Memphis engineers, tool enthusiasts develop 3D printing technology

This plastic model of a hand was produced on Daniel Hess’ 3D printer. “If you can make a 3D model of it on a computer, within certain limitations, you can print it,” he says.

Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht, The Commercial Appeal // Buy this photo

This plastic model of a hand was produced on Daniel Hess’ 3D printer. “If you can make a 3D model of it on a computer, within certain limitations, you can print it,” he says.

When Daniel Hess has an idea for a new gadget to create, he doesn’t have to go any farther than his computer desktop to make it, or more specifically, to print it.

The emergence of open source 3D printing adds a new dimension to manufacturing and prototyping on the small scale.

“You can make just about anything you could imagine,” said Hess, who is president of MidSouth Makers, a nonprofit, communal group of tool enthusiasts with a shared shop space in Bartlett.

“If you can make a 3D model of it on a computer, within certain limitations, you can print it.”

Several members of MidSouth Makers have been building their own 3D printers in the last year. Typically, 3D printing technology, which has been around about 10 years, has been the toy of large-scale manufacturers, whose equipment costs in the tens of thousands.

Hess said there’s really no reason the little guy can’t get in on the action.

“It’s nothing more than a couple motors, a heating element, and putting the plastic into it and it will spit out 3D objects,” Hess said.

“You take a regular ink jet printer and add an extra motor to it and you’ve got the third axis.”

The concept is simpler

than it sounds. Hess likens it to loading an inkjet with a hot-glue gun instead of ink. The printer releases a tiny layer of plastic, raises up slightly and then sprays on the next layer until the object takes shape.

The object is built from the bottom up along X, Y, and Z axes.

Hess said one of the most popular items his groups like to print is a whistle. The bead that helps make the sound is printed inside the whistle and detached by a screwdriver.

But the potential for small-scale makers is pretty huge.

“People are designing custom parts for projects, like custom enclosures for electronics,” Hess said. “If you have a piece of electronics that you personally built, you’re not going to be able to go and find an enclosure for it. So people are designing a 3D model of a container and they can print it out on their printer.”

Aside from custom parts, 3D printing also is useful for rapid prototyping of new products, so adjustments can be made quickly and inexpensively.

“If I’m working on a new product, I don’t want to pay a machine shop exorbitant amounts of money to fabricate a prototype out of metal,” Hess said. “I will design it, print it, try it out, and if it doesn’t work the way I want it to, I can modify it.”

Hess spent about $800 on parts for his printer and bought $100 worth of plastic. However, the printer may use as little as 50 cents’ worth of plastic on each project.

Most of the printers in MidSouth Makers like it because it’s fun and they can raise some funds for their group by doing 3D Printing Build-Off events in other cities.

The group of 33 members was founded in January 2010. Members pay monthly dues to have 24/7 access to a 1,500-square-foot shop, all of the tools inside it, and the know-how of other members.

Many, like Hess, used to get in trouble with their spouses for tearing apart equipment in their living rooms. Some makers have more entrepreneurial hopes.

Hess noted one item he has seen printed — an iPhone holder that attaches to a regular camera tripod.

Online communities have popped up, sharing 3D designs for various items. features designs for everything from toy robots to PC drive adapters.

In major industries, 3D printing companies, chiefly 3D Systems, Stratasys and Proto Labs, saw sharp increases in stock value over the first half of 2012.

Matt Cilderman, an investor writing for the investment blog Seeking Alpha, predicted in May that toy companies like Hasbro could lose value if their products can be easily scanned and reproduced with 3D printers.

“The technology is advancing,” wrote Cilderman. “The means of sharing is established, easy to use, and persistent. Unless Congress passes some form of SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act), an illegal file-sharing service will always be around; this type of service has been impossible to eradicate since Napster was created in 1999.

“What can Hasbro do to solve the problem? I think their best bet is to not waste money by lobbying Congress, but to partner with someone like Apple Inc. or Inc. to sell the schematics of their products as DRM (Digital Rights Management) downloads.”

Hess’ printer is a RepRap model, which was created in Europe with small, open source users in mind. Another company, MakerBot Industries, makes midrange level printers selling for $1,400 to $2,000 for small businesses.

Whether it changes the world of manufacturing or not, Hess said it has virtually endless appeal to people who just like to make things.

“It becomes kind of a lifestyle, because you have to play with it so much,” Hess said.

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