By now, most people have at least heard of 3D printing. The mini-manufacturing machines can essentially turn any workable digital model into a real-world three-dimensional object. While 3D-printed guns have generated considerable controversy, there have been countless cool, useful, creative and innovative products made with the machines.
In San Diego, several small startups have begun since the technology became more commercially available in 2010. And as personal 3D printers have gotten cheaper and more accessible, more hobbyists and entrepreneurs have joined the ranks. Here's a quick look at the local 3D scene:
The entrepreneur: Lucy Beard
Lucy Beard was in the software industry for 15 years before she quit and started a business of her own.
"I got to that point in my life where I said, You know what? I kind of want to make something real," she says.
Beard hooked up with Fab Lab and fell in love with 3D printing. Because the technology has the ability to make one-of-a-kind items at close to the cost of mass manufacturing, she decided to makes shoes, because people's feet are so unique. She's just three months into her new venture, Feetz, but various prototypes already fill the shelves of her office space.
"Tests are good so far," she says, holding up an example of a cute, very flexible and comfortable-looking ballet flat.
Soon, customers will be able to send her photos of their feet, from which she'll make a 3D model and print totally customized shoes designed to fit both a customer's feet and fashion preferences.
The engineer: Andrew Chika
By day, Andrew Chika is an electrical engineer for Nokia, but at night and on weekends, he's at Fab Lab, working on a prototype of a new device that will improve current drone technology. Working with Triumvirate Idea Labs, a group of engineers, he's created a 3D-printed device that looks like a tiny satellite. The device can basically improve communication links for drones by broadcasting a Wi-Fi signal that achieves high data rates and works long-range. In tests, they've broadcasted a high-quality signal up to a mile away. Because the device is 3D-printed, they've been able to keep it affordable, too.
"Our goal is to create a complete communication system for under $1,000," Chika says.
The inventor: André Szücs
André Szücs was born without a right leg below the knee. He's never let that get in his way, though, and has become an accomplished athlete who surfs, runs, competes in triathlons and more.
"Whatever's in front of me, I'm up for it," he says.
Over the years, Szücs has collected several prosthetic legs, one for each sport or activity. Frustrated by the unavailability of a one-leg-fits-all prosthetic, he hooked up with Fab Lab and has since been designing one. He's been wearing his 3D-printed prototype for the last few weeks, and, so far, he says, things are looking good.
"From morning to night, I've been wearing it and doing all my sports with the same leg," he says.
The printers: RoBo 3D
Braydon Moreno wants to help make 3D printers important household accessories. As CEO of San Diego-based RoBo 3D, he and his team have created a printer that starts at $599.
"You can now have your own personal manufacturing plant in your house," Moreno says. "It's interesting selling a tool that applies to so many different avenues and finding out about new things being printed every day."
Just a few years ago, only a few hundred printers were being sold for personal use, Moreno says. In 2014, he expects that number to increase dramatically because of the affordability of machines like his.
The expert: Allen McAfee
As the manager of Fab Lab San Diego, a public digital-fabrication laboratory in Kearny Mesa, Allen McAfee is the onsite 3D guru who helps people realize their entrepreneurial goals. He's known for pushing people to go beyond printing cutesy things; he wants folks to "stop playing and make something important" (think: medical equipment or tech inventions).
McAfee's heading up a new 3D-printing meet-up group that'll gather monthly at Fab Lab (details here). He's also the man behind SandBox, a new, more affordable powder 3D printer he built from scratch. An Iraq-war vet who taught himself robotics and the necessary design software after an injury ended his military career, McAfee says SandBox can print with salt, sugar, concretes, glass, plasters and even bone.
"This is the type of machine that will eventually be able to make buildings," he says.
The tinkerer: Michael Stamets
Inside a funky shed-like space behind Villainous Lair Comics on Adams Avenue in Normal Heights, Michael Stamets has a lot of fun playing with his two 3D printers. A semi-retired mason and concrete contractor who taught himself the design software necessary to create models for 3D printing, he's been making a little money printing prototypes for local inventors, but mostly he prints things like iPad and iPhone cases and artsy objects like decorative lamps.
He'd like to hook up with local schools (teachers, take note) and help introduce kids to the technology, but his goal is to turn his hobby into a career. He says his aversion to marketing keeps him pretty underground, though.
"I'll have to figure out how to make this a job pretty soon, because there's no way I want to get back into construction," he says.
The designers: 3DaGoGo
One of the limitations of owning a 3D printer is that users have to know how to create digital designs themselves or have access to good designs. Thingiverse.com is the most-used site where people can download free, open-source design files. But the creators behind San Diego-based 3DaGoGo.com say the problem with sites like Thingiverse is a lack of quality control and curation.
Co-founder and CEO Drew Taylor says 3DaGoGo.com is filling a gap in the market by offering high-quality designs that have proven results. Taylor describes the site as "Etsy and Shutterstock combined"—users can upload and sell their designs while 3DaGoGo.com takes a small cut of the profit and maintains the site's quality control.