The magic of 3-D printing: Technology promises to amaze, challenge us

This ball bearing gear part started as a 3-D image on the screen. A 3-D printer, using melted hard plastic, then turned the image into an object. The object came out of the 3-D printer so exactly replicated that the separate circular gears all move smoothly within each other.
This ball bearing gear part started as a 3-D image on the screen. A 3-D printer, using melted hard plastic, then turned the image into an object. The object came out of the 3-D printer so exactly replicated that the separate circular gears all move smoothly within each other. The Wichita Eagle

If you think life changed after the Internet emerged, wait until you see what’s coming next.

Tech people say three-dimensional printing will create the next wave of joys and frustrations, job creation and job loss.

In five to 10 years, 3-D printers will be all around us, they predict. The printers will make food, including customized wedding cakes. They will make shoes, clothes, aircraft parts, dresses, steaks, replacement bones and eventually even replacement kidneys. If you find that bit about the kidney hard to believe, Google a company called Organovo.

The printers might make outsourcing jobs to China, India and Mexico less necessary. Few Americans will mourn.

But 3-D printers also would diminish the number of jobs here and everywhere.

What we are about to tell you is no fantasy. This is all happening now, and all around us.

No more scoffing

John Tomblin remembers several years ago employees telling him how good 3-D printers are.

First you scan any object in three dimensions, as a hospital MRI scanner would. Or you upload any 3-D design, no matter how complex. Then hit a button.

Instead of paper, these printers are loaded with other materials, usually thin lines of plastic wrapped around a spool like fishing line. The printer shoots thin strands of heated plastic out of a tiny nozzle, creating layer after layer with microscopic accuracy until every detail of the object is reproduced.

Tomblin directs the National Institute for Aviation Research in Wichita, which tests new technology. He was used to seeing fun new things. But the 3-D printer idea had him scoffing, a little.

So they borrowed his keys.

And gave him exact copies.

At first, he thought that was “really cool.”

And then he realized how easy it was now to copy the keys to his house.

Morals and ethics

Organovo, the biotech company experimenting with ways to print human organs, plans to harvest a patient’s own cells and culture them so they multiply. The cells would then be fed into the printer, which would print tissue strips that could be used to patch a patient’s failing organs and eventually, the company hopes, create new organs.

The work Organovo is doing in replicating organs means “Maybe we could live forever,” said Ravi Pendse, a national expert on technology, now at Brown University.

He said food makers can already make fantastically customized cakes, or other food, in artistic ways never before possible. The 3-D cake makers, instead of extruding hard plastic, shoot out sugar instead. Or chocolate. Or vanilla-laced icing or cake dough.

A 3-D counter-top printer for home kitchens is expected to go on sale by the end of the year for making cake toppers and confections. The price? About $5,000.

Three-dimensional printing will bring back custom-made goods, and that’s great, Pendse said. We lost much of the joys of custom-made goods when Henry Ford started making standardized parts as a cheap, fast way to produce goods. “Now all that will come back, for our cars, our clothes, everything.”

Those are upsides. Three-D also will challenge us, he said. At stake: our jobs, our economy, perhaps our morals and ethics, he said.

“We all need very soon to figure out how to use 3-D,” said Pendse, who served as a vice president for information technology at Wichita State University until last year. “These tools are raising serious moral and ethical questions. And not just in medicine, where they will make livers and kidneys.

“There needs to be a place for humanists, for philosophers and liberal arts people, to be at the table to help us have these conversations,” Pendse said. “We should not leave these tools solely in the hands of engineers like me who think only, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ ”

And there’s another worry. He lived in Wichita for years, and knows how we worry about jobs disappearing.

That’s a real worry with 3-D, he said.

Local business people say he’s got a point.

Losers and winners

Rapid PSI is a longtime Wichita company. They make aviation parts.

In 2008 Rapid PSI had 15 to 20 employees, said vice president Jeremy Weinman. The recession that year forced them to drop down to five.

In 2009 they filled their building near Kellogg and West Street with a number of truck-sized 3-D printers.

One year later, Weinman said, sales increased by 50 percent.

Rapid PSI now calls itself the number one 3-D printing company in the Midwest.

One economic upside, Weinman said, is that 3-D will make it more attractive for aviation and other factories to keep more production work in Wichita, rather than giving it to China or Mexico. “We’re certainly trying to make that case here,” Weinman said.

But there’s a downside.

Three-D parts come out perfect – they don’t require the sanding, tooling and scraping that manufacturing once required.

So Rapid PSI still has only five people – even though it has more than doubled sales.

Multiply that across the world economy, Pendse said.

