By Steve Winter

Three years ago at CES, the entire world was both astonished and delighted by the concept of 3D printing.

Just imagine … you first design a 3D computer image and then, after uploading the file, you watch as your figurine, plastic dining utensil or children’s plaything comes to life … in slightly less than six hours.

But in the realm of computer technology, three years is a virtual eternity.  Today, that mere handful of 3D fabrication companies who exhibited in 2014 may well have been a lingering relic from the Stone Age.  Had you time jumped from those early days to today, you wouldn’t recognize the industry.

3D printing is everywhere now, a major part of all manufacturing industries, spanning multiple disciplines,” said Scott Turner, senior researcher at 3D Systems.  “Just this week, we are announcing the launch of a new running shoe by New Balance, which uses mid-soles created specifically for that product by 3D.”  According to Turner, the company partners with other manufacturers to create components for motorcycles, medical implants and the aerospace industry as well as top- to-bottom dental CAD/CAM solutions.

A company whose 3D printing roots actually date back 30 years, 3D Systems is widely recognized as the dominant commercial player in the field and also as the visionary whose end-user applications set the standard.  Exhibiting at CES in 2016, 3D Systems introduced the newest member of the company’s family of MultiJet Printing (MJP) 3D printers with their 3600 unit, operating at twice the speed of previous generations with powerful data processing capabilities that support up to 250 percent larger files, bringing to market a wide range of prototyping, casting and end-use part production needs.

“Previously, photo-hardening polymers were the dominant design product,” Turner said.  “But today a full spectrum of materials are in play including metals, ceramic, paper, bio materials, even food.  As the marketplace demands more products from this technology, the industry had adapted to fill those needs.”  In early 2016, 3D Systems introduced two new elastomeric items for its printer line, which offers 650 percent elongation properties, excellent tear resistance and complete elastic recovery.

It’s actually critical that 3D Systems maintains this tempo; after all – as CES has shown – there are literally hundreds of competitors in the marketplace racing at internet speed to keep pace with the market leader.  But while 3D Systems leads the pack in the industrial field, one company – much closer to home – has emerged as the dominate player in the consumer 3D printer marketplace.

Founded by University of Maryland classmates David Jones and Michael Armani, M3D, based in Fulton, Md, just south of Columbia, is widely recognized as one of the top-three companies in the nation for delivery of the at-home consumer-based 3D printer market.

“We met in biology class and became instant friends,” Jones said.  “We were both looking at low-cost automation for our own projects. After working initially in robotics, we realized that the same technology really applied to 3D printing, so we found our way into that business.”

It actually didn’t take long for the duo to create their first prototype.

“When Mike and I first started getting into 3D printers we actually tried to build one of our own and him being an engineer with a Ph.D., it took both of us about four days to put one together and get it working properly,” Jones said. “Now, we’re proud to say that we have a product on the market that your average consumer can use with absolute ease.”

For Jones and Armani, their Maryland roots are an important part of their legacy.

“We wanted to be a bigger part of this trend in Howard County that’s going on with 3D Maryland,” Jones said. “The state has been very supportive of our efforts to create and bring jobs back to the U.S. Fulton’s a real nice area, very safe and up and coming.”

Fueled by a highly successful $3.4 million Kickstarter campaign in 2014, M3D showcased The Micro at CES, a cubicle printer that measures 7.3 inches on each side and retails for $349.  And with filaments starting at $14 per spool for standard use and $18 for their “Tough 3D Ink,” 3D printing is rapidly emerging as a “must-have” for any household with creative children … and parents.

Like 3D systems, M3D has competitors nipping at their heels.  With global 3D printer sales expected to top 2.3 million printers by 2018, low-cost personal printers will soon become the norm.

The standard ink, Jones said, is typically used to create fast and cheap products and architectural renderings, but it tends to be brittle and breaks easily, which limits its uses for children’s toys or traditional everyday product use.  “To set ourselves apart, we are counting on our Tough 3D Ink to keep ourselves ahead of the competition,” Jones said.

The product is presently available for purchase at retail locations such as Brookstone and MicroCenter, through online distributors such as Amazon and through the M3D website at www.printm3d.com.

Steve Winter is senior vice president at Sage Communications, a Capitol Communicator sponsor.

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