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3-D 'printing' is Eden Prairie firm's next big thing

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3-D printing models
A variety of pieces printed using 3-D technology are displayed at Stratasys in Eden Prairie, Minn. Wednesday, April 3, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

When most people use a printer what emerges is likely only paper.

But these days you can print a wrench, a working clock, or a killer design for a custom motorcycle. Objects designed on a computer can be sent to machines known as 3-D printers that will build them -- layer by tiny layer.

Stratasys, based in Eden Prairie, Minn., is a leading player in the 3D printing world, helping customers create parts for cars, planes, robots, orthodontics and more.

The company's printers don't use ink. Instead, they lay down thin layers of molten plastic, slowly building up three-dimensional objects with relentless precision.

"The layers can be anywhere from three- to ten-thousandths of an inch" said Jon Cobb, the company's executive vice president for global marketing.

Cobb said a product designed with CAD -- computer-aided designed software -- can go straight to production.

"You're able to replicate exactly what the designer had in mind because you're going directly from the CAD file itself right to the actual printed part," he said.

Stratasys' machines cost from $10,000 to $600,000. Some are about the size of an office laser printer. Others are as big as a car.

They can produce smaller items like prototypes for cell phone cases or soles for athletic shoes in several hours. Larger objects like panels for a car take a couple of days to produce. Cobb said 3-D printing is winning over more and more inventors, designers, even artists. 

 "When we started people looked at the technology at trade shows and they were fascinated by what it could do but maybe they couldn't quite figure out how they were going to use it," he said. "Over the last, I'd say, two years, the amount of interest in 3-D printing has absolutely skyrocketed."

To take advantage of that momentum, last year Stratasys merged with one of its top competitors, Israel-based Objet. The companies' combined revenue soared 30 percent over their 2011 results. 

Stratasys' machines work with more than 100 different kinds of plastic. In the future, the company's machines may also print in glass, metal and other materials that some competitors use.

To illustrate the capabilities of machines now in its arsenal, Stratasys recently printed a designer skirt and cape at Paris Fashion Week, using hard and soft plastics.

Demonstrating printer
A 3-D printer builds parts for demonstrative purposes at Stratasys in Eden Prairie, Minn. Wednesday, April 3, 2013.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Cobb said Stratasys once printed a working clock that included all the timepiece's moving parts -- but required no assembly.

"All those parts actually work, as single build," Cobb said. "It's impossible to do this in manufacturing."

In his State of the Union address this year, President Obama cited 3-D printing as a key to the revival of American manufacturing.

"Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio," the president said. "A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."

For products ranging from medical devices to snowmobiles, 3-D printing permits manufacturing firms to make prototypes faster and cheaper than traditional methods. That allows companies to decide sooner if an item should be mass produced.

In another innovation, 3-D printers are creating models that dentists use to make crowns, retainers and other appliances. The printers are also producing light-weight prosthetic limbs that can be customized for children as they grow.

Orange County Choppers -- the inspiration for the Discovery Channel's "American Chopper" TV series -- owns a Stratasys 3-D printer, which it uses to make parts for custom motorcycles. No one from the New York shop responded to interview requests. But a promotional video shows designer Jason Pohl describing how the shop made a bike in the shape of a dragon with a fearsome fanged head thrust out over the front wheel. 

NASA, another Stratasys customer, has come up with some 3-D printing projects that are -- or soon could be -- out of this world. NASA engineer Christopher Chapman said the printers create parts that are impossible to make with traditional machining methods.

"There are some parts in robots; there are some parts in cameras," Chapman said. "We have a rover that currently has over 70 parts, if I had to guess off the top of my head."

Investors also have become very enthusiastic about Stratasys. The firm's stock has risen 60 percent in the past two years.

The company holds over 500 granted or pending patents worldwide. Since its founding in 1989, Stratasys has shipped over 22,000 3-D printing systems.

Dougherty and Co. analyst Andrea James said the company's success will likely continue.

"They're going to grow 22 to 25 percent year-over, especially as new uses for 3-D-printed objects are invented," she said.

Wohlers Associates, a Colorado consulting firm, reports Stratasys and Objet accounted for about 56 percent of all industrial-grade 3-D printer systems sold worldwide in 2011. 

Demand for 3-D printers is likely to be greatest in the manufacturing sector, supplying companies that need components in limited quantities, said Terry Wohlers, the company's president.

"The money is in manufacturing, making parts that go into final products for planes, medical devices, such as orthopedic implants, dental products and a variety of consumer products," Wohlers said.

One Stratasys customer, for example, recently made about 100 copies of a part for Delta Air Lines' MD-80 series jets. The planes, with an average of age of about 23 years, needed a part that goes in the aircrafts' lavatories. But the part was no longer available, so the company developed a digital file of the part's design and printed that on a Stratasys machine.

Such manufacturing will help triple 3-D printing industry sales, bringing them to $6.5 billion by 2019, Wohlers forecasts.