Considering 3D printing? Here’s what to think about

It looks like science fiction, but it’s trickier than it seems

3D printing is like something out of science fiction. By pressing a button, one can produce custom, intricately designed products using a variety of materials. In recent years, the process has evolved with technological innovations, unique applications, and integrations into both for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises. With its scope and ingenuity, print businesses are now considering including 3D printing in their service offerings.

I interviewed two individuals: the first is Laurie Mirsky president of 3DPhacktory, a full-service 3D printing and design studio in downtown Toronto founded in 2012, which offers high-resolution, multiple material 3D printing to customers in a wide variety of disciplines.  The second is Dr. Julielynn Wong, of 3D4MD and Medical Makers, who has utilized open source software, crowd-sourcing, and the accessibility of 3D printing in libraries and maker spaces to cultivate a community of humanitarian innovators who create low cost, quality-tested medical and assistive devices.

But acquiring a 3D printer is not the only step, whether one wishes to make revenue or leverage the technology for social good; there are challenges that should be carefully considered. The question is what aspects should a business consider to achieve success.

Know your customer

3DPhacktory serves a diverse array of customers from engineers to entrepreneurs to artists. However, Mirsky initially selected the business’s Dundas location because of its proximity to the creative technical companies that service film studios in Toronto. “There’s fifteen stages within a ten minute drive of here…so part of our thing was, ‘okay let’s open up in a place that’s in the neighbourhood of [individuals] who will embrace this technology’ ” (Mirsky). It is not uncommon for 3DPhacktory to sit down with a production designer and help them quickly produce props that do not exist in real life.

Whether it is a medical specialist on the other side of the globe, an astronaut on the International Space Station, or a patient searching for an affordable solution, 3D4MD has a large pool of potential clients. Regardless of who approaches them with a medical problem, the network of Medical Makers is always up to the challenge of creating a design these customers can produce with local resources. For example, Medical Makers developed a 3D-printed cup holder that can be installed on any model of wheelchair.

Train staff well

Both 3DPhacktory and Medical Makers rely on the skills of their team to generate revenue or crowd-source designs for social good. For 3DPhacktory employees are involved throughout the entire manufacturing process both as production and client-facing problem solvers. Mirsky explains, “the technical curve is huge. Staffing, finding the right people who can be conversant in all these softwares, be able to keep an eye on the machines, work with the different technologies and clients [is paramount]. So it’s really not just finding somebody…you’re paying a higher labour rate because you need to have a certain skill set.”

Medical Makers’ approach is to incorporate the 3D printing education into their recruitment process. “Typically somebody would come to a Medical Make-a-Thon, we would train them on skills that would allow them to make solutions that would save lives, time, or money” (Wong). She elaborates, “We’ve trained Doctors Without Border’s humanitarian workers on how to 3D-print items in the field. So if medical or other equipment breaks or supplies run out, they can email us, and our global community of innovators can use free software to make a 3D printable solution which we would ensure is printable and functional before we email it back to them in the field.”

Manage the entire process

3D printing is one of those technologies that becomes sensationalized. The two-minute clips a news station might present about the topic may fascinate an audience but they fail to capture the true reality of 3D printing. Aspects such as extensive post processing, the cost variations and physical property differences between materials, and the lengthy printing times are lost in a time-lapse video.

Therefore, the old adage “the customer is always right” does not necessarily apply in the realm of 3D printing. When one possesses an expert staff, their goal is not only to produce the final product but also assess it, from digital file to completion. For example, trusting files from online sources is tricky. As Wong describes, “just because a design looks good on your computer doesn’t mean you can print it…I think the challenge Thingiverse and other open-source digital libraries face is that there is no quality control. And that’s fine, maybe, if you’re making a toy but that is not acceptable when it comes to 3D printing medical devices.”

From a business perspective, neither the company nor the customer has the time or resources to print multiple versions of a bad file. Mirsky’s team is “often re-engineering people’s designs. Which means going all the way back to the STL file and making little changes to make it a functional prototype [or] they won’t have the design technology so what we want to be doing is interpreting that for them.” Mirsky adds, “part of [our job is] to be able to define what their project is, explain to them the different processes and the limitations of 3D printing, and qualify them from a budget point of view.”

To provide the best possible solution for the client, it is important to establish partnerships. For Wong and her team, in order to deliver medical solutions globally, they are developing partnerships with AutoDesk to access advanced design software, and connecting with 3D printer owners on 3D Hubs, who can print solutions locally for patients or healthcare providers in different countries and also produce medical devices using a range of materials.

Mirsky has cultivated partnerships to bridge the gap in 3DPhacktory’s services, “we don’t want to take the client to the point where we can’t do something well, so then we’ll send them somewhere else.” These partners can be utilized for any number of reasons but one of the most prevalent is for overseas manufacturing. “We prototype for [the customer] in advance so it saves time…Previously they’d have a product, they’d send some drawings, they’d get a prototype back from China, they’d approve it and then that’s generally at least an eight-week process” (Mirsky). Having 3DPhacktory in the production chain shortens that time.

Protect intellectual property

A final consideration is how a company protects their clients’ intellectual assets. A company should be careful about derivative work. “We’re fiercely protective about non-disclosures…it’s a real Pandora’s box with all the hacking that’s going on. If somebody comes in and steals a product design, they have it” (Mirsky). Similarly, Wong educates her team about not violating any existing intellectual property but “we focus on medical devices that have been around for decades so intellectual property rights have usually expired” (Wong).

It’s a balancing act

3D printing has a number of considerations. It is a challenging business to scale. Whether one is doing rapid prototyping or providing design and production services, the staff need to understand the software and equipment in order to supply an accurate and economical solution to the client without sacrificing a design’s aesthetic properties. Providing solutions means understanding and protecting intellectual property and acknowledging the company’s limitations.

The true value of the technology exists in finding and servicing those gaps that no other process can fulfill while balancing the cost of the equipment. For Wong, efficient applications of 3D printing means asking, “how does 3D printing save more lives, time, and money compared to existing solutions?” There is no benefit to investing in a technology where another method could do the same thing faster or cheaper. As Mirsky points out the bottom line is, “ [it’s a balancing act.] You have to be able to figure out how much capacity you have. Because the machines are expensive, the material is expensive, and [time is limited]. You have to be able to anticipate how much capital you put in, how many printers [you are] getting, and how much business there is.”

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