“A lot of people get 3D printers now, but not the applications for them,” Michael Cao, CEO of IC3D, told me this week. “It’s like a computer now; what can you do with it? What can’t you do with it?”
When computers first rolled onto the scene, no one was entirely sure what to make of them, especially once desktop models started to surge in, replacing the room-sized models of yesteryear. Prominent minds of the era proclaimed that, first, there was little market in the world for computers and, later, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Sometimes predictions just don’t pan out, because disruptions on the scale of technologies that the twentieth century introduced — and that the twenty-first century is exponentially expanding upon — had never before been seen. With the computer era, however, and global communication capabilities that followed once the internet caught on, we’re seeing innovation everywhere and some of it is mind-blowing not in the ‘net-speak OMFGWTFBBQ-this-is-cool way, but in the sense that it is genuinely difficult to wrap our minds around the wholly new and unprecedented with any sense of accurate prediction for what that might offer.
3D printing, on the scene itself for just a scant few decades at this point, is established enough that it’s a fairly ubiquitous term now — but still new enough that its value has not yet been fully grasped. As the sci-fi wonder of building something out of a spool of plastic (or metal powders or pellets or…) continues to work its way into the world, it takes a combination of both wonder (let’s face it, it’s cool) and pragmatism to embrace and build upon what’s possible here — and that’s just what Columbus, Ohio-based IC3D is working toward.
The question, as CEO (that’s Chief Extrusion Officer) Cao points out, has become what can’t 3D printing do? In Columbus this past week, I was happy to have the opportunity to visit the IC3D HQ, sitting down with Cao and CMO (Chief Mischief Officer, of course) Kimberly Gibson, meeting the team, and checking out their 3D printers, materials, and some of their recent builds. Located on the campus of The Ohio State University since last summer, IC3D benefits not only from proximity to the resources and critical minds of the university, but also from its positioning in Ohio, a hot spot for technology and manufacturing — and the pragmatism that tends to come along with a Midwestern mindset.
“There comes a point when more tech is just more tech,” Gibson pointed out as we chatted. “IC3D is a platform for anyone seeking to understand how 3D printing can impact their life, whether you’re an artist or cosplayer, or a logistics engineer. And when it comes to making things — bending metal, extruding plastic, however you’re making things — it’s going to happen here in the Midwest. It’s been effortless for us to find partners within a few hours’ drive. 3D printing is where we’re innovating, it’s here. GE is here; they bought Morris, it’s in Cincinnati. America Makes didn’t make it, it was already here; America Makes is trying to leverage it into an industry.”
From Cincinnati to Youngstown, and from Columbus to Cleveland, Ohio is seeing innovation in a big way, home to operations of GE, America Makes, BeAM, BeeHex, Knockout Concepts, and Air Force research activities, among many others. And IC3D is well aware of this, bringing its own 3D printing filament, 3D printers, and 3D printing services to the table for the benefit of many. The team is constantly growing, especially from its 2012 start as Cao’s brainchild/side-project to bring better materials to life.
One approach they’ve found very helpful in gaining traction in the industry has been through conversation, and seeing what there is to see at every opportunity — a strategy that has proven especially beneficial at CES each year. Noting, “Every year it’s gotten better,” Gibson told me that their adventures at CES have led to good things as well as a sort of road map of what’s to come, as the massive tech show doesn’t just show what is already out there, but points at what will be next up. This year, they spent a while “talking to Chinese companies that others aren’t talking to, to see what’s possible there.”
“What’s possible with 3D printing isn’t as sexy, but maybe that’s just that Midwest mindset,” Gibson said with a laugh. “There’s a major transformational power in 3D printing, that’s why I’m in it. You take something you made with not a lot of money and frankly not a lot of raw materials; I don’t think we can even imagine the transformational power of what that means today. It’s not sexy, but it’s pretty doggone pragmatic.”
Cao nodded, adding that IC3D is focusing mostly on large-format FDM 3D printing lately; their largest 3D printer (affectionately called Norma, as they name all of their in-house machines) has a build volume of one cubic meter. During my visit, big girl Norma was busy creating a cell for an OSU professor who would be using 3D printed cellular structures made by IC3D in her classroom to teach the visually impaired.
Along with the cell pieces around the space were also a broad assortment of other ongoing builds, including a scale model of a Lockheed Martin plane that was rehomed on Saturday with the organization that had commissioned it (and wishes not to be named in the press), tooling and automotive components, and an array of props made by the talented cosplayer Yasu Tano, who works with IC3D as their E-Commerce Coordinator. IC3D is working with unnamed organizations that are definitely not involved in the defense industry (ahem), and is looking toward additional partnership opportunities with gaming companies, Chinese robotics firms, architects, and others that can benefit from their offerings.
“We’re more fascinated by the applications,” Cao said. “We see solutions [companies] never even thought about before, and watch 3D printing save them time and money. Logistics is one of the least sexy things around, but that’s the best — we’re realistic. Filament is our bread and butter, but we’re not a filament company.”
Working with a variety of individuals and applications highlights the potential for 3D printing across the board — and of course for IC3D in particular, as the team of around 10 strive to maximize access to the technology. One area of focus for the team is in monetizing creativity, which many makers and designers often find to be tricky, including in the cosplay community.
“Some folks are excellent at sewing,” Tano said, “but not as well-versed in production of props. We can provide a stop-gap.”
Tano, an accomplished and imaginative cosplayer himself, brings his expertise in this area and helps to connect the cosplay community to the benefits IC3D has to offer. An upcoming launch from IC3D will allow for further opportunities for cosplayers to either amplify their creativity or to get involved in 3D printing for cosplay for the first time.
Another upcoming announcement from IC3D promises some real potential for the industry as a whole — but we’ll have to wait until the spring for details of this endeavor. IC3D is working constantly to create and offer innovations that can benefit the community, and their announcements over the next few months will be no exception here. There’s a lot to be excited about as IC3D propels itself forward with both excitement and pragmatism. Maybe it is a Midwestern thing; whatever’s behind it, this is a company to keep an eye on.
Let us know your thoughts over in the IC3D forum thread at 3DPB.com.
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