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Making its Mark

Michael Armbruster was recently manufacturing novelty drink straws for a customer who’s considering getting them on the shelves for the holidays.

That isn’t remarkable except for the way the straws, shaped as stars and Christmas trees, were being made: on Armbruster’s three-dimensional printer.

Three dimensional printing, also called additive manufacturing or stereolithography, has been around since the 1980s, but it’s only been in recent years that the technology has improved to the point where it’s becoming more used as a way of developing new products.

“One day you’re making medical instruments, the next an auto part, and the next, straws,” says Armbruster, who runs his business, HD Rapid Prototypes from his Kearny Mesa garage.

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Armbruster got the 3-D images for the straws on an email the client sent, programmed the data into his Objet printer, and pressed a button that activated print heads to lay down acrylic based resin in razor thin amounts. Then the layers were efficiently cured by lasers following the material application.

Each of the layers of resin laid down by the printer was only a thousandth of an inch so the process took exactly two hours and 19 minutes. When the process ended, Armbruster had the prototype straws for his client, who would drive over the next day and pick them up.

Top Secret Projects

The straw project was much simpler than some things that Armbruster has been contracted to make. Some are so hush-hush, he’s been required to sign nondisclosure agreements.

The prototype chair is an SLA scale model of a chair by Tyler Haggstrom of Otis College of Art & Design.

Customers using the service come from such disparate industries as aerospace, medical devices, and entertainment (props for Hollywood movies) but mostly from consumer products and electronics.

“It was definitely a novelty at first,” says Donovan Weber, co-owner of Forecast 3D, a Carlsbad-based business founded in 1994 that makes prototypes and production-ready objects. “In the past 18 years it’s become the default method of making things.”

A large part of Forecast 3D’s business comes from the biotechnology and biomedical device industries, Weber says. These companies are developing new types of diagnostic tools related to treating various diseases and need a prototype to examine so scientists and designers can better understand how the product functions, Weber said.

Using his company’s printers, a customer could get about 20 replicas of the same prototype. The forms would be distributed to the engineering team, marketing team, sales team, and executives. Upon closer examination, the company might tweak the design several times before settling on the final design.

Even after the product is mass produced, this gives companies an easier and quicker way to make further changes, he said.

Faster Turnaround Time

Working with more traditional injection mold manufacturing processes, those kinds of changes would typically take weeks or months to do, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The process was usually done in China, Weber said.

Using 3D printing technology, a common turnaround time for a project is one to three days, he said.

Scott McGowan, marketing director for Solid Concepts Inc., a 3D printing company based in Valencia with an office in Poway, said both the technology of making objects as well as the objects themselves are better than in the early days when the plastic didn’t last as long.

In some instances, the machines print in metal and other sturdy substances and serve as the actual working component or product, he said.

The big advantage to making things through 3D printers is the ability to make changes if the early prototypes don’t work exactly as expected, McGowan said. “You have more control over the production lifecycle because you have the ability to make changes early,” he said.

Perhaps the most eye-opening developments involving 3-D printing entails the ability to replicate human organs.

Tissue on Demand

Organovo is a three-year old San Diego company that is licensing its patented technology to make human tissue for drug developers exploring the effects of the drugs.

Early clinical drug trials usually require testing on animals, and in later stages, on humans, but there are obvious advantages if the substances can be tested much earlier on human tissue, said Keith Murphy, Organovo’s chief executive.

“It’s better than animals because it’s obviously made with human cells,” he said.

Today, the company’s technology produces tissue contained in human blood vessels, muscles and skin, but some day, the bioprinters may well create replacement kidneys, livers or hearts.

“We’re still many years away (from full organ reproduction) … But over time we think it can be developed on our platform,” Murphy said.

Instead of using acrylic resins, Organovo’s bioprinter uses human cells as its building blocks. The machine places the cell aggregates in a predetermined pattern and within microns of each other, allowing them to naturally fuse together.

Organovo partnered with Invetech, a San Diego and Australian company, to build an improved bioprinter, making it simpler to use and producing human tissue faster, said Peter Riddell, Invetech’s operations manager.

Recognized By Time

The cutting edge technology was recognized globally including by Time Magazine, which included it on a list of the 50 best inventions of 2010.

“For the first time, we can provide a flexible technology platform for organizations working on many different types of tissue and organ construction for research and medical applications,” Murphy said.

Solid Concepts, which maintains a 40 person Poway office, has been around for about 20 years, has seen a nice uptick in business in recent years from a variety of industries such as aerospace, medical devices, consumer and business products, and the military, McGowan said. The firm that is on track to generate $60 million in sales this year has also provided its services to special effects studios for big budget movies, he said.

But at least a quarter of Solid’s revenue comes from custom manufacturing where clients need to have a single part or a limited run of a particular product, McGowan said.

The speed and cost of getting objects made from 3-D printers is a huge leap over the way things were previously made, he said.

“You’re getting things made in days rather than years or months,” McGowan said.

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