A Nebraska violinist wanted to design and construct a customized violin for his wife using his own ideas, but he had no experience as an instrument maker.
An Astoria boy, born without most of his right hand, could not find a prosthetic that fit properly. A custom-made prosthetic hand would cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Hillsboro filmmaker Laika needed a process so that each of its puppet/characters could constantly change expression. Constructing thousands of new model faces for each character in each scene was nearly impossible.
Each of these problems found a quick and cheap solution in Portland because of a new technology that no less than President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address last year, hailed as “the next revolution in manufacturing.”
Its proponents say 3-D printing holds the promise for corporations and individuals to print out their own three-dimensional objects as easily as we now print paper documents on inkjet printers. Local promoters of the crafts and tech communities say Portland, with its abundance of young creatives immersed in a DIY ethic, is perfectly positioned to take advantage of that revolution. But some say if that’s the intention, the city has a ways to go.
Many of the heralded “breakthroughs” using 3-D printing are teasers — new uses that provide creative thinkers with a sense of possibilities. David Perry’s 3-D-printed fiddle, which he recently displayed at the White House, is a perfect example. A home-printed electric violin that produces authentic music? Cool. Wider applications? Consider it a starting point, Perry says, then start considering the possibilities.
Mechanical engineer Perry moved to Portland in 2010 and worked at a few design firms before attending an open-source hardware summit in New York City. The conference opened his eyes to the future of 3-D printing even as he saw that most of the items on display were toys and curios.
“I needed to make something functional and meaningful,” he says.
Perry had played violin for years so he decided to create a digital file that would represent a violin in three dimensions. Rather than keep the project to himself, Perry, true to the Portland DIY spirit, open-sourced all his work so that others around the country could try to build on what he created.
Perry’s fiddle bears some resemblance to a wooden instrument, but is clearly designed for functionality. Its beauty comes from a different quality than the sensuous curves and delicate craftsmanship of a traditional violin. For instance, there are the fiddle’s insides. It isn’t hollow like a wood violin.
Perry had a variety of forms he could have chosen for the inside of his fiddle and that might have contributed to better tones. For now he’s using a honeycomb pattern, which seems better than the simpler grid in his first iteration. He’s fine with the idea that somebody else will discover a better interior pattern using his open-source digital file.
“That’s why this is cool,” Perry says. “Because you just do it. It’s cheap to print, you just try one.”
The total cost of creating one of Perry’s fiddles, including three sections produced by a 3-D printer, strings, trusses, nuts, bolts, pickup, tuner and plug for an amp cable (those last not 3-D printed), is about $250.
Open source is key
Perry is an entrepreneur and he sees his open-source work as a form of marketing. Last week a professional violinist played one of his instruments at the opening of a 3-D shop in New York, great publicity for Perry’s openfabpdx design and 3-D printing service.
He has sold several of his violins at $795 each to people who aren’t interested in taking his free digital files and printing their own instruments. In the future he envisions, companies will open-source their work, but still sell products. “The two are not mutually exclusive,” he says, pointing to Bay Area-based 3D Robotics, which open sources its designs but still sells its drones.
Perry’s open-sourced violin already has been improved upon by makers all around the country. His favorite comes by way of Matt Hova, an Omaha, Neb., resident whose wife, Kaitlyn Hova, is a professional violinist with a neurological condition called auditory synesthesia, which allows her to “see” sound as color.
Hova was inspired by Perry’s digital file to design his own 3-D printable violin with LEDs that light up in response to music so that audiences can experience what Kaitlyn experiences as she plays. With a microprocessor and the LEDs, the violin can produce colored light that changes with the music.
And Hova is open-sourcing his work so that Perry or anyone else can download his advances and add to them. In fact, he’s hoping violin teachers figure out that they can take his design and cheaply print violins in an infinite number of sizes so young musicians can always have practice instruments that fit their bodies perfectly. The teachers can print slightly larger violins each year as their students grow.
Perry sees the DIY, digital design and open-source communities coming together in Portland to potentially make the city a hub for what many have come to call the “Maker” movement.
“We really are equipped to become a leading community of Makers and innovators,” he says. But that prediction comes with a qualifier. Perry says Portland lacks institutions that encourage the city’s creatives to share their knowledge and facilities with one another. In particular, he says, students need to have access to tools such as 3-D printers, and places where they can learn how to use the latest technologies.
“Portland’s knowledge of making is siloed in small communities, companies and craftspeople,” he says. “In order to lead the Maker community, we need to make craftsmanship accessible.”
Micah Chaban and Kristofer Beem, operations manager and business development manager at Southwest Portland-based RapidMade Inc., are following a different model. In fact, they can’t talk about much of their work developing and printing 3-D prototypes because most of their clients insist on strict nondisclosure agreements.
“You name a large company in town, and we’ve done business with them,” Beem says. Hewlett-Packard, Under Armour and Daimler are clients. Most of RapidMade’s work involves prototyping. They get digital files sent from manufacturers who want to display a small model of their product and RapidMade can produce them quickly and relatively cheaply.
