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Need a wrench? Just hit 'print' and out it comes at cutting

Time:2018-11-09 08:04Turbochargers information Click:

C print Need Just wrench

BURLINGTON -- It sounds like science fiction. Heck, it looks like science fiction.

On the computer screen is the design of a wrench. Joe Titlow presses "print," and the design is sent to the printer. It appears to be printing the same way your inkjet printer at home does. It's not.

Three hours later, Titlow lifts the printer lid. He instructs a visitor to reach into a container of flour-like powder and pull out the object. Out comes a 3-D model of the wrench -- all assembled -- with working parts.

Titlow, vice president of product management for the Z Corporation, is used to the awe on visitors' faces when they experience 3-D printing for the first time. He expects that in the not-too-distant future, the process will be as common as printing a paper from your home computer.

The technology was invented at MIT in 1993. Z Corporation was born in 1996 to bring the technology to market. It is now in its third generation, and the 140-employee company boasts big-name clients like Reebok, Nike, Pixar and Motorola.

Sneaker designers at Nike can create a design on the computer, print it on a Z Corporation 3-D printer (the company owns six) and bring the prototype to retailers to obtain feedback on the design. If the retailer wants a few details changed, it's as easy as a few key strokes on the computer, and a new model with the updated design can be printed in full color.

The designs can be displayed for investors and brought to trade shows.

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"A design on the computer is nice, but until it is printed in 3-D and is sitting on a shelf, you can't really see how it looks," said Julie Reece, director of marketing communications at Z Corporation. "It is all about the aesthetics."

But how does the technology actually work?

The design, created on CAD software, is fed to the 3-D printer in thin, cross-sectional slices, which are created by the printer, layer by layer by spreading a one-4,000th-of-an-inch layer of custom-made powder and an inkjet-binding liquid onto each cross-section.

The product is then lifted out of the loose powder, and excess powder is blown off with an air compressor and vacuumed back up into the printer to be filtered and recycled for the next use.

The resulting model is made of a material comparable to a sturdy resin or plaster.

The process takes about one hour for each vertical inch of the model. While a wrench may take about three hours, a detailed model of an architect's design of a building may take 10 to 11 hours to print.

Architectural models are often handcrafted and can cost tens of thousands of dollars and weeks of labor to produce. Using a 3-D printer, in the course of a few days, an architect or developer can print one copy of their design for a planning board, one for their client and another for themselves.

Z Corporation offers a range of printers, from the basic at $15,000 that does not print color, to the deluxe, high-resolution model that prints in full color at $60,000. All of the printers are manufactured at the company's Burlington headquarters.

Motorola uses the printers to create cellphone prototypes to be handled by focus groups and at trade shows to test the design for details like size and location of the key-pad buttons.

Surgeons can use CT-scan and MRI data to create a realistic model of a patient's skull, allowing the surgical team to map out their strategy before surgery.

"Studies have proven it cuts down on operating time and the possibility of infection," Titlow said.

The technology is also used for totally gnarly applications, too. On the table at Z Corporation headquarters is a skateboard. It has real wheels, but the deck was printed. It can be used like a real skateboard to test how it works and feels before the manufacturer goes to production with an order of 20,000.

Meanwhile, gamers have also gotten into the act. Cambridge-based video-game company Harmonix provides "Rock Band 2" players with the opportunity to order six-inch figurines of their specific avatar through Z Corporation.

"We are the only company in the world that uses this technology at this level of speed, in full color and at such a low cost," Titlow said. "What used to be a novelty has become a necessity for many product-design companies, and the number of applications across all sectors seems to grow almost daily."

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