It's just after lunchtime and 16-year-old Jordan Willett tinkers with a wooden device no bigger than a microwave. Suddenly, it comes to life, shifting back and forth and, in minutes, produces three mini plastic gears.
Willett, a sophomore at Brownell-Talbot School in Omaha, casually explains that the machine — a 3-D printer — makes parts or prototypes that can enhance the robots used by his robotics team. The printer, for example, can rapidly make test parts before ordering final ones online, avoiding a wait and a later discovery that they won't work.
“You can just print it,” he says matter-of-factly.
Since it was created in the 1980s, the 3-D technology has sparked conversations, dreams and debates about the printers' possibilities. Some experts say the day is near when 3-D printers will be used by consumers to create everyday items, from iPhone cases to action-figure toys. Others disagree, saying such a broad application isn't realistic until printer and materials costs and maintenance requirements drop.
In the business world, 3-D printers have been used by engineers for prototypes in the auto and aerospace industries for years. Now, others are aiming to make final products. Nebraska has some startups looking to make money by printing prototype products for others, and some manufacturers are finding printed parts to be a faster alternative to overseas production.
The medical field is making hearing aids. The fashion industry is printing nylon gowns. NASA is testing how a 3-D printer could perform in zero gravity for space travel. Websites such as Thingiverse are making the programming side of 3-D printing easier for people without computer science degrees by providing design files.
“Right now,” said Michael Dixon, president and CEO of UNeMed, which is UNMC's technology transfer office, “it's a big, wide open field with a lot of potential.”
Also known as “additive manufacturing,” 3-D printing is the process of making a solid, 3-D object based on a digital model. It differs from traditional manufacturing, which is subtractive and constructs an object by cutting or machining the material.
In 3-D printing, the printer feeds material — it can be plastic, rubber or metal, depending on the printer's complexity — through a head, where it's heated up and squeezed out through a small hole and onto the printer bed. The printer repeatedly makes passes over the bed, depositing layers stacked one atop the next. When the material cools, the object is complete.
Several area academic institutions — Omaha South High School also has one — have purchased 3-D printers. They can range from small ones able to print a 6-inch cube to complex machines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Each works a little differently but follows a general premise of moving along the Y, X and Z axes until the object is complete.
The 3-D printer overseen by assistant professor Ben Terry of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's department of mechanical and materials engineering cost $50,000 and is used constantly by students who are designing and building tiny components for medical devices, such as micro-robots that can be swallowed to perform mini surgical procedures.
“You can't just buy them off the shelf,” Terry said of the parts it produces, which often are just 5 cubic inches or less. “It's just super-efficient to be able to design something and be able to print it like you would a Word document. You print your part out and you're ready to go.”
At Brownell-Talbot, robotics coach Carrie Rise sees endless uses in the classroom.
“Kids have this inalienable, 'Sure we can. Why not?' ” Rise said.
She purposefully selected a build-it-yourself kit called the Printrbot so that the students would learn about the inner workings while putting it together.
The cost? About $650, reduced to $500 with an academic discount. Paid for with the robotics team's general fund, the printer requires patience, some programming knowledge and a constant spool of plastic material. A little more than two pounds of plastic costs about $35 and lasts several months of frequent use.
3-D printers already have gotten more affordable and the software has become more user-friendly. The market for personal 3-D printers will reach $115 million this year and balloon to about $590 million by 2018, according to a report last week from market researcher SmarTech Markets Publishing.
The researcher projects that total revenues generated by personal 3-D printing will reach $1.46 billion by 2018.
There are a number of local rapid prototyping shops, such as QuikProto in Lincoln, which aims to add “dimension to your ideas,” and Omaha 3-D Print, which started as an experiment to see if Omaha was ready for locally available 3-D printing. The Omaha company has received 10 orders from businesses since setting up in late June, said owner Nathan Davis.
Meanwhile, others are tapped for personal use by early adopters like Eric Kaplan, a member of the Omaha Maker Group who has used the group's 3-D printer, which initially cost about $700, to print parts for a remote-control helicopter, “Star Wars” Yoda head figurines and even gifts. For Father's Day, he printed a gift card holder that looked like a luggage tag.
