By Reynolds Hutchins
Move over, 3-D printing.
The engineering phenomenon continues to make headlines, but now another simpler, older, but no-less-revolutionary technology is making its way into garages and workshops across the country – and Hampton Roads.
Last month 757 Makerspace in Norfolk won a free “3-D carving machine” in a nationwide contest sponsored by Chicago-based company Inventables.
Until recently, 3-D printers have been widely heralded as the manufacturing of the future, bringing production into the consumer’s own home and allowing the average person to design and manufacture whatever they desire using only a digital blueprint and a specialized printing device.
Hector Garcia, senior project scientist at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis Simulation Center at Old Dominion University, likens the product to a layer cake.
“In additive manufacturing like 3-D printing,” Garcia said, “you have one sheet at a time and you’re basically printing one slice of a model at a time, layered on top of one another.”
Before you know it, Garcia said, you have the pieces necessary for a prosthetic ear, an iPhone case or a violin.
The technology, however, has its limitations.
“3-D printing – a lot of it is plastic, layered and textured,” said Inventables CEO Zach Kaplan. “There’s a place for that: form studies, small models, etc. But most likely you’re not going to sell a product that came out of your tabletop 3-D printer.”
Where 3-D printing falls short, 3-D carving goes the distance. The latter is essentially the inverse of the former.
3-D carving, or CNC routing as it is sometimes called, uses a spinning drill bit to carve a digital design into whatever medium the user desires.
“That’s the advantage,” Garcia said. “You end up with something built out of the material you wanted. If you want something out of wood, you get something out of wood. If you want something out of aluminum, you get something out of aluminum.”
For those looking for an easy example, look no further than the nearest MacBook laptop. Those aluminum bodies are the product of an Apple factory’s 3-D carving technology.
And now local workshops across the country, like 757 Makerspace, have that technology at their fingertips.
“This is a complete set-up, everything from all the electronics, the hardware, the software and everything to build it,” said Makerspace owner Beau Turner.
The new addition to Turner’s workshop will be open to all members to use, to create and to test their creativity, Turner said.
It’s a boon for Turner, who said the unfriendly interface of older carving technology and the cost of the hardware was the primary reason why 3-D carving didn’t catch on as fast as its printing cousin.
Inventables is looking to change that, though. In its most recent contest, Inventables gave away one Shapeoko 3-D carving device – at a cost of $650 – and free user-friendly software to a group in each of the 50 states.
“We got hundreds and hundreds of people who applied,” Kaplan said. “So, we filtered them based on the people with the highest chance to succeed and those who wanted to make it available to the public.”
It’s a noble, democratic cause, but that last note has stirred up some contention. It appears when consumers take away the means of production from manufacturers, the manufacturers come away feeling jilted.
Kaplan said he recognizes this and is already fielding criticism at tech conventions and makerfaires.
“We like to think about helping people go from idea to finished product quickly,” he said, “but we should be prepared for pushback. There is definitely pushback from the biggest companies in the world.”
“I can imagine there’s going to be a fairly big fight,” Garcia said.
At present, there are no regulations on 3-D printing or carving. While there’s been no major legal case or patent scandal, Garcia said he is confident there’s one in the making.
“It’s not happening right now because the big companies are dominating the market,” he said. “But before you know it, you’ll have very robust manufacturing capabilities every two blocks, in every house, in every garage.”
On one hand, Garcia said, that means no more repairs, no more costly gadgets.
“If you break something, just print a copy,” he said. “If you want something, there it is. If a manufacturer doesn’t make something in your size or something to fit to your shape, customize it.”
On the other hand, that leaves the fate of every manufacturer in the world uncertain.
Kaplan and Turner said they believe both sides of the industry will be able to reconcile before it comes to a protracted legal fight.
“You can’t stop innovation,” Turner said. “Innovation is going to occur and it’s already occurring now.”
Kaplan said manufacturers and engineers have already started asking questions about his 3-D printed products.
“The initial reaction for folks is always fear,” Kaplan said. “That pushback is turning into curiosity, though.”
With the cost of production on the decline, he said, it could mean reinvestment in the American manufacturing sector.
“It’s really exciting because it’s really bringing to life an opportunity for economic growth,” he said.
Kaplan, Turner and Garcia agreed, bolstered by the “Yankee ingenuity” that built the country, this won’t become some flash in the pan.
“Americans – we’ve always been tinkers, we’ve always been thinkers, we’ve always embraced new ideas,” Kaplan said. “It’s going to be a very compelling next couple of decades.”