From an idea in one's mind to a computer screen to a 3D printed model, you can instantly touch and manipulate. How will this new industry, 3D Printing, and 3D printers transform our homes and lives?
Polar 3D’s Co-Founder William “Bill” Steele discusses 3D printing and Polar 3D printers with Greg Thomas, the host of “Conversations,” a syndicated public affairs show in Seattle. Greg is also the morning show host at 1077 The End KNDD in Seattle
Greg Thomas: Manufacturing industry is constantly looking for a way to make things lighter and stronger, less expensive, easier to produce. And a perfect example is the 3D modeling and printing business. From an idea in one's mind to a computer screen to a printed model, you can almost instantly touch and manipulate. But how can this new industry inspire the future? Bill Steele, a former Microsoft Executive, is the Co-Founder and Chief Engineer of Polar 3D, which recently won a 2015 International Society for Technology in Education Best of Show award is here to discuss this with us. Let's start simply. We throw the term around a lot, but can you explain the process for 3D printing?
Bill Steele: Yes. 3D printing is really simple when we break it down to what it’s doing. We are nothing but a very small, very precise hot glue gun. So you put the stick of glue in, you pull the trigger and that forces it down into the melt chamber and then you use your hand to move it around wherever you want to apply it.
In our case, we don't use a hand. We use the computer to move the motors around and apply it. And instead of a quarter inch diameter piece of glue, we’re using a 1.75-millimeter filament. And we push it through a tiny 0.4-millimeter nozzle, so we get really, really small details.
Greg Thomas: Do you remember the first thing that you 3D printed when you got your hands on this technology?
Bill Steele: Actually yes I do, a Darth Vader keychain.
Greg Thomas: Do you still have it attached to your keys?
Bill Steele: That one broke a couple of years ago. But I printed a replacement for it and that one I still do have attached to my keychain.
Greg Thomas: What was the feeling when you first realized the potential of Darth Vader helmets and whatnot with the 3D printer? What was that feeling like when you realized what you were on to?
Bill Steele: You know it's interesting. I came across it in a different way. I was building a prototype product and had some outside companies building some parts for it. They shipped them to me, and I looked at them, I said, well how is this thing made? So I called them up, and they said, ‘oh that’s made on our 3D printer.’ I thought, I have to see this thing. So I went out and visited them and I watched this machine making the part, and I thought oh my gosh! That's just the way to do it. It was an eye opener as soon as I saw what they were doing with the 3D printer.
Transforming the Classroom
Greg Thomas: I imagine that that's a no-looking-back-type moment in your life there. It's not just engineers at a firm though, how is 3D printing transforming the classroom?
Bill Steele: Well, the wonderful thing about the 3D printer is that when people watch it print, they think it's kind of slow, but in reality it's much faster than many other crafts to produce a part.
So, for example, injection molding is kind of out of hand because of the costs. Somebody using a machine tool to – a lathe or something like that to build it, it's going to take them several hours to make. But the 3D printer does everything itself. The wonderful thing about it is, is it allows the kids (students) to not have to worry about how the machine is made or how the part they're working on is made, but the fact that it is made and that they can quickly realize when there's an issue or a problem with their creation. They can modify their design and print another one. If that isn' perfect they modify their design and print another one. They iterate over and over again until it’s right. This very fast failure rate helps them understand that, 'hey, failure is okay. ' That failure leads to success.
In this system, 3D printing, we encourage people to experience failure, so that they learn from that very rapidly. Tat's kind of the way we do it in business. This isn't my first business. I've attempted it many times before, and didn't get it right and until finally we hit the right formula. We got rid of the things that didn't work. We fixed the things that did work or, we improved the things that did work, and we built upon them and finally we have something that works.
Greg Thomas: It sounds a lot like that's a hyper-learning version of what it would be like to become your own entrepreneur.
Bill Steele: That is exactly what it is. Yes, we want to encourage them to explore those possibilities. A lot of times, they get this experience where they fail one time, they quit. Don't quit, keep going, so.
Greg Thomas: There is a whole lifetime in front of you to keep trying, that’s interesting, right. So, many of us have seen the videos where someone in need of an artificial limb receives a 3D printed appendage. How do they compare to the prosthetics of old and how is that game-changing, if at all?
Bill Steele: From the mechanical standpoint, they're much better than the older system, simply because they're designed with a specific user in mind. The older designs of prosthetics would actually have a generic off-the-shelf component that was maybe six inches long. Well, maybe this child needs one that's four-and-a-half inches long instead, right. It could be tailored to that individual need. That's one thing.
The other thing is just the amazing cost difference between them. We're building like little hands and stuff for $5 or $10. That's incredibly inexpensive and the material is cheap and the mechanisms that go in it are inexpensive and the labor is free.
Greg Thomas: My concern is always that either the government or the healthcare industry gets their hands on it and figures out a way to escalate the costs involved in it. So, how important is the home availability of 3D printing in that case?
Bill Steele: Well, that's the beauty of that again is that we have it right there. There's not much the government can do to get between you and your printer, right? It's on your desk at your house where you need it.
Transforming Our World
3D printing changes other things if you think about it. In the future or the way we work today, if I need a spoon, where that's spoon made? It's probably made in China somewhere or, something like that. And there's a huge long supply chain that backs that up, you know the shipping and the material cost and all that. In the future, we're going to have these things in everybody's home. We're just going to have a supply of material, it might even be from your garbage disposal, right. It re-processes the recycled material and feeds that into the printer to build the next item. You eliminate that whole chain of things to back it up.
Parts Printed with the Polar 3D Printer
Then, once we get off this planet, example getting to Mars, right, that's going to be really important for them because they are not going to really have a really efficient supply chain.
Greg Thomas: Oh wow so, you figured out how to turn Martian rocks into forks or something and then you can be a little more sustainable.
Bill Steele: Yes, exactly. Anything.
How Realistic is a 3D Printer for the Home?
Greg Thomas: Well then, how realistic is it to have one of these machines in your home today?
Bill Steele: The cost of these machines is dropping dramatically. Ten years ago $100,000 was not unheard of for the kind of a low-end machine. Today, our printer, the Polar 3D printer, is currently priced at $599 for schools and colleges.
Greg Thomas: Wow. Quite a drop.
Bill Steele: So, it's just going to continue to go down as the volume goes up. And the predicted acceleration of that is, it's going to be tremendous over the next five years or so. It's just going to ramp up pretty significantly.
End of part 1 of this 2-part interview.