How 3-D printing is changing everything

Cheap, fast and precise modeling moves business, art, science and technology

An exact replica of the KOIN tower in downtown Portland takes less than an hour to make, at a negligible cost. (KOIN 6)
An exact replica of the KOIN tower in downtown Portland takes less than an hour to make, at a negligible cost. (KOIN 6)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN 6) — In business school, they teach you a product can only be two of these three things: good, fast and cheap.

If it’s fast and good, it won’t be cheap; if it’s good and cheap, it won’t be fast; if it’s fast and cheap, it won’t be good. But, 3-D printing has broken that adage, and it could mean better manufacturing jobs at home.

Portland Community College student Jordan Nickerson holds a pen with a prosthetic hand he made for $40, July 30, 2014 (KOIN 6 News)
Portland Community College student Jordan Nickerson holds a pen with a prosthetic hand he made for $40, July 30, 2014 (KOIN 6 News)

The machine can build any model, design or pattern you tell it to, with a robot’s precision, for next to nothing.

“Normally what you do in manufacturing is you design something, have it sent off, they prototype it, then send it back,” said Eric Thomas, of Portland Community College’s MakerSpace.

“3-D Printers are helping our concepts catch up with our designs, and it takes one day to build something instead of 30,” he said. It can print almost any material, including metal, plastic or carbon fiber, building anything from chess sets to bicycles and spaceship thrusters.

One PCC student, Jordan Nickerson, made headlines when he built a prosthetic hand – for himself – for roughly $40 at the PCC MakerSpace.

How it works

Take any three dimensional object and photograph it from multiple directions. Then, use software like Adobe Illustrator to draw it in a 3-D space.

For the printer to read the file, it must be in a .stl form. Or, if it’s an object that’s been modeled before, log onto a free site like Thingiverse and download the .stl file.

DSC01997The printer then determines how many layers the object is, and prints out those layers. The pug in the above video, for instance, was almost 300 layers.

The computer then converts the file, saves the data in an SD card inside the printer and gets to work.

How it’s changing businesses

Anyone with six months of training can be printing a thruster for a space ship. This makes it cheaper for companies to design prototypes and see the result right away. A 3-D printer can also be stopped midway through a job.

“From a business perspective, speed is accelerated. It takes one day instead of 30,” said Thomas.

HP just invested billions in 3-D printers, which may indicate they’ll become household items in the near future, he said.

Drawing students to STEM

Any educator, prospective student or parent or grade counselor in the silicon forest knows the buzzword: STEM.

Typically, programs in Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Math experience massive dropout rates. Students embark on a grueling uphill battle of heavy workloads, high-stakes exams and mind-bending concepts.

By second and third year, when many students have dropped out, they begin the fun stuff.

“The creative aspect of engineering moves from the fifth year to the first week,” said PCC Dean of Science and Engineering Dietrich Steinmetz.

Holmes said students shied away from engineering because of its abstractness.

“Laser cutting and 3-D printing allows you to build full projects in an evening,”said Electronics Engineering Technology student, now teacher, who volunteers in MakerSpace.

It can be anything from a small robot to a model, or a useful tool.

“What the college is seeing is a shift in who applies to engineering and tech programs,” said Holmes. “Students interested in art, animation, video games, robotics and the trades all find a use for these machines.”

The MakerSpace movement

A student built a 3-D model of Dubai's Burj Khalifa in the PCC Sylvania MakerSpace. (KOIN 6/Annie Ellison)
A student built a 3-D model of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in the PCC Sylvania MakerSpace. (KOIN 6/Annie Ellison)

More than a place, MakerSpace is a movement to build, create, inquire and push the boundaries of art, tech, robotics and design.

“It’s a movement to get people with like minds creating,” said Holmes.

In January, Portland Community College opened MakerSpace with a round of funding from Intel. As long as it’s not a weapon, students can build it.

Intel saw the need for engineering students, and the college was barely keeping up for demand, said Steinmetz.

Classes range from laser cutting, laser scanning, 3-D printing and electrical. In true Portland fashion, drama students built a robot from 3-D printed pieces for a theatrical production of Alice and Wonderland, starring their robot.

Job ready

Holmes said a whole new demographic, specifically young women and artistically-minded students, are learning and gaining from the technology. And the capabilities don’t stop at making plastic pugs.

“The skills you need (to make something) as simple as making a plastic pug are vast, “ said Holmes. “Using the Internet, using open source software, using tools, conceptualizing, these are all important skills.”

Some of PCC’s printers will be lent out to high schools in Lake Oswego and Beaverton.

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