There it was, the state of three-dimensional printing, represented by a pair of demonstrations on opposite sides of the College of Charleston’s TD Arena last weekend.
On one end of the floor, veteran media executive Robert Tercek kicked off his keynote address, “Inventing the Future,” by projecting an image of a 3-D-printed human mandible on the screen behind him and previewing a day when human organs could be similarly created.
No longer would patients have to rely on organ donors, Tercek said during a morning talk at the Dig South Interactive Festival. Simply print livers and even hearts. “It’s almost like a god-like power,” Tercek said.
On the other end of the arena, Allison Merrick had a MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3-D printer on her craft studio’s booth table. It made bracelets, iPhone cases and other little plastic objects while conference-goers looked on in wonderment.
“My mind has been blown at the @spacecraftsc booth in the emporium @DIG_SOUTH,” tweeted Ben Wong, digital experience director at Charleston web design and marketing firm Blue Ion. “3D printing right before my eyes! Check it out!”
There, within a minute’s walk of each other, was the high and the low, the present and future of 3-D printing.
On one hand, the maturation of the technology has people planning to print buildings and speculating about the biotech possibilities, like making human tissue. On the other, that same maturation has made 3-D printers commonly available for just several hundred dollars or a couple thousand dollars in the case of Merrick’s machine.
“This is revolutionizing the way we think about, on an individual level, goods,” she said.
Soon, Merrick predicted, a person might need a plastic fork for a picnic, and it’ll be a question of “do I go to the store and buy it, or do I just print it?”
Three-dimensional printing has been around, in some form, for decades, but within the past couple of years, the ability to create common household items with the press of a button has begun to capture popular attention and imagination as the next big thing.
As the technology progresses and the price of it plummets, 3-D printers are becoming more and more common not just in manufacturing and engineering companies but also in small crafting studios, schools and homes.
And it’s just getting started, especially in Charleston.
Three-dimensional printing was essentially invented when Charles Hull patented a technique known as stereolithography in 1986, the same year he founded 3D Systems, according to the company website and other reports. The company now is based in Rock Hill, though Hull works in a research lab outside Los Angeles. He didn’t respond last week to questions.
Meanwhile, the technology progressed. Dan Thomas, who recently moved to Summerville from Detroit, has watched that march from the front row.
Starting in his teens, Thomas worked in the Motor City’s car industry, which makes extensive use of 3-D printing. He remembers printing out interior trim panels, speaker housing and ultrasonic airbag sensors for Fords and Jaguars on what he estimated was a $10 million 3-D printer.
Now Thomas has his own printer at home, a Makebot Replicator, and after a trial period making household goods for himself, he recently started advertising his 3-D printing services. Orders have varied from toys to video game housing.
He marvels at how, like desktop computers, what was once a huge contraption only for big business or industry is now publicly available for a couple of thousand dollars.
“As far as a dollar for dollar on the machine, five years ago, I don’t think you could’ve touched this thing for $20,000,” he said. “It’s much more than what was available in the past.”
Merrick is similarly amazed. She once worked in human resources on the West Coast but recently has become an adherent of the maker movement, a philosophy of sustainability and small, personal living.
She moved to Charleston from San Francisco and opened up SpaceCraft, a craft studio, last summer.
Merrick had heard the buzz about 3-D printers but became a full-on convert when she attended the World Maker Faire in New York last September. The next month, MakerBot made the cover of Wired magazine.
A few months later, she ordered her MakerBot printer, the model featured on the cover that goes for around $2,200, and received it just last month. She’s had to dissemble it a couple of times, but now it’s working to her satisfaction.
Merrick said she downloads the computer-aided design programs from websites such as Thingiverse and loads them onto her printer, which then turns them into real three-dimensional objects.
At her Avondale studio last week, Merrick demonstrated how she feeds a spool of polylactic acid into the printer, where an articulable arm extrudes that plastic like a “digital glue gun” onto a platform. After several minutes, a stretchy bracelet is ready for wearing.
Besides Thomas’ house and Merrick’s store, 3-D printers are in use in factories around the Lowcountry.
Knoxville, Tenn.-based ModernTech, which resells and supports 3-D design and printing technology for manufacturers, opened an office on Daniel Island last year to train customers such as Bosch, Berchtold and Boeing, and to grow its coastal business. Among ModernTech’s principal resale products are SolidWorks computer-assisted design software and the Objet 3-D printer.
Meanwhile, small-scale 3-D printers can be found at the North Charleston do-it-yourself nonprofit MakeLab and in area schools.
North Charleston’s R.B. Stall High School has one in its pre-engineering class where students design and print little objects as part of their training for what they’ll find in the workplace.
Wando High School in Mount Pleasant has had a printer for five years and just got its second last month.
David Roemer, dean of the School of Math, Science & Engineering at Wando, said students use them for rapid prototyping as well as to make rocket and robot parts.
“Three-D rapid prototyping represents state-of-the-art design fabrication,” Roemer said, noting they’re standard in college engineering programs. “As prices come down ... we will be using them in many different business settings as well as at home.”
It’s fair to say the 3-D printing buzz is reaching a fever pitch — the Wired headline was, “The MakerBot Replicator Might Just Change Your World” — yet Tercek was careful to qualify his bold view of the future.
“Some people think it’s a little bit overhyped,” Tercek said. And others, caught up in that hype, might have bought one and then realized it takes some know-how to make it work.
Thomas said he’s read such complaints from online commenters. He said it even took him a little while to get his Replicator to print perfectly — and he’s a trained tinkerer.
Buying a 3-D printer and expecting it to automatically churn out perfect household goods and artistic figurines, Thomas said, is like buying a basketball and expecting to score every time you shoot.
There’s also the opposite concern about 3-D printing: that it can do too much so easily.
The potential for printed firearms grabbed headlines for a moment during the recent gun control debate, and there are sure to be other debates.
So these are still early days for personal, additive manufacturing technology, especially in Charleston, and much remains to be seen. But pay attention, Merrick advised, because 3-D printing’s “about to blow up.”
Allison Merrick’s MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printer makes a bracelet out of plastic.×
Allison Merrick, owner of Spacecraft.×
Allison Merrick, owner of Spacecraft, explains how her 3D printer works earlier this month.×
Some of the items that Merrick made using her 3-D printer.×