Mat Chandler and Sam Lopez have joked all year about printing their own candy.
It’s not such a long shot.
Chandler is the lab manager of the University of Florida’s Arts and Architecture Fabrication Lab, which houses two three-dimensional printers. Lopez, an arts and technology graduate student, works as the lab’s graduate assistant.
It’s no longer an impossibility to print a building model, cabinet handle or midnight snack. The rise of 3-D printing has created tangible objects that people could only dream of years ago. The high-end machines can print 107 of the 4,000 known engineering materials, according to Bruce Bradshaw, director of US marketing for 3-D printer manufacturer Objet.
A 3-D printer works by building an object in a series of extremely thin, horizontal layers. Instead of carving away from a piece of material, they lay down exactly what is needed.
The A2 Fabrication Lab, commonly called the Fab Lab, bought the printers in the fall of 2009 with a grant for collaborative work between the arts and architecture schools.
“The student work jumped 10 times,” Chandler said. “It’s so far past anything you could model by hand.”
UF art professor Anna Calluori Holcombe, who specializes in ceramics, wrote the grant with Jack Stenner, an associate professor of arts and technology, and Mark McGlothlin, an associate professor of architecture.
“Our students need to be up on the latest advances,” Holcombe said, “and this is it.”
The 3-D printers and scanners are an integral part of her multimedia ceramics class. Students create a ceramic piece of art by hand, scan it and then recreate it on the 3-D printer.
Initially, when Holcombe was working on the grants, she didn’t expect to use the printers herself. Now, 3-D printing is one of her personal hobbies.
“Nature has got a genetic code,” she said, holding one of her pieces, a smooth white pinecone. “This [3-D printer] uses a computer code. I’m re-coding nature in an artificial way.”
Previously, the lab was exclusively open to UF art and architecture students and faculty. As of this semester, it is available to students, faculty, staff and anyone in the greater Gainesville community. Currently, about 100 people use the lab; Chandler hopes that number will increase as students in other fields realize the printers’ potential.
“We want to make it so students can come in and create,” he said. Engineers could test their systems. Entrepreneurs could prototype their products.
Since the printers were purchased, they have produced everything from character figurines designed by art students to models of thoracic spines used to study regional anesthesia at Shands.
The lab has two printers: an Objet Eden 260V and a ZCorp ZPrinter 450.
The Objet printer uses a brand-specific resin plastic and prints directly layer-by-layer from an adapted inkjet nozzle. Its maximum build volume is about the size of a compact microwave and is more durable and detailed than the ZPrinter.
The ZPrinter is divided into two chambers. The actual printing takes place on the left-hand side, which is an empty 8-by-10-by-8 inch box with the bottom as a bed of white powder. A standard HP ink cartridge filled with glue builds the layers. When the glue has finished spraying, the object is formed by the white power sticking to the viscous glue. Any remaining powder can be reused for the next batch.
The display screen on the machine counts layers as it builds. It takes 2,000 layers to build a tiny cube.
Over the past five years, 3-D printing has shifted from an expensive prototyping technology to an affordable reality.
Objet sells its printers to everyone from two-person businesses to large corporations like Nike and LEGO. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man 2 suit was prototyped on the same Objet printer that resides in the Fab Lab.
According to Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, Inc., “just about everything but trashcans” is currently prototyped on a 3-D printer. Now, the printers are creating more than just prototypes: 20 percent of their output is a final, usable product.
“It cuts across so many areas,” Wohlers said. “It’s hard to name an industry that hasn’t been or won’t be affected by this.”
Objet, one of the larger 3-D printer manufacturers, has seen a 35 percent increase in sales for the past four years and anticipates the same results this year, according to Bradshaw.
Their standard desktop model cost $100,000 three years ago. Today, thanks to more efficient manufacturing and inkjet developments, a comparable model sells for $20,000.
However, 3-D printing still has its drawbacks.
It costs $110 per semester for Fab Lab membership, which is required to use their printers. Students who need to use the printers for class assignments must pay the fee as well. On top of the membership fee, each print has a pricetag. A print of a palm-sized human heart figure is $200.
Although the cost of the machine itself has decreased considerably, the material can still be expensive. As is the case with regular printers, it’s the cost of ink, or material, that adds up. For 2.4 kilograms of Objet resin, Chandler pays $1,200.
There is also a programming barrier: the object must be created in a 3-D modeling program. Within UF’s art and architecture programs, students take 3-D modeling courses. However, the necessary programs may be foreign to students in most other majors.
For someone who isn’t familiar with 3-D modeling or printing, the technology can seem untouchable. Chandler wants to make the process as accessible as possible for anyone interested in learning by teaching a general elective course in 3-D modeling.
Regardless of the current obstacles, the 3-D printing industry has the potential to change industries from medicine to art even more than it already has.
“It’s taking the factory and putting it in your garage,” Lopez said.