However, that sci-fi fantasy has been turned into reality by the invention of the three-dimensional printer and Western North Carolina has its share of start-up businesses embracing the technology. A Friday (June 13) afternoon conference brought local business owners, engineers, educators and entrepreneurs together to talk about what’s happening in the local 3D printer community, to network and to ask questions about the new emerging world of ‘instant whatever you can dream.’
The conference was hosted at the A-B Tech Community College’s Enka Campus and the Asheville Center for Professional Studies organized the conference. But other educational centers took part in the meeting including Blue Ridge Technical College and a Dr. Patrick Gardener of Western Carolina University who opened the meeting. Gardener gave the group an overview of the use of 3D printer to manufacturing community. According to Gardener, Chuck Hall invented the first 3D printer in 1984. The actual term 3D printing became the catch phrase in 1996. These printers started out using different plastics to form just about anything the mind could imagine and was only limited to the size that printer could produce. Since then metals are now being used in printers.
Gardener says early on the printers were quickly accepted into the aerospace industry and is now headed toward the medical industry. The printer can use a liquid-based or liquid-polymerization process, both use a variety of plastics, and a powder-based printer that uses a powder melting or powder-binding process which can use metals like cobalt chrome.
The advantages of 3D printing include a faster, easier building of prototypes, hands off building where you press a button and go home and come back in the morning to find your gizmo, the ability of replacing inventory with on demand manufacturing and to make small changes to a design with ease. Gardener says the possibilities are endless. “Imagination is something you can’t put a cap on.”
His opening presentation was followed by a speed networking session and an afternoon full of information. Several 3D printer companies had displays of their work at the meeting including Oak Ridge Laboratories who had a full-size chair along with other products. A high school student had also build his own Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and had brought it. That got him an internship with a local 3D company.
“The original idea [for the conference was] what is 3D printing where can it go conversation,” said Katherine Morosani, Director of Asheville Center for Professional Studies. Asked what she hoped came out of the conference, Morosani said, “Awareness of what is already here as resources and getting people’s creative juices going.”
“I think the conference is very informative. [It] is shining a light on what’s going on and how we can be more effective and productive in the future,” said Steve Santangelo of Palmer-Wahl Industry in Woodfin who was attending the meeting.
Santangelo said, “We have not done any 3D printing at this moment in time. I don’t know if we would buy equipment right off the bat, but we would maybe outsource it and have someone do it for us.” According to the company’s website, Palmer-Wahl holds the distinction of being America’s first thermometer company. Since that time, Palmer Instruments have steadily evolved through product development geared exclusively towards industrial supply and process measurement.