Five years ago, there was little in the way of 3D printing in Omaha. Today, there are options for anyone with the desire to transform an idea into a tangible thing. Although still an emerging technology, 3D printing is garnering greater attention for its mainstream commercial and industrial potential.
Local 3D printing resources can still be counted on one hand, but they are springing up on college campuses, as hobbyist organizations, and in a few commercial outfits with some real engineering chops.
The long view points toward a day when the idea of shipping becomes a quaint notion, perhaps similar to how contemporary businesses view the telegraph. In the future, a consumer might buy a product online, then the neighborhood manufacturer prints the parts and assembles the final product. Even better, people might design their own thing—whether a coffee table, an auto body part, or a customized smartphone case—and then click “print.”
It is a fantastic possibility, but still a long way from reality, says Shane Farritor, who left MIT in 1998 to join the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Mechanical Engineering department. The robotics engineer helped NASA design the Mars rover and co-founded a surgical robotics company, Virtual Incision. He is also the faculty adviser for the UNL 3D Maker Club.
“(3D printing) is like printers in the ‘80s right now,” he says. “If you bought a printer in 1985 and brought it home to print things, that’s kind of like if you had a 3D printer today and brought it home to make things.”
As 3D printing grows, researchers continue developing new materials and methods for more efficient systems. Out of the pages of science fiction, scientists are printing actual human tissue. That is an accomplishment worth repeating: The technology exists, right now, to 3D print some complex, living tissues compatible with the human body.
A little closer to mainstream business interests, 3D printers are pushing the envelope with glass, wood, and even food. Applying the tech developments to the construction industry, some enterprises have begun experimenting with 3D printing concrete structures.
Locally, Sympateco’s Kül 3D (an Omaha-based 3D printing outfit) is partnering with area schools, inspiring youngsters and college students to consider the potential for the technology. Along similar lines, the 3D lab at Do Space is a playground for the 3D-curious, young and old. And then there’s the innovative Tethon 3D, which holds the keys to a proprietary system called Porcelite, which makes it possible to print high-fidelity ceramics.
It took more than eight years of research at Bowling Green State University to create a “resin” and bonding agent that would cure using the same hardware available in common 3D printers already on the market. Developed and patented by well-known artist John Balistreri, Tethon 3D’s Porcelite is a more complicated version of an ink jet refill. But instead of replacing ink with a new color, the 3D printer’s plastic capability is swapped for ceramic resin. The printed object could then be fired in a kiln and come out as porcelain.
That sounds great for artists, but the breakthrough signals more than just a new way to churn out curious tchotchkes. For one, the organic materials could be used to produce optimal structures for encouraging growth of oyster and reef habitat. More than that, the level of detail allowed in the new method is limited only by the designer’s imagination. Even the most detailed mold or most skilled artisan could not match the intricate and intertwining weaves the ceramic printer can produce.
“That’s what we’ve always looked for,” says Greg Pugh, Tethon’s director of technical operations, “making objects that can’t be made in any other way.”
Before any revolutions in manufacturing and shipping can begin, 3D printing still has some growing to do.
Its relatively high cost still makes 3D printing a hard sell for much more than specialized one-off projects or rapid prototyping. Small projects and prototypes are dirt-cheap when compared to traditional options. But when large-scale production enters the equation, injection-molding remains king.
Striking an efficient balance between 3D printing’s current strengths and weaknesses appears to be the real trick. An unlikely source has apparently found that balance: a local company with roots in building cabinetry for hair salons.
“(3D printing) is changing the way manufacturing works. It changes the way people think,” says Paula Crozier, Kül’s director of business development. “So we wanted to be on top of that technology.”
Sympateco moved far beyond its beginnings in the beauty industry, and created what is believed to be Omaha’s first commercial 3D printing company.
The range of design and projects include the novel and curious: A modern take on imprinting a child’s handprint in plaster of Paris is now a full-scale replica of the actual hand.
Sympateco has made the practical: reverse-engineering vintage parts that are either impossible to find or impossible to afford. And they have made the inspiring: printing customized prosthetics, including parts fabricated into a bionic Iron Man arm. The same bionic arm created a small media stir last year when actor Robert Downey Jr.—who portrays Iron Man in the blockbuster Hollywood movies—presented the arm to a gobsmacked 7-year-old Florida boy, Alex Pring.
Entrepreneurs and budding inventors also bring ideas to Sympateco. Sometimes the ideas are scratched out on scraps of paper; the company then turns the scribbles into three-dimensional things.
Anyone with the inclination—and the ability to use computer-assisted design software—could run down to Do Space, and design and 3D print to his or her heart’s desire. More artistic visions could be realized at Tethon 3D. Or join the Omaha Maker Group and really dive into the whole process.
Nice thing is, Omaha has options now.