3D printing, or, as Newark’s Sovereign Air prefers, “an additive manufacturing process,” is quick, inexpensive, game-changing
Joe Otto is confident that he’s on the front end of the next industrial revolution, but he doesn’t think that revolution will make him rich.
What’s more, he says, as the revolution advances, it will likely change the shape of his business; but he can’t say for certain how that might occur.
Otto is the founder and owner of Sovereign Air, LLC, a 3D printing business that opened a little more than a year ago in an office/retail strip just off East Main Street in downtown Newark.
Otto calls 3D printing “a terrible name,” and “a slang term,” claiming it hardly begins to describe what he says is “an additive manufacturing process.”
Indeed, 3D printing uses no paper or ink. (Otto chuckles as he relates that a common question when he gives demonstrations is “where do you put the ink?”)
3D printers use plastic filament, sold on spools in many different colors and formulations, which is heated and pulled through an extruder device as it follows instructions embedded in a computer design file to create the desired product . . . but we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
What’s more important than how 3D printers work is who’s using them and what they’re used for—now and in the future.
“Our demographic ranges from 8-year-old kids to 70-year-old grandparents. They’re artists, inventors, people in industry,” Otto says. “It’s kind of interesting. We don’t know who’s calling or what’s happening next.”
While Otto suggests that 3D printing can be for everyone, he says that most people don’t have a good idea of how the technology might apply to their work or to their everyday lives.
That’s why educating the public takes up a good portion of his time—going to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs at schools, robotics expos, Lions and Rotary club meetings, even senior centers. “Anyone who’s interested—we’ll take our printers and give them a presentation,” he says.
The most common uses of the technology, Otto says, are for making prototypes and one-of-a-kind creations.
He asserts that this “additive manufacturing process” is bringing about another industrial revolution because it’s capable of making new products and manufacturing established products in new ways. “It’s an inexpensive and rapid way of prototyping,” he says.
To get started, all it takes is an idea and a drawing created on a computer-assisted design (CAD) software file. Sometimes the CAD file isn’t even necessary, Otto says. “We’ve had people come in with ideas that were literally on a napkin, and we provide design engineering services, so we’ve done the design, created the file and gone on from there.”
While architects and engineers rely on top-of-the-line software, there are basic programs that beginners can use. For example, with Tinkercad, a free, downloadable program, “first-graders can take basic shapes, design their own city and create them on the printer,” Otto says.
Then there was the bride-to-be who sent Otto a picture of her infinity tattoo that included her name and her fiance’s name. She wanted the tattoo replicated in 3D, to be used as the topper for her wedding cake. Otto found a way to do that—and even incorporated the wedding date into the design.
While 3D printing jobs can be as basic as replicating Lego building blocks, they can also be complex, with movable and detachable parts. As examples, Otto shows off a model steam shovel with multiple hinges and a 28-piece model of a tyrannosaurus rex that looks like it could have come out of a kit in a hobby shop.
Mark Manisso, president and chief creative officer for Forte, a marketing agency, recently went to Sovereign Air with a project for one of his clients—creating a prototype for a new dental tool. The tool, called Stayclear, is a plastic mirror with a disposable optical head.
Sovereign Air helped fine-tune the design and created the prototypes, which Forte used in presentations to several leading manufacturers of dental products. Manisso says he expects a contract to be signed soon to put the tool into mass production.
“If we didn’t have the prototypes, we would have had nothing to show,” he says. “We had an idea and Sovereign Air was able to execute it rapidly. The ability to go from a drawing to a 3D working model is paramount in product development.”
Being able to execute these steps quickly has the potential to reform American manufacturing, Otto says.
It has already enabled Sovereign Air to land a pair of significant mass production jobs.
One is with a Big Three automaker, which Otto would not name, to manufacture plastic parts that hold auto transmissions in place on the assembly line and during testing. The car maker had been getting the parts from a supplier in China—10 weeks after placing the order. “Our process can get most of the parts to them in 72 hours, resulting in a huge time and cost savings,” Otto says.
The other is an aircraft manufacturer for whom Sovereign Air is making parts that are used in the ventilation systems of jet planes. “We’ve done several hundred parts in the past year,” Otto says.
Last month he was working on a prototype for what could become another big job—a natural gas vent pipe for the Consolidated Edison utility company in New York.
Architects, as might be expected, can use 3D printing to create scale models of their projects. An architect recently asked Otto to print a 3D model of a home he had designed because his clients wanted to paint it so they could better envision what the house would look like after it was built.
Locally, Otto notes that two programs operating at the University of Delaware’s STAR campus, on the site of the former Chrysler assembly plant, do their own 3D printing and sometimes call on him for support. The GoBabyGo program creates robotic mobile devices and is developing kid-friendly exoskeletons to assist children with mobility impairments.
The BADER Consortium focuses on development of orthopedic devices for U.S. soldiers and veterans who have been injured in combat. Sovereign Air, Otto says, has also given occasional assistance to the Nemours/Alfred I. du Pont Hospital for Children when it needs customizations that its own 3D printers can’t create.
For the immediate future, Otto expects prototyping to expand and businesses to explore ways that 3D printing might benefit their operations. Many businesses have yet to figure out how to make use of the new technology, and many of those that have still haven’t determined whether it’s better to buy or lease printers or outsource their projects to a company like Sovereign Air, Otto says.
In a few years, however, it’s not too hard to imagine 3D printers sitting alongside personal computers in home after home.
That’s because Otto envisions a revolution in the world of spare parts distribution. He already gets some business from customers seeking a quick replacement for items like broken plastic vacuum cleaner parts. Imagine that on a larger scale.
Instead of stocking plastic replacement parts in warehouses, manufacturers could post a digital design file for each part on its website. Instead of ordering the part online, the consumer would pay to download the digital file, turn on the 3D printer and have the new part in a matter of minutes. No warehousing, no shipping, no waiting. And with personal 3D printers proliferating, there will be less business for Sovereign Air, which is one reason Otto doesn’t see himself getting rich from the technology.
There is also great potential for a new generation of artisans making customized accessories for your home—vases or candlesticks, for example. Create the design, choose a plastic filament of the desired color and appropriate characteristics (heat- or water-resistant, for example), and print it out.
Should such a revolution occur, just about anything could be made in Delaware—provided that it’s the right size to come out of a printer. (Currently, the largest capacity of any printer available at Sovereign Air is 16 by 14 by 16 inches.)
Until then, Otto plans to run what he says is the only full-service 3D printing operation in Delaware—selling printers and supplies; providing design, engineering and production services; and offering workshops and training programs.
Most of the printers at Sovereign Air sell for $999 to $3,399, with one top-of-the-line model going for $4,500. Otto sells a bundle with a basic printer, two cartridges of filament, design software and training for $1,500. Three-hour group classes, for $40 per person, offer an introduction to the technology and the opportunity to make something simple to take home.
“Do I think every house will have one? No,” Otto says. “Do I think they will become mainstream and an item in most houses? I’d say yes.”
The direction 3D printing ultimately takes remains unclear, but its future seems bright.
“It’s still a fledgling industry,” Otto says. “It’s still learning what it’s going to be.”