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3D printer gives new dimension to copies

Library patrons check out a 3D printer as it uses microscopic layers to "print" a vase. (West Life photo by Sue Botos)

By Sue Botos

Rocky River

Everyone is familiar with the term “copycat,” but is it possible to actually copy a cat, or any other three-dimensional object? Thanks to 3D printers, this is already a reality that has taken the term “carbon copy” to a whole new level.

Patrons at the Rocky River Public Library had a chance to get a look at 3D printers in action during a demonstration by Rick Pollack, founder of MakerGear in Beachwood, which manufactures the machines, and technician Joshua Wills.

Pollack explained that “3D printing” is the process of making a solid object of virtually any shape based a digital model. He said that a more precise name for the procedure is “additive manufacturing,” because successive layers of material are laid down to form the objects. This differs from traditional machining techniques, which rely mostly on the removal of material by cutting or drilling.

The first step in the process is entering a three dimensional computer model of an object, either from the Internet or self-designed. Wills used the example of a fox statue, showing how pieces must be added to support the head, tail and, as Pollack said, “any part that floats in the air.” Pollack said this support material is the only waste product of the operation.

After a design is selected, it’s entered into the printers’ program. A spool of plastic “thread” is fed into the printer, where it is heated, and is extruded through a “printing head” which is slowly moved by mechanical arms. The object, which at the library demonstration was a vase, gradually takes shape, with thickness and density also controlled by the computer program.

Although Pollack uses a plastic, which he said is similar to that used in Legos, depending on how much a person is willing to spend and the capabilities of the machine, materials such as metal and even chocolate can duplicate an object. Asked how different colors can be combined to form an object, Wills quipped, “Sometimes it’s old tech meets high tech by using a Sharpie.”

Pollack said the 3D printing capabilities have been around since the early 2000s, but recently the technology has become affordable to businesses and interested individuals. He said his production machine, which he brought to the library demonstration along with a prototype printer, sells for less than $2,000.

Aside from vases and decorative objects, Pollack said that the uses for 3D printers are endless, ranging from prototypes of products to medicine. “In 15 to 20 years, they will be ubiquitous in medicine. There will be customized body parts like teeth and bones,” he predicted.

Pollack said his machines have been used all over the world. New Zealand company even used one for special effects items in the “Lord of the Rings” movies. His company also “printed” the flame for the illuminated torch used in the opening ceremonies of the National Senior Games.

Spare parts for machines and even household items can also be “copied,” even some moving pieces. However, Pollack warned against making spare keys this way. “We have done some keys, but they’re not a long-term solution. They might work a couple of times, but they can break off in the lock,” he recalled.

As opposed to flat copies, the 3D process often takes time. “You’re limited by your patience and the nozzle size,” said Willis, referring to the part of the printer that extrudes the plastic. He said the time he has taken to print objects has ranged from nine minutes to 18 hours. He added that once the print program starts, it can’t be paused.

Wills said the senior games torch took about three hours to make. “When people ask what the coolest thing is I ever printed, that would be at the top of the list,” he noted. (Wills also said he has a copy of his head).

While there are many practical applications for the 3D printer, Wills said there is no shortage of fun involved. “It is a tool I can make parts on or a vase for my mom, but it’s up to your imagination. If you can design it, we can figure out a way to print it.”

 

 

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