Upside, downside

Consider the shoe industry. Three-D printers can’t yet create a good shoe. Most 3-D printers can print really detailed objects, but use only one material at a time. A shoe might have rubber soles, leather or canvas uppers and metal grommets for laces. A printer can make the sole and the uppers and the grommets, but it can’t put them together.

But the technology for all this is improving rapidly, Pendse said. Whole shoes are not far away.

And then, you could place an order, so detailed that you can actually customize and pick your own shoe color, shape and size. And the shoe company, instead of running a factory in China and shipping shoes across the Pacific, can now just take your order online and touch a button. And a new 3-D print shop two blocks from your home then prints your shoe.

You come pick it up.

Good, right? Made in America. No Chinese factory taking what used to be American jobs. And for you: a savings.

But 3-D printers will eliminate not only some entire factories but some shipping needs.

“It will democratize manufacturing the way Amazon democratized book stores,” Pendse said. “A lot of book stores disappeared.”

“If I have a good idea for making something, I don’t need 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space to make it,” Pendse said. “I can just print it. And to ship it, do I need Federal Express? They and UPS better watch out.

“This is going to hurt China and India, who have lived for years on outsourced jobs.”

But it will also combine with the already extensive robotics manufacturing wave, and disrupt our economy. It will enhance our lives, reduce consumer costs – and reduce jobs.

Some companies, seeing what might happen to them, he said, are already working to become that 3-D print shop just two blocks from your home.

What this means

Tomblin, at NIAR, and President John Bardo, his boss at WSU, have been warning about the coming disruption.

We need to seize opportunities before other people in other cities do that, Tomblin said.

Three-D printers can’t kill creativity, Tomblin said. “And that is our key to thriving.”

Starting about a year ago, Tomblin said, Bardo began planning a new section of campus built around 3-D printers, invention.

The “innovation campus” they hope to create in four proposed new buildings would be stocked with tech companies working in partnerships with WSU.

“The idea is to create a high-tech playroom,” Bardo said. “If you have an idea and want to develop it, we have the capacity to help you do it.”

One whole floor would be stocked with 3-D printers.

Any innovator who doesn’t have the $50,000 or more to buy a 3-D printer could come to WSU, Tomblin said.

To thousands of creative thinkers wanting to make money, delight children with new toys, or create some near-magical new machine, 3-D opens up the world, he said.

Bones, toys, tools

Brian Brown and his co-workers from NIAR keep 3-D bones, toys, tool parts and other artifacts they’ve made in their shop at the National Center for Aviation Training in Wichita. The lab Brown helps run is at the center, on North Rock Road.

Brown works for Tomblin. So it was here that they made Tomblin’s replica keys. It was here that WSU graduate Yeow Ng asked for their help, 3D-prototyping a new children’s toy his brother Choon had created. That toy, Rainbow Loom, became the Toy Industry Association’s “toy of the year” this year.

Brown said most of the glories and disruptions Pendse described are coming, but are not here quite yet. “Maybe five to 10 years,” he said.

On shelves in the lab, he’s got a replica skeletal human hand. A plastic ball you can take apart and put back together a piece at a time. A human face. A piece of duct joint. A ball bearing assembly, complete with moveable ball bearings inside several movable rings within rings that move in harmony, like real gears.

He’s not showing off these 3-D replicas merely because they look nifty. They are samples showing how nearly anyone or any company could use 3-D to reinvent everything they do and make everything from medicine to invention to prototyping to manufacturing even better.

Think about bone specialists, he said. When they try to fix diseased or broken bones, they take an MRI scan and try to figure out from the screen image what to do. But with 3-D printers, specialists could scan a patient’s diseased or broken bone and then literally print out an exact replica to hold in their hands, examining and touching the exact replica of the defect or the break.

It would give them a better and microscopically precise idea of how to fix it, and a precise location of a defect or a break for the surgeon to look at. The exactness of the replica is so good that the machines can make bones complete with all those tiny pockets naturally occurring in bone marrow.

The sweep and range of what could be improved is almost limitless, he said. That really great toy you have in your head? You could draw it in 3-D computer software, touch a button, and put in your child’s hand. Want to create a new part for an air duct in a business jet? Draw it in your 3-D software, print it – and put it in the hands of aviation engineers you’re trying to sell to.

That’s only a sample of what could be done, and why Bardo, the WSU president, says he wants to push so hard on tech as a way to preserve the prized tech segment of the Wichita economy.

At North Carolina State University, researchers are printing 3-D dresses out of silk-like materials that are not only beautiful but custom-designed for the wearer, Bardo said. No seams.

Other people he knows of are researching how to print nerve tissue to repair human bodies.

It sounds almost magical, Bardo said. “It sounds like a lot of fun.”

But with the magic comes disruption, he said. And we will thrive or diminish based on how we harness what comes next.

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