By GUY D’ASTOLFO
The next future-shaping invention is three-dimen- sional printing, and Youngs-town has a front-row seat for this global game-changer.
Additive manufacturing is another name for 3-D printing, and the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute — a public-private group whose goal is to accelerate use of the technology — is headquartered here.
But how many people actually know what 3-D printing is?
To spread awareness and enthusiasm, the McDonough Museum of Art has put together an exhibition that will explain the new technology and its uses. Titled “Re-Shaping Ideas: Ingenuity in 3-D Technology,” the exhibition opens Friday and runs through Aug. 2.
The McDonough is part of Youngstown State University, which is partnering for the exhibition with NAMII and Applied Systems and Technology Transfer (known as AST2), a tech firm in the Youngstown Business Incubator.
The best way to understand 3-D printing is to see it in action, and the public will be able to do just that. An interactive lab will be set up in one gallery where visitors can design a component — a gear — on a computer and then watch it being printed. The gears then will be placed on a collage mounted in the gallery.
Leslie Brothers, director of the McDonough, said the interactive lab will be aimed at schools, summer camps and other educational outlets, and time slots will have to be reserved. A reservation system will be set up and publicized.
The general public, of course, also is welcome, and Brothers expects a lot of interest.
“People who are unfamiliar with 3-D printing will be amazed,” said Brothers.
The entire museum will be devoted to the exhibition. The other four galleries will feature:
A 70-foot time line that graphically depicts the history of 3-D printing, from its development in 1984, to its rapid rise in 2010, to the present.
A theater that will show a series of interviews with industry leaders and other experts.
Oversized photographic representations that show where research will take 3-D printing in the future.
Video shorts on the technology.
Despite its futuristic concept — it seems like science fiction — 3-D printing is exactly what it sounds like.
The “printer” uses a computer-guided stylus that — on a small level — is similar in appearance and function to a household computer printer. As it springs to life and starts moving around, it melts and lays into place a stream of liquefied plastic, ceramic or metal that is fed to it via a tube. Any material that can be melted can be used in 3-D printing.
The stylus moves exactly as the computer tells it to move, busily and quickly, like a spider spinning a web. And when it’s done, an object exists.
That aspect of it — creating something out of nothing — is what makes it seem like magic.
And it’s also what gives the technology its formal name: additive manufacturing.
It’s the opposite of subtractive manufacturing, which is when you start with an existing material and take away from it until the desired result is attained. Woodcarving is a simple example.
In additive manufacturing, you start with nothing and add only what is needed to create the desired result.
Brothers is enthused when talking about the new technology and the city’s key role in its development.
“Youngstown was once a center for manufacturing and having NAMII here will make it so again,” the museum director said. NAAMI was founded last year and is located in a building on West Boardman Street, downtown.
At this point in its development, 3-D printing is really most useful as a prototype maker, said Mark Baka of AST2.
Precise designs for an endless array of products can be created on a computer screen and then printed. Once this development step is complete, traditional manufacturing methods can be used to mass produce the prototype.
Creating a prototype on a 3-D printer is much less expensive and time-consuming, said Baka, noting that this rapid turnaround and lower cost will be a boon to industry. A few examples of industries that can benefit from the technology are auto parts, medical equipment, human prosthetics and clothing. But the possibilities are endless, he said.
As the printers become smaller and less expensive, they eventually will become standard fixtures in every home, said Baka. They already are available in stores and from online retailers.
Costume jewelry, plastic silverware and ad hoc repairs are just a few examples of in-home consumer uses.
“When it gets to the point where everybody has one, that’s when everything will change,” said Brothers.