Z Corporation in Burlington, MA is making printers. And even though they print line by line, and even the cartridges it uses may look like your printer at home, guaranteed, yours doesn’t do the same thing. It may seem like movie special effects, but what’s happening here isn’t science fiction. Z Corporation makes 3D printers which make just about any object you’d like, in scale, and it comes out of the machine, in one piece, in full working order.
“Basically, if you can get it into the computer, if you can describe the design in the computer, the machine will print it our and make it real,” says Z Corporation’s Vice President of Product Management, Joe Titlow.
A project begins by either being scanned in, or created from scratch in a CAD design program. “It starts by putting down a layer of powder, which is 4 thousandths of an inch thick. We combine, we print on that powder with a liquid binder solution that binds those powder particles together, and creates a solid object,” Titlo explains. The machine prints, line by line, and starts building the object. It takes roughly an hour per inch to print, and costs about three dollars per cubic inch. When the object comes out, the loose powder is blown off, and it’s ready to go again. Architects use the printers for early models of designs, and doctors could even use the printers to plan for complicated surgeries, but these printers are key in designing many everyday items.
“The core user, the core customer of ours, is anybody who designs something physical for their job. There’s a lot that goes into the physical design of an object, and this could be anything from footwear, to electronics, to toys, aerospace, cars, you name it. Anything physical ends up needing design,” Titlo says.
Matt Dunbar is an advanced product engineer with New Balance in Lawrence, where they have been using Z Corporation printers to prototype early designs before they go to manufacturing.
“Every new sole that we make goes through this printer. Originally, when we got these ten years ago, it was kind of a slow process, but immediately became aware of how valuable they are. I think we’re printing a hundred 20 pairs, or sole units a month on these printers, so it’s absolutely critical,” Dunbar says.
A sneaker starts with the designer’s sketch, and then gets designed and made into a blueprint in CAD. “From the 2d design stage, the monitor here, this is created into a 3D CAD model, and this is a virtual 3 dimensional prototype really, but it’s only on screen,” Dunbar says. The sole is then printed, and the average design costs about $50 to print out. Far less than the old way, of having someone hand-carve a model. The 3D prototypes help to make shoes, ready for customers much sooner. “You’re able to create that model and hand it, handle it, and it’s so tangible, it’s worth it’s wait in gold.
So the next time you place a call, grab a power tool, or even play with some bubbles, realize you may be using a product that was designed, in part, using technology developed in your own backyard.