Traverse City News and Events

3D Printing Comes Of Age In Traverse City

Sept. 26, 2015

Some call it additive manufacturing, others rapid prototyping. Whatever the name, 3D printing has arrived in Traverse City everywhere from manufacturing floors to elementary schools.

Calling it printing is a bit misleading, as there’s no ink, toner or paper. Instead, an object is created in a three-dimensional CAD program. Then the computer image is sliced into thousands of layers and actually built by laying down layers of plastic, ceramic or metal.

Locally, companies such as RJG Inc. and Skilled Manufacturing Inc. (SMI) are utilizing the process to produce prototypes or short-run projects. “We’ve used it for about ten years, primarily for prototypes,” says Brooks Holland of SMI.

“If you’re only going to make 100, the mold alone would cost $10,000,” says Mike Groleu at RJG. And, what might have taken two weeks can now be done in as little as two hours.

Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) has made a 3D printing class one of the core requirements for its engineering technology programs. “It’s a tool you need in manufacturing,” says Ed Bailey, the director of NMC’s technical division.

At the other end of the spectrum, students as young as elementary age are being exposed to the process.

“Kids love them,” said Drea Weiner, who coordinates the program for Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District (TBA) and the 3D Printing Professional Learning Community, which brings together educational, manufacturing and other resources.

Traverse City West Middle School was the first local school to get a 3D printer (in January 2014). Next were East Middle School and both TC high schools. Now all the district’s elementary schools have 3D printers, as does the Manufacturing Tech Academy (MTA) at TBA.

Weiner says she hopes to place them in each school in the five-county region serviced by TBA.

Buckley Community Schools got its first 3D printer this year, acquiring one at no cost through an educational crowdfunding website.

At MTA, it’s become part of the coursework for students. “They work with it on a regular basis,” says Weiner.

There have been growing pains, as the new technology is not always foolproof, though even those problems bring opportunities. When something breaks or doesn’t work properly, MTA students learn how to solve the problems. “It’s the community aspect,” says Weiner. “If you break it, you fix it. It’s another learning aspect.”

“It engages the kids pretty quickly,” agrees Ross Clement, owner of Laser Printer Technologies, which has procured printers for some of the schools and also has them at his Traverse City office for client use. “If you have a CAD drawing you can email it to us or bring the file in.”

Clement works closely with Chris Nesbitt of Alpha 3D Professionals. The two have been among the driving forces for the acceptance of 3D printing.

Nesbitt sees great potential. “It’s been a slow build for 30 years. Now there are improvements and innovations at an incredible rate.”

Like Clement, Nesbitt has a number of printers at his facility, which he uses for clients across the country. “We’ve started to develop a print farm. That’s a turning point for the company. We’re doing a lot of product development and one-off pieces,” he says. Customers provide a sketch, which Nesbitt and crew recreate in the computer and then produce.

Clement sees endless uses, from manufacturing to aerospace to sports to medicine. For example, he foresees being able to print custom, artificial joints.

Costs continue to come down, further accelerating the trend. You can now buy a 3D printer for a few hundred dollars. And being able to watch as an object comes into being gives 3D printers “a really big cool factor,” says NMC's Bailey.

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