The new maker lab at the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation is making 3-D printing available, enabling rapid — and affordable — prototyping to local entrepreneurs and startup companies. PADT StartUpLabs opened last month with five portable and six larger 3-D printers and SolidWorks computer-aided design (CAD) software, along with hand tools and light power tools to support the 3-D printing.
Businesses can use 3-D printing to run an iteration of a new product in days instead of months. Applying the technology to the medical field, medical parts can be 3-D printed that are unique to the individual, such as hearing aids. Andrew Miller, the lab’s project manager, is also excited about its future applications. “More and more, prices and capabilities are improving so they can do real customer manufacturing. For instance, a manufacturing plant may not need electricity for lights if the manufacturing is done by machines – and this could make the competitive advantage of labor rates meaningless and therefore pull the manufacturing back from overseas,” he says. It even holds promise of producing living implantable bones or soft tissues, which Miller says has been done in university labs.
“The startup lab is a means of providing discounted engineering services with a special bent toward medical devices,” Miller says. The lab is certified by International Standards for Medical Device Manufacturing. Medical device manufacturing can cost three times other manufacturing, Miller notes. “This partnership [between Phoenix Analysis & Design Technologies and CEI] should lower that bar for small companies trying to break into medical devices.”
The lab runs two types of 3-D printing technology. Fused-deposition modeling (FDM) uses plastic filament on a spool, similar to weed whackers. The filament is heated to become a liquid and extruded through a hot nozzle that moves in two dimensions to draw an outline of the item, then moves up incrementally to draw the outline in additional layers. The other is a polyjet printer that operates similarly to an ink jet printer. The plastic starts as a liquid, and is “buttered” in micro-particles onto a layer, using static electricity to guide it. An ultraviolet light source hardens it. “Because it starts as a liquid, we can mix things,” Miller says. Possibilities include hundreds of colors, and different stiffness of materials, such as making a hammer with a hard head and a soft grip.
CEI members will receive the PADT lab services at a discount, but they are also available to non-members. The entrepreneur first submits the design through a Web portal on the CEI site to PADT headquarters. CEI engineers price it and determine the appropriate 3-D technology to use. The design is then sent to the printer through the cloud, and it will run for many hours. The final step is having a manufacturing engineer on-site do post-processing — cleaning it of excess material, and painting it. “Design and operational considerations preclude use by the public,” says Miller