GTC offers ‘fab lab’ for small-business use

May 13, 2013

From “Gateway Technical College offers its ‘fab lab’ in Sturtevant for small-business use” — When Pioneer Products Inc. was asked to make the tooling for a boat part that was designed in Germany, cast in Missouri, for use by a manufacturer in Florida, the Racine company used three-dimensional printing for a prototype that could be shared by everyone in the manufacturing process.

With 3-D printing, objects can be replicated by laying down successive, ultrathin sheets of plastic, metal or other materials from a computer drawing.

It’s like using a hot glue gun that’s controlled by a computer.

The process, more correctly called additive manufacturing, is already widely used in industry. Elaborate “printers” construct sophisticated parts, not just with plastic, but also with metals.

For the rest of us, a basic 3-D printer, fed by spools of plastic filament, can be bought for as little as $1,300.

As the cost of the technology comes down, more manufacturers, inventors and artists are using it to make either prototypes or finished products.

Three-dimensional printing can save a lot of time and money in the design process, said Dan Defaut, a manager with Pioneer Products, a machine shop that does work in a variety of industries including automotive, marine, medical and aerospace.

Gateway Technical College, in Sturtevant, has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other colleges on rapid prototyping projects that use 3-D printing.

Manufacturers – and anyone else – can use Gateway’s design fabrication laboratory for training or building a prototype with the latest technologies.

“A company like S.C. Johnson has a full slate of 3-D printers and experts on staff, so they can handle this. But smaller companies are working with us so they don’t have to buy all of this equipment,” said Greg Herker, fabrication lab program coordinator.

“We are targeting small and midsize companies. We also are trying to target more artists, architects and others, because that’s how the real world works. Products aren’t just designed by engineers,” Herker said.

An array of uses

Gateway is part of a not-for-profit program aimed at developing and expanding industry in southeast Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

That program, called the State of Ingenuity Initiative, funds a business incubator and laboratory in Rockford, Ill., that does rapid prototyping with 3-D printing using materials not yet available at Gateway.

“Our function in life is to help businesses grow so they can hire more people,” said Mike Cobert, director of the Eiger Lab, in Rockford.

Three-dimensional printers are now making all kinds of things, including medical devices, replacement parts for airliners, architectural models, jewelry and customized salt shakers.

Eiger Lab was hired to replicate museum artifacts in Italy because, by Italian law, the original items could not be taken from the museum for traveling exhibits.

The copies were sent to an Illinois company that cast them in bronze.

Eiger did something similar for the U.S. Capitol, where officials wanted to replace a chandelier. It also has done work for large companies that want 3-D printing for projects but don’t want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the advanced equipment required for that type of work, partly because the technology is constantly changing.

Three-dimensional printing is well-suited for short production runs, one-off items where setting up a full production line wouldn’t be practical or affordable, and to make items suitable for sales pitches and meetings with investors.

It’s used for making customized prosthetics, where an exact fit is critical.

“Originally, this was just a model-making program. But right now, I think we are at the point where we are seeing many of the things that can be done with 3-D printing,” Herker said.

Business spinoffs

Affordable printers are lowering the cost of entry into manufacturing in the same way that e-commerce lowered the barriers to the sale of goods and services, according to Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn., firm that follows technology trends.

Printers for hobbyists, who want to make things like jewelry and craft items, cost less than $2,000. Recently, the office supply retailer Staples began offering a 3-D printer that can produce objects in 16 colors and is aimed at the small-business market.

“It’s not that hard to operate the equipment. Once you have the design file, it’s almost like sitting at your computer and selecting the ‘print’ button,” Herker said.

The technology has spawned businesses such as 3D Creations, a Milwaukee firm that envisions a world where people have a printer at home that could download and make a replacement part for something like a vacuum cleaner.

The printers also are useful tools for inventors, said Jesse DePinto, co-founder of 3D Creations.

“It’s kind of like the do-it-yourself culture on steroids. There are people who want to make their own products, either to save money or because they can’t find what they want at the store,” he said.

Three-dimensional scanners, which scan objects and create the drawings used by 3-D printers to make things, are advancing the technology in ways now only imaginable.

“Ten years from now, assuming there’s a utopia where everybody has their own printer, not everybody will know how to design things with CAD (computer-aided design) software. So the easiest way would be to have a hand-held wand where you could scan something and replicate it,” DePinto said.


A Texas company recently said it used a 3-D printer to make a plastic gun capable of firing real bullets and passing unnoticed through metal detectors, and that it posted the schematics online for anyone to use.

Critics say the technology means someone could open a gun factory in their garage, and that plastic guns could be manufactured by terrorists using readily available 3-D printers.

In theory, anyone could download the plans and use them to manufacture a weapon.


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