Shaky start, but 3-D printing revolution underway

Daniel Oliver, co-founder of Voxel8, a Somerville startup that makes 3D printers that produce objects that incorporate electronics.
Daniel Oliver, co-founder of Voxel8, a Somerville startup that makes 3D printers that produce objects that incorporate electronics.

Michael Perrone was standing at a workbench next to one of the world’s most advanced 3-D printers, trying to figure out what was going wrong. The printer, not yet on the market, can produce small objects out of plastic, adding circuitry to them as it goes.

But just as your inkjet printer sometimes misbehaves, the Voxel8 prototype didn’t want to spit out the conductive silver “ink” that will form an antenna. The problem seemed to be the building’s power and Internet connection getting switched off and then on again, messing with the printer’s electronics.

You’ve probably heard the hype about 3-D printing: it’s amazing, and by Christmas we’ll each have our very own “Star Trek” replicators down in the basement, spewing out thermoplastic so Santa doesn’t have to show up with his sleigh.

Reality is rougher. A mutual fund of publicly traded companies that produce 3D printers is down almost one-third over the last year. MakerBot, a Brooklyn company that makes machines priced as low as $1,375, laid off 100 people in April and shuttered its three retail outlets, including one on Newbury Street.

“The so-called mass market for 3-D printing is still pretty early and unproven,” says Marina Hatsopoulos, former chief executive of Z Corp., an MIT spinout that helped pioneer the industry. Hatsopoulos quips that “people who shop on Newbury Street do not have 3-D CAD files in their wallets,” referring to the digital models that must be created before an object can be produced. And the cost of making something on a 3-D printer at home is still far more expensive than buying something from Walmart, Hatsopoulos says.

Lots of people draw a parallel to the first personal computers in the 1970s, which also required lots of care and feeding. “The PC experience was oversold, too,” says Ric Fulop, a Waltham venture capitalist who owns three different brands of 3-D printers. He expects the market for 3-D printers “will be 10 times bigger in 10 years than it is today.”

Despite disappointments in the consumer market, a very significant revolution is happening in 3-D printing when it comes to business and educational uses. Terry Wohlers, president of the Colorado consulting firm Wohlers Associates, says he expects sales of 3-D printing products and services worldwide to nearly double to $7.3 billion in 2016 from $4.1 billion this year.

In the Boston area, a number of companies hope to capture some of that growth. MarkForged in Somerville has a desktop printer that can make ultra-rigid parts out of Kevlar and carbon fiber. Another Somerville-based firm, Formlabs, used a dozen of its printers to create several hundred wearable digital bracelets at a conference in June. The bracelets featured different designs, and they lit up when two conference attendees with something in common were close to one another. Woburn-based Viridis3D has a printing system that uses a robotic arm to precisely sprinkle layers of sand that is then hardened with a fixative, creating a mold for casting large parts.

In July, Voxel8, born in a Harvard University research lab, said it raised $12 million, its first significant round of venture capital. (The company was formed only last September.) Co-founder Dan Oliver says that rather than producing flat circuit boards that must be wedged into a finished product, designers in the not too distant future will be able to incorporate circuitry into the product itself. Voxel8’s 3-D printer will allow them to do that. One example: a smartphone in which the antenna is integrated into the outer shell, providing better reception.

A 3-D circuit board from Voxel8.

A 3D printed device with circuitry inside, created by a Voxel8 printer.

Most of today’s printers only allow you to use a single material at a time — not unlike when office printers just cranked out documents in black and white. “We think the next big jump is using printers to create finished devices, not just prototypes, with multiple materials in them working together,” says Oliver. The company plans to start shipping its printers later this year, at about $9,000 each.

3-D circuit boards at Voxel8.

Another electronic device from Voxel8’s printer. Some components, like the LED, were inserted by hand during the printing process.

Perhaps the most significant local player in this revolution is a nonprofit called the Fab Foundation (“fab” being short for fabrication). Born at MIT, it supports the creation and operation of a network of more than 500 Fab Labs in 67 countries, outfitted with 3D printers and other tools that enable students and community members to “make anything they can imagine,” says Lass, director of the Fab Foundation. (Yes, she goes by just one name.) The first opened in 2003, at the South End Technology Center.

Neil Gershenfeld, the MIT professor who helped open that first Fab Lab, says, “Innovation is a very chaotic, messy process. It doesn’t work in sterile boxes. Globally, these Fab Labs bring bright, inventive people out of the woodwork.” He and Lass see Fab Labs as a key part of a city’s infrastructure — a place for citizens to not just design products and make art, but also to build things that address urban problems, such as sensors that gather data about pollution and adapters that allow bicycle power to run appliances.

This week, several thousand people will participate in the 11th annual Fab Lab Conference & Symposium in Boston. Among the sessions: executives from Google and Amazon.com will talk about making things with robot assistance, and Beno Juarez of Peru will talk about setting up a floating Fab Lab on the actual Amazon.

Gershenfeld is already thinking ahead to the next few decades: “Today, we buy machines to put into a Fab Lab, but we’re working very quickly to get to a next stage, where you will go to a Fab Lab to make the machines you need. You’ll use a Fab Lab to make a Fab Lab.”

Kind of mind-blowing, no?

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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