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Prospects for 3D printing continue to rise in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2013: As dozens gather in the gritty workshop area at Arch Reactor on South Jefferson, a tiny plastic yellow pyramid, perhaps an inch tall, is growing. Rising a millimeter at a time, it grows almost imperceptibly with each pass of a precisely controlled print head.

Meanwhile, Chris Fox talks a bit about the dream he has of a new, 3D printed world.

“People are beginning to understand as they see stories in the media,” said Fox, one of three co-founders of Mako3D, a 3D printing company created earlier this year in a Sunset Hills garage. “It’s getting a lot of press. They are trying to understand what it is and at these meetings people actually see these machines produce objects.”

Much like the plastic pyramid coming to life behind him, the eventual shape of that new world is still only partly apparent for a technology that remains in its infancy. According to a recent report by consulting firm Wohlers Associates, the worldwide market for the industry topped $2.2 billion last year, an increase of more than 28 percent from 2011, and is expected nearly to double by 2015. By early next decade, it could break the $10 billion mark.

One of the fastest-growing segments has been the personal 3D printer. Costing only a few thousand dollars each, the market for these desktop machines has more than tripled annually, on average, for four years beginning in 2008. Last year growth stalled somewhat, dropping under 50 percent.

But growth was evident at Sunday night's event, a 3D printing meetup, which was designed to appeal to the initiated and newbie alike. It is only the third time the monthly gathering has been held. A couple dozen participants are out to explore the emerging technological horizon, one that promises the ability to print, not just plastic trinkets, but everything from foodstuffs to car parts to human limbs.

Clearly, the potential exists, but how long it takes 3D printing and companies like Fox’s to expand beyond the garage and the local hobbyist remains to be seen.

“The dream is for these things to be like the Star Trek replicator,” said Bobby Rosenberger, a fellow co-founder. “You want a new lid for a sippy cup. Instead of running out or ordering one online, you just download a design, pay a little for it and print yourself a sippy cup right here.”

As printable materials expand beyond plastic, the possibilities seem almost endless. By mixing materials and technologies, the field is looking to print everything from ceramics to skin. Even a version of wood is possible by mixing sawdust with plastic.

“There are people that are working on hoppers where if your kid outgrows his sandals, you throw it in the hopper, grind them up, go to your software, scale it up, print out a new pair of shoes,” said Rosenberger.

This isn’t just more cost effective for the consumer. It also holds promise for businesses, particularly those that need to design, and constantly redesign, a given part. Now, instead of ordering a prototype and waiting a week, they can watch it come to life on their desk within hours without worrying about the delay or cost of an entire run of injection-molded plastic parts.

It also has the potential to throw out old ideas about economics and supply chains by personalizing mass production. Fox envisions a world where a visit to a home improvement store may see employees print up a shovel onsite.

And not just any shovel but a customized shovel, one that didn’t exist except in concept before you ordered it.

“Traditional manufacturing is going to be in a real hole,” Fox said. “Because what you’ll be able to do is have a license for, say, a chair and as opposed to going to Wal-Mart and buying a chair, where they have to have someone manufacture the chair, ship it to a warehouse, then have it shipped to them, you’ll be able to go somewhere, buy the license for the chair, have it printed there and skip the shipping, warehouse and retail stuff. That will be a real game changing event and that’s where this industry is going.”

He thinks the little guys in the fast-adapting market will have the advantage.

“We’re trying to keep the open-source spirit of this in place but also be nimble enough to change as the technology changes,” Fox said.

Companies like Mako3D are aggregators of open-source information, something not uncommon in the early stages of a new technology before the proprietary world takes over.

Eventually, what could form is something known as a “razor blade” paradigm, a business model in which the initial hardware is sold cheaply but dependent products, like replacement razor blade heads in the shaving needs industry, are more expensive and can become a profit center. Plastic print materials or designs could become marketable products.

“A lot of people view the industry like the music industry in that models are becoming like song files and everybody is trying to pirate them,” said attendee Scott Rocca, an Edwardsville hobbyist who helps organize this group. “But in terms of hardware and software, I think of it more like the auto industry. Back in the '40s and '50s, you had tons of different companies making all kinds of cars and all kinds of different hardware for those cars. Right now you have a ton of different 3D printing companies.”

That may not last however.

“Only the strong are going to survive or the ones that come up with some innovation that nobody has thought of yet or the cheapest way to get the best products out there,” he said.

Josh Boggess hopes his company may have an edge. As business development manager for the Midwest market of Detroit-headquartered Fisher/Unitech, he said the marketplace for 3D printing in St. Louis is “fairly ripe.”

“What we’re finding is that people are starting to adopt it faster than they’ve adopted emerging technologies in the past because of what it can do for their business,” he said.

Fisher/Unitech is a distributor for Stratasys, which made waves in the market this month when it purchased privately held MakerBot, a big name in the nascent industry.

Boggess, who is based in St. Peters, said that the future of 3D printing is bright because it provides new efficiencies to users.

“If you are only using what you need, you are able to cap your costs,” he said. “It’s much less expensive. You are also saving a lot of time -- not only time to make the part, but to shorten the product development cycle.”

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.