Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Using 3D Printing in a Vacuum Forming Process to Help Patients

Through a colleague here at Z Corp. I was made aware of an innovative company here in the Boston area called Radlab Inc., a multidisciplinary design and fabrication consulting firm. Founder Matthew Trimble describes a process for using 3D printed parts in a vacuum forming process.

Matt writes, “As Radlab has been developing a new bilateral hand rehabilitation device for Novokinetics, we've been testing new techniques in vacuum forming with 3D printed molds. For this particular application we started with a 'positive' Z Corp. 3D printed mold. The impetus for our process came from a desire to design and produce workable prototypes of potential wrist cushion variations. As a patient engages with the device, our hope is that their wrist would be comfortably elevated to the necessary height. After the molds were printed they were coated with a release. This is an important step to ensure that the styrene can be separated from the 3D print without significant deformation. We used a 1/16” white styrene for thermoforming. Once we extracted our thermoformed 'negative' we could move to the final stage of casting clear liquid urethane to create the actual pad. The process worked out well for us and we plan to continue using Z Corp. 3D prints for mold making in the future.”

There is a nicely produced video that includes the vacuum forming steps on their site:

It is always great to see 3D printing used in interesting applications. Thanks Matthew for your contribution to this blog and stay innovative!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Are You Ready To Be A Rock Star?

Today's guest blog is by Scott Harmon,  Z Corporation's VP of Business Development.

We had a big announcement with Shapeways last week. They have improved the quality of their Z Corp. output. It looks really great. I’ve spoken with them a few times, and it appears that they were using a 3rd party solution that was causing problems for them. They’re now using standard Z Corporation processes, and getting great results.

From the beginning, many Z Corp. types (myself included) were pretty skeptical about Shapeways. That has traditionally been a very challenging business in which to build scale. In general, there’s a lot of complexity to go with a relatively small scale. That’s a tough combination. Still, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I’ll admit it, I was wrong. Shapeways has done a really impressive job creating a whole new market for 3D printed goods.

So what are they doing right and what does it mean to you?

First of all, I think they’re doing a really great job of building communities. They are very open in their communications. They take their beatings and their compliments with equal seriousness. This has clearly led to faster rate of improvement than many companies. Their feedback loop from order, to production, to customer, to community is just days. When all your customers can see any customers’ feedback (in nearly real time), it provides an added incentive to get things right.

Second, they’ve created very smart incentives to attract designers to make cool products. The challenge with 3D printing has always been that so few people know how to really draw in 3D. Shapeways wisely turned that liability into an advantage by incenting designers to post their work and make money on it. I have no idea what their mix is between placed by the designers themselves vs. orders placed by other customers, but that mix is the key to scalability in this business, and I suspect it is moving in the right direction.

So what does that mean to you, designers and engineers of the world? I’d look to the world of media for answers. Ten years ago, star musicians and actors/actresses, controlled and promoted by a small stable of media conglomerates, made an enormous amount of money, and the rest were largely out in the cold. Today, there are still serious stars that make serious money, but the playing field has leveled, and a much broader range of talent has far more access to ‘success’ than a decade ago.

In the world of design/engineering, the record companies and movie studios have been replaced by multinational product development companies. They are generally the arbiters of good design and employers of the bulk of engineers and designers in the world. Shapeways, and companies like Shapeways, could level that playing field. If you’re outstanding in design, animation, or engineering, your path to consumers just got a lot smoother. There are people sitting at home in their pajamas making tens of thousands of dollars selling their work on sites like this. OK, that’s probably not the life of David Lee Roth, but it beats being Dilbert.

So, are you ready to be a rock star?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Copiers vs. Creators

Today's guest post is from Scott Harmon, Z Corporation VP of Business Development.

Lately, some interesting people (Ars Technica; Public Knowledge) have started to illuminate the challenges that 3D printers pose to copyright, trademark and patent law. Not surprisingly, IP lawyers are starting to chime in (; as well.

As the makers of the only color 3D printers in the world, the issues are especially relevant. With other printing technologies you can make an object in the same shape as someone else’s work. With our technology, you get the shape and color. Not exactly a replicator, but pretty close.

