The growth of 3D printing in the Valley is accelerating and innovators are doing what they can to make sure the country’s 13th largest metropolitan area does not miss out on what some are calling the new industrial revolution.
When Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson stepped down to become the CEO of his company, 3DRobotics, he told ZDNet that 3D printing would be “bigger than the web.” Similar to how the World Wide Web democratized content creation, Anderson realized 3D printing was quickly democratizing the creation of objects.
Technology aficionados have been paying close attention to 3D printing for a few years and many people in Greater Phoenix are already using the technology liberally for both work and play. Many who now use 3D printers recognize the power it holds for the entrepreneur.
“I post things that I make online and people are like, ‘Oh, I want one of those,’” said Alisa Ex, a computer science major at Scottsdale Community College and 3D printing hobbyist who works out of HeatSync Labs in Downtown Mesa.
Like most other people tinkering with 3D printing, Ex started by downloading designs from Thingiverse.com. The designs come in the form of STL files that can be loaded into a program and modified or printed as is.
For now, the growth of 3D printing is fueled by an “open source” culture. Software like ReplicatorG releases its source code for anyone to modify. Similarly, most 3D designs posted online at Thiniverse and elsewhere are done for free and with the goodwill of helping the community and getting people interested in 3D printing.
John Berkheimer is using this open source nature to his advantage as he builds his first 3D printer, which he said is four times as large as most commercial printers. He said one of the advantages of building a 3D printer unlike any other is that he can modify the open source software to work with his printer.
Berkheimer needed to build a large printer to prototype a set of speakers measuring 2 ft. by 2 ft. He said most printers are for objects between three and six inches.
He has been working on the printer at Scottsdale-based Axosoft, which owns this publication. He has steadily been improving the printer, he said, but it still has a ways to go.
“I’ve printed some little things,” Berkheimer said. “I’m not quite happy with the quality I’m getting yet, but I’m slowly improving it.”
Berkheimer currently works at Grand Canyon University, managing lights and sound at the arena. However, he said he used to do design work and getting a prototype through stereolithography 20 years ago was incredibly expensive. A company might spend thousands of dollars getting a model made for something like a TV remote, he said.
“We used to spend three or four thousand dollars for a knockoff, just to see what the remote would look like,” Berkheimer said.
Now people have the power to design a prototype, print it out for a fraction of the cost of stereolithography and build it in an afternoon.
Objects currently take a long time to print and are not of high enough quality for most things to be sold. However, printing a prototype can help get people interested in a product that can later be mass produced.
“It’s (now) a lot easier to get investors involved with (a product),” Berkheimer said. “My first prototype was made out of wood, but it didn’t look good.”
This democratization of product design is what Anderson refers to as “The Long Tail,” the title of his first book, in which he explains a shift in consumption toward digital niche goods. In his latest book “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution,” Anderson said 3D printing is creating the “Long Tail” of physical goods. Soon anyone will be free to design and produce a good.
“The 3-D printers and other desktop prototyping tools are the equivalent of the cameras and music editing tools,” Anderson writes in the book.
These printers are still prohibitively expensive for most people. The MakerBot Replicator 2, which Axosoft and Chandler’s Gangplank own, are more than $2,000. Someone who wants to build his own 3D printer from a kit might be able to shave off about $1,000. HeatSync Labs has two printers that were built there. Professional models can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $60,000.
Jacob Rosenthal built one of those printers, calling it the FakerBot. It was based on MakerBot and RepRap, an early open source 3D printer on which parts of the MakerBot are based. Rosenthal said he too started tinkering with 3D printing as a hobby, but now has designs he would eventually like to bring to market.
While some entrepreneurs would like to get products to market soon, most people in the Valley working with 3D printers remain just tinkerers for now. Coworking spaces like Gangplank and HeatSync Labs give people access to tools they would not otherwise have the opportunity to use.
Shon Burton has been using the Replicator 2 at Gangplank, where his business HiringSolved is based. He recently printed out a Terminator head, in which he intends to install LED eyes. He does not yet have any goals of creating a marketable product, though.
“Lots of people who come through the space are interested in prototyping,” Burton said, but added, “Most people are tinkering.”
Interest in 3D printing is only just beginning. As more people house at coworking spaces to use these tools, the industry will continue to grow in Arizona. For now, there remains a certain intrigue about the technology that fuels interest.
“It’s kind of cool,” Burton said. “People can come in and grab whatever (they want to print). I think it’s kind of novel.”
Photo of Terminator head: Shon Burton printed this Terminator head from the Gangplank’s MakerBot Replicator 2.