Chaban and Beem are especially excited about the products they can help clients design and produce that simply could not be created using traditional manufacturing that relies on molds or sculpting away bits of mass.
The RapidMade offices are full of intricate products that look like 3-D versions of M.C. Escher paintings. One is a latticed curtain with tiny pieces of plastic linked together inside other chain mail-like curtains. Another is a cube with dozens of shapes wrapping around one another but never touching each other inside.
“That’s the whole big deal,” Chaban says. “This didn’t exist before. There was no way to make it. You can design from the inside out.”
Beem recently learned of an Australian researcher who figured out that a piece of plastic in the shape of a teardrop can magnify up to 160 times. By 3-D printing that shape out of clear plastic and placing it over his smartphone camera lens, he turned his cellphone into a microscope. The cost? About $2 per lens.
Prosthetics and orthotics are perfect for 3-D printing, Chaban says. RapidMade worked with the 13-year-old boy from Astoria who needed a particular prosthetic hand. He had a thumb, but his forearm had atrophied. Manufactured prosthetics were too expensive and wouldn’t fit him as he grew. He needed an inexpensive custom-fitted hand, which was easy to produce after digitally scanning his arm. The first 3-D print came out with the forearm area too large. So RapidMade tried again — the material costs were about $50 per prosthetic — and had a better fit the next day.
As the Astoria boy grows, or the shape of his arm changes, a new hand can be printed cheaply each year. That’s impossible, Chaban says, with mass-produced prosthetics.
Orthotics? Scan a client’s foot and use the 3-D printer to produce a perfectly matched shoe insert overnight. Hearing aids and plastic mouth retainers already are being personalized and manufactured through 3-D printing.
A cancer research institute asked RapidMade to print out an exact replica of a section of a patient’s lung. Surgeons were trying to figure out the best way to surgically enter the lung, but they needed to see how the blood moved through the organ in three dimensions. RapidMade’s model included flexible veins and arteries that they could maneuver around.
“It’s enabled our engineer to be superpowered,” Chaban says of 3-D printing. “He can come up with 10 ideas and know by the next day if they work, or if it’s harebrained.”
Beem recently returned from pitching RapidMade’s technology at a manufacturing show in Chicago. The response was, well, mixed. “I’ve been going around trying to sell magic to people for two years,” he says. “(I say), ‘I swear to God this exists. You can create these parts in a new way no one’s ever seen.’ ”
He came away with a feeling that Portland has untapped potential. “People in Portland are much more aware of these technologies than in a big place like Detroit or Chicago,” he says.
President Obama has authorized federal money to support a handful of manufacturing innovation sites around the country to push 3-D printing technology. Ohio and North Carolina, as well as the Detroit and Chicago areas, have been selected so far as regional hubs. Chaban is dubious about Portland becoming a new-styled manufacturing hub.
“If you’re asking if this is going to be the 3-D mecca, I don’t think so,” he says.
“I do think people will be good early adapters of this technology. We’re already ahead of the curve.”
Industries sign on
Architecture has been among the first industries to deal on a large scale with the new printing technologies. Think about all those models of buildings that for years architecture firms have had to painstakingly assemble out of balsa wood.
At Portland’s ZGF Architects, most of those models are printed on site by an $80,000 3-D printer the firm bought in 2007. The printer is running constantly, according to associate partner Robert Petty, and ZGF has positioned itself as the biggest architectural model shop in Portland.
The new technology hasn’t resulted in ZGF dismissing all those craftspeople who once built the balsa wood models by hand. The company still employs six full-time model makers who make more models at less cost.
In the days before 3-D printers, ZGF’s designers and model makers could take a client’s ideas and in a week’s time produce one hand-made model for approval. Now, at the end of a week, they can show the client 12 different model designs of the project.
And Petty says he’s beginning to see how 3-D printing will change architecture in a much bigger way. ZGF is starting to use its printer to prototype small hardware systems. For instance, a grommet that will attach to a steel cable in one of its designs can quickly be printed out of plastic to see if it attaches and works efficiently.
ZGF’s Los Angeles office is experimenting with a color 3-D printer that produces models in plaster rather than plastic and thus can mimic different materials such as wood. Petty is hoping the next generation of 3-D printers will be able to print multiple materials in one model. A printer that allows him to produce models with both rigid and soft materials in one go will make possible models with joints.
Petty envisions a future where large 3-D printers at building sites will lay down thin ribbons of concrete and create entire buildings, which would eliminate the need for cement trucks driving to construction sites with the material.
Shashi Jain, a local 3-D printing consultant who organizes a Portland-area 3-D printing meet-up group that currently has 275 members, thinks Portland’s DIY community could, with a little luck, turn the River City into a new-style technological hub.
In Jain’s view, someone somewhere is going to produce a 3-D printing breakthrough, and there’s no reason he or she can’t be based in Portland. “We have an army of entrepreneurs,” he says.
“I feel it’s going to be a light switch,” Jain says. “We haven’t seen that application like Lotus 1-2-3 that changed how people viewed personal computers. They were gaming machines; now they can do real work.”