If you want to see Atlanta’s industrial future up close, come to an office park near Atlantic Station and examine a titanium plate, the size of a thumbnail, that was recently designed to correct foot deformities.
It doesn’t look like much: a gunmetal-gray widget shaped roughly like a cross and curved to fit snugly around a bone. But the material is so thin, and the geometry so complex, that until recently a single prototype would have taken four days to tool. Commercial production would have cost so much that “we could never get somebody to pay what we needed to make money,” says Jeremy Blair, a vice president at Atlanta-based company MedShape, which created the plate to correct bunions.
But now that equation has changed—and the difference is a groundbreaking technology called 3-D printing.
If the first industrial revolution was marked by the cotton mills of the late 18th century, and the second by automotive assembly lines, then—as the Economist has noted—the latest revolution is digital: creating designs using computer software and then turning them into solid objects. A 3-D printer reads a three-dimensional computerized design and lays down successive thin layers of material. The layers—made of plastic, metal, ceramic, chocolate, or even human tissue—are bonded with heat or light until they grow into a precisely rendered shape. With this new technology, a printer can crank out Blair’s titanium plate in 10 minutes and in production-sized quantities, dropping his manufacturing costs by 80 to 90 percent compared with traditional machining.
Until recently, though, 3-D printing was beyond most businesses’ budgets. In the early 2000s, the cheapest machines sold for $45,000, but ran slowly and with poor resolution. Today a hobbyist can plunk down a few hundred dollars for a low-end desktop model, design an object with user-friendly software, and print the creation at home—a snub to mass-market consumerism. To Neil Miller, a Museum of Design Atlanta staffer who teaches 3-D printing to adults and children, the technology “represents a subculture of society saying, ‘We want to make our own things. We don’t want to be limited to what’s available. We want to do it ourselves.’”
On a commercial scale, 3-D printers mean engineers can produce in-house prototypes, fine-tuning their products without the expense and delays of traditional manufacturing. “[It] has been an absolute catalyst for entrepreneurship,” says K.P. Reddy, senior advisor to Atlanta’s SoftWear Automation, which uses the technology to build robots that can sew clothing. “The big companies can’t move as nimbly. But between e-commerce and 3-D printing, you can design and launch a product in 60 days with very little capital—just a great idea of how to solve a problem.”
And with the highest-quality machines, 3-D manufacturing can create products that are too technically difficult, or too expensive, to produce in conventional factories. “The design space is exploding,” says Suman Das, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech and cofounder and CEO of DDM Systems, a company that uses 3-D printing for aerospace and energy applications. “The entire sphere of possibility has expanded.”
The Inspired Educator
Decatur Makers occupies a former church basketball gym that was starting to collapse before the nonprofit took it over for $1 a year. Now it’s a tinkerers’ paradise filled with sewing machines, soldering irons, oscilloscopes, electric saws, a laser engraver, a milling machine, and several 3-D printers—all for the use of its nearly 140 members. The building, one of several local “makerspaces,” buzzes not just with enterprise but also with collegiality. “It’s less about DIY,” says executive director Lew Lefton, “and more about DIT—do it together.”
In a corner, one of the 3-D printers spits out successive layers of cherry-red goo through a nozzle. It’s creating what look like four identical Lego pieces—that is, if Legos were reenvisioned under the influence of hallucinogens, their smooth lines replaced by foamy chaos. “Voltage-gated potassium channels,” member Chris Goode helpfully explains—or, more accurately, plastic replicas of these human proteins.
Goode is a 49-year-old senior lecturer who teaches psychology and neuroscience at Georgia State University. During his own student days, “I had a horrible time as an undergraduate even conceiving what a cell protein was,” he says. “But they’re actual three-dimensional things that do very important work in cells, including the neurons that signal in your brain.”
It turns out the National Institutes of Health keeps a database of 3-D biomedical models, blueprints for 3-D printing, available for free. Goode had seen a 3-D printer on display at a campus teaching-with-technology event in 2014. That summer, he approached Georgia State’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and asked if he could use their printers to create classroom models. By fall he was using them to enlighten his students. He’s become something of an evangelist since then, touting the educational uses of 3-D printing to other instructors he meets at the center.
