Printer plots brave new 3D world


IN FURTHER proof that Star Trek has become the quintessential muse for the technology industry, an Irish company is inching closer towards releasing a version of the replicator, the machine on Star Trek that creates objects on demand.

MCor Technologies, based in Ardee, Co Louth, will launch a 3D printer this autumn at a show in Britain. But it is already taking orders and has working models that produce prototypes and 3D objects out of plain office paper and adhesive.

"This is a machine that will revolutionise the way things are designed in the future," says chief executive Dr Conor MacCormack, who co-founded the company in 2004 with his brother Fintan.

Before him on a table sit a solid model of a human hand, a motor impeller, and a small hollow model of a house, all made in their printer from compressed paper. The house took about eight hours to produce, while the solid hand ran to 15 hours, he says.

"We've been working on the idea since 2002, set up the company in 2004, and left our jobs to do this full time in 2005," he says.

Applications for 3D printing range from visualisation (creating prototypes of designs for buildings, parts or products), patterns for sand casting, moulds for vacuum forming (the packaging that might go around an object) and aerodynamic analysis.

In addition, MacCormack points to a potential market for one-off consumer items such as 3D models of the avatars people use for online gaming. Already, one US company offering plastic, handpainted models has had to take applications by lottery due to demand, receiving orders for 100,000 of its avatar models at $100 each.

There is also interest from biomedical research companies, as the printer can swiftly create prototypes for products.

Initial target markets for the printer include education (primarily universities and other third-level institutions, where students make models), commercial areas such as architectural, medical, dental and design companies, and online gaming.

Though the technology for such machines has been around for nearly two decades, current models use plastic and industrial solvents to produce objects. The company's MCor Matrix machine uses a few reams of plain office paper (or recycled paper) and water-based, eco-friendly adhesives.

That lowers costs of "consumables" - the component products used in a printer - and makes them more easily accessible. Plus, MCor can pitch itself into the growing green market for industrial products.

"We want to make 3D printing as easy as printing on paper," says McCormack. He adds that the barrier to owning a 3D printer for most organisations that might use one - among them, engineers, architects and educational institutions (where engineering and architectural students regularly need to have prototypes made of projects) - is simply the high cost of the consumables.

The machines themselves average about $20,000, with the MCor printer coming in slightly more expensive at just under $25,000.

But MacCormack says that its printer recoups its cost quickly in savings due to the far higher price of the consumables for the plastic printers, which run up to 50 times higher.

Within six weeks, a buyer would see return on investment compared to competitor prices, he says. He argues that, even if you got a competitor's machine for free, the MCor Matrix would still start to save money after 38 weeks of use, simply due to the cheaper cost of consumables.

"Even free, our competitors are too expensive," he quips.

MCor will produce revenue off both the systems and consumables, he says. Though paper for the machines can be bought at any stationers, the adhesive needs to come through MCor or a distributor. The company also envisions producing 3D avatars to order.

In Ireland and Britain, MCor will sell directly to customers, but plans to use resellers in other countries. Obvious resellers would be companies marketing 3D CAD programs, or higher-end computers and peripherals.

Analysts believe 3D printers definitely have a market. One predicts about 15,000 such printers will be in used by 2015.

Industry analyst Gartner says that while only 3,000 3D printers were sold in 2006, this could explode over the next five years to 300,000. A €560 million market is predicted between 2009 and 2015.

MacCormack believes there are many additional untapped markets that will emerge for his paper printer, which received much internet buzz when stories first appeared about the company last December. Tech evangelist Guy Kawasaki included it on his "Truemors" blog.

The emerging "prosumer" area - where consumers actually create the things they wish to buy - is promising, MacCormack says, as is "crowdsourcing", looking to the masses for commercial applications.

The accessibility of creating objects with their 3D printer, which could even take designs created by free programmes like Google Sketch or downloaded off the internet, means unexpected markets will probably take shape if their printer is more widely available, he notes.

Two machines are already in place at TCD and DIT, and MCor is talking to such varied organisations as CAD giant Autodesk and Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital in the UK.

"And there is talk that people will have their own mini-manufacturing machine in their house," says MacCormack.

Yikes! It's warp speed then towards the future in Ardee.