Clay Cardwell is such a fan that in April he purchased his own 3-D printer. That's in addition to the 3-D printer he uses for work at Harland Technology Services, a company that maintains computer systems and their accessories. There, Harland has used the printer to replace, for example, the tiny door that holds a memory card in place on a scanner.
“We can print (the doors) for 15 cents, or we can buy them overseas for $4 apiece,” he said. “It's a huge cost savings.”
At home, Cardwell prints finger joints and eye sockets — for costumes, that is. He makes life-size movie characters like Iron Man from foam, plastic, metal, hot glue and paint and has used a $900 3-D printer — he's sunk another $200 into it for additional features and upgrades — to make parts and avoid putting in a custom order.
Cardwell has printed items for daily use, too. He's printed replacement knobs for tools and a round cap for a set of clamps. And a Harry Potter necklace for his wife.
“It opens up for people to ... not have to go out and constantly buy stuff,” he said. “That's a great thing.”
Some manufacturers, like Omaha's Conductix-Wampfler, are using the printers on a larger scale.
Conductix-Wampfler, which makes electrical systems that power equipment, has had one in-house for about four years. It's used to print prototypes and custom fixtures that guide a customer when installing equipment, said director of engineering Kyle Kraudy. Without the printer, the items would have been costly and time-consuming to design and make, he said.
“It's been a great machine for us,” he said, noting that it's used weekly for several hours at a time for small projects up to several days running continuously for large projects. “We thought we'd only use it so much, but we've exceeded that.”
In fact, the company hopes to upgrade. The current printer cost about $25,000 and is able to process only plastic. The hope is for a 3-D printer that could deal with more advanced materials and one able to process several materials at one time.
“We're weighing the cost,” he said.
Manufacturer Ellison Technologies Automation in Council Bluffs hasn't purchased its own 3-D printer because the technologies are changing so quickly that it doesn't make business sense just yet, said Ellison mechanical engineer Brett Mjelde. But it uses the technology by designing 3-D components and sending them to service bureaus to produce the parts with a 3-D printer.
What makes 3-D printing attractive to the company is that it can create more complex shapes than can be done by traditional manufacturing methods like fabrication, Mjelde said.
Fat Brain Toys has priced 3-D printers — ones that cost a couple of thousand dollars — and hopes to buy one within the next year to test prototypes for its wholesale division, said director of product development Erik Quam. A 3-D printer would help when designing toys like the Ivan's Hinge. Asian manufacturing partners couldn't grasp the concept Fat Brain wanted.
“It probably would've been a three-month process rather than what ended up being an 18- or 24-month development process,” had the Elkhorn area-based toy retailer and manufacturer had its own 3-D printer, Quam said.
Still, the technology has prompted some people to question their ability to create harmful items. Primary concerns include printing counterfeit items such as money and firearms.
“Could the machines in the future be used to do bad things? Absolutely,” said Jeff DeGrange, vice president of direct digital manufacturing at Stratasys, one of the world's leading makers of 3-D printers.
DeGrange said that if someone is making parts for guns and they don't have the required permit to be a gun producer, they're violating the law. He said there's really no remedy for stopping illegal activity. He notes, “You can do bad things with your computer.”
Quam doesn't see anything but expansion on the horizon for 3-D printing, particularly in his industry. The technology has taken the toy industry by storm, and he's seen the printers on grand display at a global German toy fair the company attends each year.
“People are actually creating toys in front of your eyes,” he said. “Big crowds will gather and just ooh and aah.”
Davis, from Omaha 3-D Print, says it's unlikely the printers will show up in homes anytime soon because of the price and complexity to run one.
“Having a device that fits your home and prints you a new pair of shoes isn't the reality we'll see soon, although there are many people working toward that,” he said.
For now, at least at Brownell-Talbot, students are using a device more common in a laboratory than a high school classroom to learn about problem solving and to get hands-on experience in building, engineering and programming. Their next goal is to print plastic parts to transform the wooden 3-D printer device into a plastic one.
“Not only is it going to be a useful tool, but the excitement for robotics has really boomed,” Rise said.
Added a smiling Willett, “It's fun.”