Pittsburgh engineers see key to understanding 3-D tech’s future



More than three decades after the first 3-D printer made its debut, the technology's advance has led to forecasts of an in-home consumer culture that could make anything from work clothes to midnight snacks available at the push of a button. And some would argue that future is now — with everything from single-story homes to hot pizza for space-bound astronauts coming out of the sector.

But for three Pittsburgh engineers whose recent innovations include 3-D printers for toy store shoppers seeking custom gifts, felting printers capable of making soft robots and intricate loudspeakers that can be printed in almost any 3-D shape, the future of home-based three-dimensional printing isn’t so cut cut and dried.

The key to understanding the future implications of the technology is knowing just how far it has come and where it continues to fall short, said Arden Rosenblatt, co-founder of Oakland-based commercial 3-D printing company PieceMaker.

Retail outlet utilizes3D printing to make toys, other goods

Alejandro Sklar talks about PieceMaker Technologies and a new retail store that allows customers to use a 3D printer to construct toys and other merchandise. (Video by Nate Guidry; 5/11/2014)

Mr. Rosenblatt and co-founder Alejandro Sklar, who had each built their own machines while studying engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, established PieceMaker in January 2013 after first sharing their frustrations about the 3-D printing process.

Created in 1983 by Chuck Hull of Rock Hill, S.C.-based 3DSystems, the printing process — also known as additive manufacturing — works off of the same basic concept as two-dimensional printers.

A digital design goes from computer to printer, and the printer recreates the image in the design line by line. The caveat with 3-D printing is that instead of ink, printers use plastics, metals and other materials to recreate objects layer by layer. The printers work off of images that can be drawn using computer assisted design, or CAD, software or downloaded from the Internet.

By the time Mr. Rosenblatt and Mr. Sklar came together to vent their 3-D printing woes, existing printers had churned out children’s inhalers, artificial coral reefs and an advanced model of the human foot, according to Netherlands-based industry news site 3Ders.org.

Even with the advances, 3-D printers were still largely designed to recreate specific items using specific materials and CAD software was a challenge to navigate. Attempts to use the machines to create a range of prototypes were uphill battles that usually produced less than desirable results.

“It was very cool but difficult. The software was very basic, and you still really need to know programming and design to do anything with it,” said Mr. Rosenblatt.

Making it a mission to simplify the process for themselves and the public at large, the duo set up shop in CMU’s startup incubator, Project Olympus, and put $15,000 of their own funds into a business to create 3-D printers featuring software with a variety of content already available for print.

Once they narrowed the business to the custom gifts market, the duo introduced a machine that they had created — “Factory in a Store,” a consumer kiosk with a touch-screen interface offering options to custom design 3-D printed toys, jewelry, key chains and other keepsakes.

The Factory in a Store made its debut at last year’s Learning Solutions Conference and Expo in Orlando, Fla. From there, PieceMaker was accepted to the first class for East Liberty hardware and robotics startup incubator AlphaLab Gear.

Today, Factory in a Store is being tested in S.W. Randall Toyes and Giftes stores in Squirrel Hill and Downtown, and will be in the chain’s five additional stores by October. If all goes as planned, the kiosks will be in 20 stores nationally by the holiday season.

Making such printing accessible and easy for consumers is one thing, but Mr. Rosenblatt said it’s highly unlikely the technology will replace shopping anytime soon, if ever.

One major drawback is the speed. Using 3-D printing for an extra fork for dinner can take anywhere from one day to two weeks, depending on the printer. He also pointed out that many 3-D printed innovations can require additional assembly and the cost of materials will likely outweigh the retail cost of many things.

"You’d never 3-D print something that’s already in mass production. That’s almost a negligible cost,“ he said.

The roadblocks of having to assemble complex 3-D printed items could be eliminated for some items within the decade, according to Yoshio Ishiguro, a post-doctoral associate at Disney Research, Pittsburgh.

Mr. Ishiguro and Ivan Poupyrev, a former Disney Research principal research scientist, used a 3-D printer to create electrostatic loudspeakers that can be reproduced in any shape. The loudspeakers use a little-used electrostatic speaker technology that operates using no moving parts. The speaker can reproduce sounds of up to 60 decibels.

Long term, Mr. Ishiguro said, consumers will see 3-D printers with software that is more easy to modify. In the short term, he said, 3-D printing could eliminate the need for assembly of the electrostatic speakers within a decade.

”In five to 10 years, a 3-D printer capable of using conductive materials could create the entire piece,“ he said in a press release.

Another strike against at-home printing is that mixed material printers that would allow creation of items such as pants with metal zippers are still a work in progress, said Scott Hudson, a CMU professor who developed a felting 3-D printer with the help of Disney Research Center, which has facilities on campus.

The felting printer, described in a press release as ”a cross between a 3-D printer and a sewing machine“ uses thin layers of yarn and a barbed felting needle to recreate soft objects such as teddy bears.

For as much potential as the technology has for the clothing and fashion industry, Mr. Hudson said, it’s still a long way from replacing online shopping.

“Right now it would be very hard to print something with a complex mix of both metal (which usually requires high temperatures to print) and plastic (which would be melted by the hot metal),” he said in an email.

Mr. Hudson said the future of manufacturing most likely will not be upended by 3-D printing but, for the everyday consumer, could take on a role similar to a hand drill or hot glue gun.

“There [are] some very interesting challenges in making this technology more accessible for ordinary folks. But my hope is that soon 3-D printers might, for example, take on a role something like a power saw or a sewing machine — something that you could buy at the mall and take home and use for a range of everyday things,” he said.


Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652. Twitter: @deborahtodd.

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