This debate largely forms around two camps. One camp says that IP laws are critical because they ensure that inventors and creative get benefit from their creations, which provides incentive to create. The other camp says IP laws slow innovation because the owners of the IP are more incented to protect it than to evolve it, and other are prevented from doing so. Clearly both camps are correct.

I was talking to a gentleman at SIGGRAPH who makes and sells models through Turbosquid and other 3D content libraries. He was bemoaning the fact that other ‘artists’ will download a copy of his model, change a few things, and then upload a new model for sale at one third of the cost. That stinks. And, as we have seen, it’s a serious problem for just about all digital media.

3D printing, however, is not a digital media. I believe that the IP problem in 3D printing has already resolved itself. A 3D printer is an excellent tool for creating one new thing (i.e.; a prototype), but a poor tool for copying things in volume (a batch of counterfeit Storm Troopers).

Will the large IP holders care if an occasional one-off copy of their content gets made? Is there any financial incentive for an IP copier to make lots and lots of copies using a 3D printer? I suspect the answer in both cases is ‘no.’ There will certainly be IP violations using 3D printing, but the likelihood that it ever gets to the level of what’s happening in music, video, software, etc. is pretty small.

The more interesting question might be, “How will IP owners, consumer / creators and 3D printers work together to personalize existing IP to create more value for everyone?”  What do you think?

Create More. Copy Less. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

New Education Program Addresses Skills Crisis

Today's guest blog is from Julie Reece, Z Corporation's Director of Marketing Communications.

Z Corporation's EngineeringZONE Introduces New England High School Students to the Wonder of Making Things

Despite persistent high unemployment, technical jobs are hard to fill, and the pipeline of American students to fill them is thin. American businesses often complain about the supply and availability of STEM workers, according to “STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future,” a report from the US Department of Commerce. And it’s bound to get worse. Over the past 10 years, growth in STEM jobs was three times as fast as growth in non-STEM jobs, the report says. STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17 percent from 2008 to 2018, compared to 9.8 percent growth for non-STEM occupations.

To help counter this threat to national competitiveness, Congressman John Tierney (D-Mass.) joined us earlier this week in launching “EngineeringZONE.” ZONE stands for Z Corporation Orienting Novice Engineers. The initiative invites high school classes to visit Z Corp on a monthly basis for an afternoon to experience some of the latest 3D printing and 3D laser scanning technology, increasingly used in the design and engineering world.

Congressman Tierney, the only New England Member on the House Education and Workforce Committee, said, “I applaud Z Corporation’s continued efforts to support our local economy with high tech manufacturing jobs, and it’s most recent initiative to ensure that local students are aware of these new and creative job opportunities. We know that jobs focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics are growing at a faster rate than many other fields and we need to do a better job of engaging our students in these areas. By bringing high school students into Z Corporation for a day of hands-on learning, they will have exposure to careers they may otherwise overlook.”

3D printing, one of the fastest-growing areas of manufacturing, is the creation of three-dimensional physical models from 3D engineering design data much as a document printer creates a business letter from a word-processing file. More and more manufacturers are adopting the process to quickly create physical prototypes and refine designs during every phase of the product development process.

Students in the EngineeringZONE program will try their hand at some introductory computer-aided design (CAD) software and will make their own 3D printed models. Interested high schools should contact Z Corp for more details.

Scott Harmon, Z Corporation vice president of business development added, “We’re thrilled to open our doors to curious students because this is where the magic happens, where you can see a design on a computer screen turn into a physical object before your eyes. In addition to the sizzle, 3D printing brings together all of the disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – that our students so desperately need to master now and in the future. We're honored that Congressman Tierney, was able join us on this important initiative.”

Young scientists and engineers have been using Z Corp 3D printers, called ZPrinters, at thousands of high schools, vocational schools and universities, following the lead of companies like Black & Decker, Cisco Consumer Business Group, New Balance, Timberland and Pixar.

Congressman Tierney visited Z Corporation in support of the announcement, toured our manufacturing facility, and spoke with Z Corp employees. Following are a few photos from his visit.