“For a lot of students, what they need to make everything click is to hold it in their hand and look at it,” he says. “You can see that aha moment—‘Oh yeah, this is actually a thing.’”
The printer stops, leaving four finished pieces, to be glued together. (Goode would later figure out how to print it as a single, more stable piece.) The next task for this machine will be to fabricate a part that will be used to repair the 3-D printer next to it. “How meta is that?” Goode asks.
The Industry Disruptor
Robots can now build cellphones, pack lettuce, cut noodles, and assemble solar panels. Clothing manufacturing is harder to automate. Fabric is soft. It bunches up, stretches, and wrinkles. Human eyes and hands are well suited for making the constant adjustments needed to sew a T-shirt or a pair of jeans. But today many of those eyes and hands belong to children and adults in developing countries working under sweatshop conditions.
SoftWear Automation, located in a low-slung Westside building, is focused on overcoming those technological obstacles using robots made partly by 3-D printing. Its main innovation involves high-speed (but relatively inexpensive) cameras that track the movements of fabric with the help of sophisticated software, correcting for when the cloth shifts and buckles. The technology was originally developed by a team at Georgia Tech, with funding from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. (The military generally must buy uniforms from U.S. suppliers and therefore wants to cut labor costs.)
According to K.P. Reddy, the 45-year-old senior adviser to SoftWear, 3-D printing has been essential in two ways. First, it enables the company to customize the robot’s design to the client’s needs. (For example, the effector, a hand-like part that touches the cloth, must be tailored to each specific fabric.) Second, it means employees can prototype new parts quickly and cheaply. Their designs don’t need to be sent off to a factory to fabricate with expensive injection molding.
“If we’re truly innovating, we break more things than we fix,” Reddy says. “We’re always trying to push the limits. We would have to be hyper-conservative in our R&D department if we had to make $20,000 mistakes. I can make $50 mistakes all day long. We would have had to raise five times as much capital if 3-D printing didn’t exist.”
The Small-Scale Entrepreneur
“I wanted to make something that can bring springtime with you,” says Colleen Jordan, describing her so-called wearable planters—tiny vases that hang around the neck, pin to a lapel, or clip to a bicycle, allowing their owners to tote around miniature gardens.
Jordan, who studied industrial design at Georgia Tech, spent part of her junior year abroad in Sweden, where mossy green roofs provided “pop-up color” during the otherwise gray winter. The short days depressed her, but those roofs provided both relief and inspiration.
After she returned stateside, she designed a wearable planter, then fabricated it on one of the university’s 3-D printers. “It was amazing to see one of my products materialize without [spending] hours wearing a respirator, sanding down fine layers of paint,” she says.
Today Jordan designs the planters with 3-D modeling software and prototypes them on her own printer, which she bought for $400. Two commercial 3-D printing facilities, in New York and San Francisco, manufacture the products, which she then hand-dyes. She sells about 100 pieces a month at retail and has acquired some wholesale customers, too. Because the printing firms do much of the fabrication, she’s able to run the business solo out of her Reynoldstown loft, hiring assistants only when she has large orders to ship. Lately Jordan has been thinking about how to expand her business—not just by growing her product lines, but by consulting with other companies on 3-D printing.
Three years ago Jordan crashed her bicycle, and the resulting broken hand required multiple surgeries. She now suffers nerve damage and arthritis. For a traditional craftswoman, this might have been a career-killer. But 3-D printing has allowed her to persevere. “I don’t have the manual dexterity to make that,” she says, pointing to one of her planters. “But I can tell a machine to make that by putting in the right combination of zeros and ones.”
The Healthcare Innovator
Jeremy Blair grew up in an engineering family. His mother is a civil engineer. His father is an acoustical engineer. His older brother is an aerospace engineer. “So I figured, might as well,” he says. “It’s in the genes.” After studying mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, he eventually found his way to MedShape, an Atlanta company that manufactures orthopedic devices.
In 2013 two surgeons came to MedShape with a concept for improving bunion surgery. A bunion, from the Greek word for “turnip,” is a foot misalignment. The bone at the base of the big toe—known as the first metatarsal—sticks out, causing a bony bump to form around the joint. The condition is painful, and it can make walking difficult and trigger other conditions like arthritis. Traditionally, repairing bunions involves surgery to cut and realign the bone, followed by a long and arduous recovery.
