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3D Printing Offers Glimpse Into Future

Associated Press - March 15, 2014 4:23 pm

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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Information from: The Wichita Eagle

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