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Local companies embrace 3-D printers to help develop products

One way to spot the brainy kids in high school or college is to look for those using a 3-D printer in their science or computer labs.

A similar phenomenon is taking place inside businesses and manufacturing firms, including some in Spokane and North Idaho. Companies like Zak Designs, based in Airway Heights, are looking for an edge and jumping into 3-D printing to change how they develop products.

The technology behind 3-D printing goes back to the 1990s, but it’s now reached the point that basic desktop machines can be bought by hobbyists for $1,000.

Instead of printing on flat surfaces, 3-D printers produce a three-dimensional object, usually of plastic, by using design software that dictates the size and shape of the model.

The most common type of 3-D printing process involves a machine laying down tiny beads of a resin or another material along a flat surface. Ultraviolet light is applied, helping fuse the successive layers into a solid object.

Irv Zakheim, CEO and president of Zak Designs, has just ordered a $2,500 advanced desktop 3-D printer for the company. Zak Designs makes a variety of plastic dinnerware and tableware, much of it featuring characters from popular movies or books.

Zakheim said the new printer will simplify the often slow and costly process of making prototypes of new products and getting them approved by the companies his firm works with.

Until now, when his company needed to develop a new product, such as a ceramic mug with a plastic top in the shape of Minnie Mouse, his design team needed to hand-carve a clay model and paint it. The company’s in-house sculptor, Todd Hone, would spend five or more hours making the clay prototype.

Then the company would show the clay model to the studio for approval or changes.

“We’d have to send the item down to our licensers or travel down there in person to get the prototype approved,” said Zakheim.

Once approved, the final clay models would be shipped to factories, usually in Asia, where a production model would be produced.

After its new 3-D machine arrives in January, Zak Designs will produce plastic prototypes of the figures, printing them inside the building.

Instead of shipping the plastic prototype to a studio or licensor, it can email the product’s 3-D computer-design file. The people at Disney or Warner Bros. can review the file and make changes on their computers, then return the electronic file to Zak.

Once approved, Zak Designs will ship the digital design files straight to the factories.

The whole process becomes quicker and less costly, Zakheim said.

Only one Inland Northwest company now provides high-level rapid 3-D prototyping for companies that don’t want to take on that job themselves: Liberty Lake’s Proto Technologies, which now has three commercial-grade 3-D printers for prototyping services.

Considered the first company in the Northwest to adopt 3-D prototyping as a service, Proto Technologies also has a larger division that makes custom-ordered products for other firms across the country and overseas.

For those more traditional jobs, Proto uses a variety of industrial methods, including injection molding and machining.

Greg Nay, vice president for operations at Proto Technologies, said the firm’s 3-D prototyping service is growing by roughly 15 percent a year. Most of that work is for companies developing new products based in Puget Sound, Portland and Vancouver, B.C.

Unlike the new group of basic desktop 3-D printers that sell between $600 and $1,400, the commercial-grade units used by prototype companies like Proto Technologies aren’t cheap.

The Liberty Lake firm bought its first 3-D printer in 1996, paying about $400,000. In the past two years it bought its second one, using a different technology called SLS (selective laser sintering), for $300,000.

It just ordered a new unit, using yet another new technology, that costs $250,000. That unit, Nay added, can produce metallic prototypes instead of the hard-plastic forms most 3-D printers make.

By and large, very few of the jobs Proto has done involve making actual production parts, Nay said. That’s because the final parts need to last under extreme conditions, while 3-D-printed plastics aren’t built to that specification, he said.

In cases where small volumes of items are needed, some companies have adopted 3-D technology for items that can’t be made easily from traditional methods, said Scott Pennestri, founder and CEO of Liberty Lake consulting company Design Source Solutions.

Boeing, in making the new version of the 777 jetliner, opted to use a Seattle-area prototyping company to make the final hard-plastic part that holds and separates some of the cables and wires inside the aircraft.

That piece would formerly be made through plastic-injection molding. Because the part has a small but intricate shape, the process also required some human labor; workers had to manually pull the clip free from the rest of the mold after it was made, Pennestri said.

“Since that was not considered a critical part and it’s just for holding wires, it made sense to do it in that fashion instead of with injection molding,” he said.

Pennestri said some people get caught up in the high-tech allure of 3-D printing, and the antidote is to remember that it’s a slow process.

Instead of using a process that cuts through blocks of metal or injects melted plastic into forms, 3-D printers are “additive,” in that they apply materials rather than remove them.

At this point in the evolution of the new technology, that process can take hours to days, he said.

On a visit to a trade show this year, Pennestri watched as a company demonstrated how a 3-D printer could make a plastic, desk-size model of a Ford F150 pickup. The design allowed the truck to be assembled with wheels that moved axles that moved a crankshaft that moved tiny plastic pistons.

Trying to make that model in other ways would have required hundreds of separate pieces to be made and then assembled.

“It was all done within the 3-D printer, but it took about three nonstop days to finish,” he said.

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