The new procedure wouldn’t require sawing through bone. Instead, a curved titanium plate is attached to a bone that connects to the second toe. A piece of suture tape is then tied around the plate and the bone, securing the protruding first metatarsal in the correct position.
To create the plate, which is small and intricate, MedShape first looked at traditional machining. That method of production proved to be cumbersome and expensive; a machinist would have to use micro-tools to shave away minuscule amounts of titanium.
Blair then considered 3-D printing as an alternative. He had used the process before, mostly to create rudimentary prototypes, but initially “the mechanical properties of the material were terrible,” he says. “We were dealing with overheated or under-melted areas, voids, defects, and poor surface finish.”
But the technology was improving exponentially—“actually catching up to our needs,” Blair says—and it had so many advantages.
3-D printing meant that Blair, while creating the design, could add features without adding costs. “The printer doesn’t care,” he says. “The machinist cares a lot.” It also meant that he could make rapid tweaks to the design.
By 2014 MedShape had its first prototype of the plate, which was tested on the foot of a cadaver. That same year, it won FDA clearance and oversaw the first surgery on a live patient. Based on feedback from surgeons, the company was able to modify the design using 3-D printing. The wide launch came last March, and now any hospital can buy the product in different sizes.
As of late 2015, the FDA had cleared more than 85 3-D printed medical devices. Blair wants to see that number rise; his company is actively developing two more 3-D printed titanium products and has other projects in the pipeline. “Being able to go from the initial concept through designing and manufacturing, to finally going into the OR and being able to tell the patient, ‘You’re going to be better,’” he says, “that’s a huge thing.”
The Engineering Pioneer
Some of the world’s most sophisticated 3-D manufacturing processes are being developed by DDM Systems, a private company run by Suman Das, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. DDM uses printers that project 2 million fine beams of ultraviolet light (instead of a single thicker beam) to help cast metal parts for jet engines and industrial gas turbines. The beams are projected onto the surface of a photosensitive liquid slurry, where they create a chemical reaction that causes the slurry to harden into a solid.
For more than 6,000 years, these kinds of intricate metal products were made using a technology now known as investment casting. It involves making a wax replica of the final metal object, then dipping it repeatedly in a ceramic slurry to create a thin shell. After the shell is strengthened with a coarser ceramic “stucco,” the wax is melted away, and the result is a hollow cavity for pouring molten metal. If the final object has internal channels (like a turbine blade), then a ceramic core in the shape of those channels must be created separately and set inside the wax before the shell is made.
The process usually takes 12 steps, and if you’re working from a new engine design, it could take two years to produce the first turbine blades for testing. Even state-of-the-art investment casting produces a prodigious amount of scrap, including defective ceramic cores and molds. Up to 90 percent of that scrap, Das says, is produced during the first seven steps.
Das, 48, has been working with 3-D printing since he moved from India to the United States for graduate school in 1990—developing everything from missile nose cones to medical implants that serve as scaffolds for regenerating bone and cartilage. Shortly after he arrived in Atlanta in 2007, with a $6.3 million award from DARPA, he set out to develop a process for 3-D printing the ceramic shells and cores together as a single piece. The resulting technology, he says, eliminates the use of wax entirely, along with those first seven waste-heavy steps. It also cuts costs and shrinks the lead time from two years to six weeks.
Das has also developed a way to use 3-D printing to repair engine parts made from exotic nickel-based superalloys, which operate close to their melting points. The prevailing wisdom has been that these parts can’t be fixed once they suffer damage because welding makes them crack. Many end up as expensive scrap. DDM’s “additive repair” technology prints a thin layer of the same (or similar) material onto the damaged engine parts, then uses a laser to fuse it seamlessly into the original material. Earlier this year, DDM was one of five finalists—the only one from the U.S.—for the Hermes Award, a prestigious international industrial innovation honor.
Das believes that, at least in the foreseeable future, 3-D printing will continue to coexist with conventional manufacturing. Still, he says, it has sparked a new competition among industry leaders. “There’s a sense that if they don’t get on the bus now,” he says, “they’re going to be left behind.”
This article originally appeared in our November 2016 issue.