A factory in a box

Chris May is convinced 3D printers will be the next big thing. So the owner of Mid Arctic Technology Services bought one. And, after ironing out the kinks over the past three weeks...

Chris May is convinced 3D printers will be the next big thing.

So the owner of Mid Arctic Technology Services bought one. And, after ironing out the kinks over the past three weeks, he now has it on display in the office of his information technology business.

Inside a metal box, not much bigger than a milk crate, a robotic arm drizzles a fine coat of molten plastic into a precise pattern. Layer by layer, a shape is taking form: a copy of the Vanderbilt mansion in New York, shrunken to three by four inches.

Anyone with a computer-aided design can ask May to print them a copy. He’ll do it for a few hundred dollars. It typically costs upwards of $1,000 for a prototype to be fabricated, he said.

The service could be useful to local architects, looking for a 3D rendering of a building design, or to inventors who’d like to hold a prototype of their invention in their hands, he said.

May’s spoken to one Whitehorse man who’s designed a drinking cup that could be easily gripped by elderly people with deteriorating motor skills.

Hopes are high 3D printing could one day revolutionize the manufacturing industry by replacing traditional production lines with increasingly affordable printers, like the one in May’s shop.

“We think this stuff is going to be everywhere in three years, so we want to understand it before then,” said May.

One widely circulated internet video shows a crescent wrench being digitized by a 3D scanner, then replicated with a printer in the laboratories of Z Corporation. The result is a fully adjustable facsimile, printed in one piece from a composite material.

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Another company has printed a Stradivarius out of resin – and it sounds decent when played. Big, industrial printers may one day print off the parts of cars and aircraft.

And medical researchers are looking at how 3D printers could be used to print people new bones and teeth.

May’s gadget won’t be doing any of this. He has managed to print the pieces of a short zipper, which works, but he had to put it together himself.

The most ambitious item he’s fabricated is a padlock. May printed every part except for the springs, which he pulled from ball-point pens, and put it together.

But the lock remains temperamental, and it didn’t unlock when he tried during a demonstration. He reckons the pins may need to be adjusted.

May downloaded all of these designs for free off a website maintained by enthusiasts.

The technology isn’t quite ready for casual consumers. May bought the printer in a kit – called a Thing-o-matic – for approximately $3,000.

The gadget’s design continues to be improved by the enthusiasts who own it. May has attached several “upgrades”- bits of printed plastic to keep bearings snug. Still, he needs to keep an eye out for screws working their way loose from the frame.

In a few years, May expects a consumer-grade 3D printer will cost $1,000. And computer-aided design is becoming far easier, too, with programs like Google’s Sketchup.

Once the technology matures and becomes cheaper, May expects big things to happen.

“There will be a new world when you have this on your desk at home.”

Artists are already using 3D printers in unusual ways. One took the seismogram of Japan’s massive earthquake and rendered it into a top-shaped, 3D sculpture.

Another made an icycle-shaped representation of an audio recording of the Hiroshimo atomic explosion.

“You never know what people are going to do with these things. The more people can access it, the more creative things they can do with it,” said May.

He plans to invite Yukon Artists at Work to a demonstration.

“There might be some really cool things they want to make,” he said.

And to spur more interest, May’s business is running a contest over the next few weeks. Customers are given plastic, printed keys. Each Saturday, they’re invited to come down and try to open the lock.

The winner with the right key wins a free netbook computer.

That’s assuming, of course, that the lock is working by then.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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