using the printers to create prototypes for parts in its next generation of space telescopes. Medical devices and prosthesis, parts replacements for consumer products, entertainment props and sets, and food products are other popular applications for 3D printers. Some predict that 3D printers may one day print out living cells and replacement organs.

According to comments last May by Gottlieb, the 3D printing industry has mushroomed from 355 printers in 2008 to more than 23,000 in use today. The industry is expected to grow to $3.7 billion worldwide by 2015 and exceed $6.5 billion by 2019, he had said.

In December, the HVAMC received another million dollars of state economic development funds for 3D printing, with the possibility of access to venture capital and possibly tax incentives from the governor’s Start-Up program. There are also plans for collaborative educational programming with community colleges and selected high schools.

Freedman said companies can have their design printed from a file for a fee. So far, two companies have done so. Jabil, a custom manufacturing company in Poughkeepsie, sent in a design for a battery tray, while a Long Island-based startup called Servabowl sent in its prototype for serving chips.

“We’re just up and running and are training students on using the equipment,” Freedman said. The school also is considering purchasing an extruder, equipment that would enable it to recycle plastic from the machines.

Sean Eldridge cited several examples of companies in the region that are utilizing 3D printing and getting assistance from HRV. Uncharted Play, based in Poughkeepsie, makes toys related to renewable energy and uses 3D printing as an economical way of coming up with designs. Orange County Choppers, a custom motorcycle company, and Rifton, which designs furniture for people with special needs, are utilizing 3D printing in developing their one-of-a-kind designs, Eldridge said.

Meanwhile, students in the college’s digital design program are developing prototypes of toys using 3D printing that are tested on preschoolers in the college’s on-campus nursery and can be quickly redesigned in response to the children’s needs.

Eldridge likened the center’s potential for attracting companies to that of the drawing power of the much-touted nanotech center in Albany. He said that there was a big advantage to being the first experimental lab in the nation for a transformative technology. “You’ll see innovation labs across the country, but this is the first,” predicted Eldridge. “3D printing is changing manufacturing forever, so we must adapt. Not only adopt, but lead the charge.”

Freedman said HVAMC plans more outreach to local businesses. Student interns are being trained to interact with companies.

MakerBot’s “thingiverse” community-hosted website provides a hint of how 3D printing is changing the material world. Individuals are making and inventing everything from workaday objects, such as simple wall plates and iPhone covers, to more complex items such as cameras, figurines, vases and other household decorative objects. There’s also the purely fanciful, such as a miniature house perched on insect legs. Finally, a “splash pen holder” uses a wavy cone of perforated plastic to represent a splash of ink.

 

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