SPECIAL REPORT: Future of 3-D printing - WAOW - Newsline 9, Wausau News, Weather, Sports

SPECIAL REPORT: Future of 3-D printing

Imagine needing an every day item, like a fork, and being able to press a button on a machine to create it.

That's just scratching the surface of what 3-D printing machines are capable of.

Some schools and companies in central Wisconsin are using the technology.

Many industry leaders predict we'll all be using them in the not so distant future.

"We're printing a linked chain," said Mike Effinger, a technology and engineering teacher at Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua, as he watched a 3-D printer in action.

The 3-D printer is creating it a tiny layer at a time.

"It's interesting to watch," said Effinger.

The machine isn't in a high-tech lab somewhere. It's at Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua.

"What's science fiction today is science reality tomorrow," said LUHS Principal Jim Bouche.

That's why school leaders are making this 3-D printing machine a staple in their technology and engineering department.

"3-D printing is part of the rapid prototyping process that allows an object to be drawn in a 3-D CAD program and then transferred to software that allows it to be printed by slicing it and then printing those slices on top of each other to form an object," said Effinger.

Staff at LUHS believe using the machine in school gives students a leg up in pre-engineering.

"We want our students to know what's today can be even greater down the road with a little innovative idea coming from them possibly," said Bouche.

But there is a more practical reason for the lesson, too.

"I see in the very near future that this will be in most homes," said Effinger.

He knows the cost for consumer models needs to go down and the quality of the final product needs to improve.

For now, the biggest use for 3-D printers is professional prototyping.

That calls for a more precise and expensive machine.

"It's very advanced and it's very accurate. It can print down to 14 microns, which is like partial thickness of a sheet of paper," said Greg Cisewski, Associate Dean of the Technical and Trade Division at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, as he showed off the college's impressive 3-D printer.

Students at Northcentral Technical College need that dead-on detail when creating prototypes for industry use.

The technical college partners with area companies like Kolbe Windows and Doors to give students industry experience.

"They give us something to do and we create it and print it and take it back to them and they evaluate it," said Cisewski

"The rapid prototype allows you to build something quickly, and then analyze, it and then bring it to market much quicker also," said Jeff Delonay, Kolbe Windows and Doors president.

Creating objects with the printer also helps engineers troubleshoot.

"I can make a mini model myself to see if all the tolerance is correct and see if it's functioning correctly," said DeLonay.

Options are endless with 3-D printers.

"You could put this grip on one of our robots and actually run it," said Cisewski, as he demonstrated a working grip the 3-D printer created.

Online tutorials are also endless, some showing users how to make 3-D printed guns.

"It's not being regulated at this point. I think at some point in time some things will have to be regulated especially if you get people printing, like you say, 3-D guns, and things like that," said Cisewski.

For now, most consumers are just sticking to the odds and ends.

"They [students] like to print things for their phones, little gadgets, little statues, and things like that," said Effinger.

Engineering leaders say the technology, as it stands, won't replace mass production just yet.

"If you wanted to build like a new iPhone case or something like that, it might take five to six hours to build and then the amount of plastic that it's going to use is going to be about what you can buy it for so there's no real advantage of the average every day user having one and printing tons of them yourself," said Cisewski.

But one day, that could change.

"Why buy it when you can print it?" said Effinger.

These 3-D printing entusiasts say that day may be sooner than you ever imagined.

Prices for 3-D printers now are steep and they vary. The "desktop" version at LUHS runs about $2,000. The higher end printer at NTC has a $90,000 price tag.

School leaders say both were bought with donations and grants.

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