- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

BROOKINGS, S.D. (AP) - Along a wall at Falcon Plastics rest what look like a pair of state-of-the-art microwaves and another two fridges in the corner.

But these are far from futuristic-looking kitchen appliances: they are 3D printers, and they have been transforming the way Falcon Plastics and other manufacturers have been able to conduct their business, the Brookings Register reported.

Falcon Plastics is a plastics manufacturing company that also works with clients to design and craft such things as prototypes, molds and parts. Technology like 3D printers has allowed the company to do so more efficiently, in both time and money. “With that product development part of our business, these printers are great because traditionally, you can build this stuff in 3D CAD, but you don’t have that tangible side. You can’t touch it, feel it. Is this the right size, does it fit together correctly? You can’t see those things, so it’s nice to get a physical object so you can,” said Joel McCue, the engineering manager at Falcon.

CAD stands for computer-aided drafting or design, a software that allows an engineer to create a digital blueprint for the printer to print into a physical model.

SDSU student Teresa Hebert agreed with McCue’s assessment. As an architecture major, she’s using 3D printers on campus. “There’s something about seeing it on the computer that you don’t always fully conceptualize it. But the second you see it in front of you, you get it and it makes much more sense.” How does it work?

How the printer turns the digital version into a physical model is actually a simple, if time consuming, process. The plastic is stored in spools, which more or less function like the ink cartridges for a typical home printer. But a bit of plastic sticks out of the spool, like a thick fishing line, which when set in place with the printer, will be heated until it can be shaped and manipulated.

“This actually squirts out a layer of plastic; think of a hot glue gun. So it builds parts layer by layer with that method,” McCue said.

All it takes is patience for the part to be completed as an arm with a heating element heats the plastic to 842 degrees Fahrenheit. The arm then zips around the platform, laying out the plastic in the desired shape. Depending on size and the number of parts, the process could take as little as a few minutes up to many hours.

Of course, with some parts, an overhang might be required. That means the printer would have to print over nothing but thin air. Instead, Falcon prints those parts on a dissolvable frame. When it’s done printing, the part is put into a tank, and the soluble material is simply washed away. This whole process allows for more precise products to be made, crucial for what Falcon does.

During McCue’s interview with the Register, Falcon’s largest printer was working on a part for a milling machine used to make industrial parts, dealing with caustic oils, coolants and metal chips. When working with tough, durable goods, companies need to have high-end machines that can actually handle the raw materials. Many sizes, prices

Falcon is able to do this since their printers are industrial-grade, but they’re far from the only type out there on the market.

Low-end printers that are accessible to the public can be as cheap as $700. Of course, just like anything else, cheaper comes with its own challenges lower detail when printing.

At South Dakota State University’s print lab, four 3D printers cost $2,000 apiece with a platform about 11 inches by 6 inches.

Falcon had its first lower end models back in 2010, costing $15,000 each. Its mid-level printer cost between $50,000 and $60,000. The fourth cost $150,000, and the company plans on purchasing a fifth. Size is another variable among the printers, no matter their sophistication, and allow for a range of products to be made.

“This platform is a 6 x 8-inch platform,” McCue said, motioning to one of the printers on the table. Turning his attention to the fridge-sized one in the corner, he said, “This is a 16 x 14. It’s many times larger, so we can do bigger parts, but we can also do more smaller parts.”

SDSU’s 3D printers have a platform about 11 x 6 inches. Some hurdles

McCue is doubtful that 3D technology will ever be as accessible and as a commonly used as the typical 2D color printer.

“There’ll be some hurdles that’ll be in the way as far as consumer markets go. In order to print anything in 3D, you need a 3D model. So you either have to get that from someone else or create it yourself,” he said. “The challenge to creating it yourself is there’s a learning curve with the 3D software.”

At SDSU, that’s not much of a hurdle, where architecture students and engineering students frequently use the machines for class projects. Staff use them, too.

One professor used specialized trays for a class to study water worms. But when the company that made the trays went out of business, the professor brought one over and had a digital copy made. Now, he has access to all the trays he could need just by printing them out. But 3D printers aren’t all about homework and pushing technology to its limits. Hebert frequently helps other students and staff use the machine.

She’s used it to make a gift for her mother: a 2 1/4 teaspoon, a measurement she frequently uses.

“I’ve made a little moustache piece for my brother’s French horn,” she added. “It’s a little clip on his mouthpiece that makes it look like he has a moustache.” Limits unknown

Even though online databases for parts and models continue to expand, McCue thinks stories of people being able to replace any part of household appliances are misleading, if impractical.

Still, parts and models libraries grow as other industries explore the possibilities these machines offer.

In particular, the medical field has been looking into 3D printing to cheaply make prosthetics or implants for bone structures like hips or knees.

“When it comes to the medical field, every patient is unique, and there’s a lot of unique applications,” Hebert said. “3D printers work very well with that because you can make one unique piece very quickly.”

When talking about such technology, misconceptions are sure to crop up.

“The biggest one is what I’d call the Star Trek mentality, and that’s the replicator. Oh, I want a cup of coffee, and out it comes. If you think about everything involved, there’s an enormous amount of complexity,” McCue said.

But advancements are sure to come as more people test the limits of the technology.

“Some of the exciting things about this is that we really haven’t seen what it’s going to do yet. There are still so many areas people haven’t figured out yet,” he said. But the advancements the printer represents still captivate people as they come into contact with it for the first time, according to Bob Carlson, the general manager of SDSU’s print lab.

“I just like it when people stare at whatever’s being built the Campanile or something and say, ‘man, that’s cool,’” he said. “It’s that accessible to them. Before you’d think it’s part of some kind of big lab somewhere “but that’s not really the case.”

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Information from: Brookings Register, https://www.brookingsregister.com/

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