Luke Lamarca, vice president of technical operations for L&Z Tool and Engineering in Watchung, knows a thing or two about 3-D printing.
“(Three-dimensional) printing is definitely the wave of the future, not only in plastics but in metals,” he said. “For us, it’s always nice to look at something on the screen, but when a customer can actually feel it, look at it and see what the weight is going to be, what the ergonomics of the piece are, it definitely helps when you’re designing a tool.”
Lamarca also knows how difficult it can be to get products produced.
That’s why he was so happy to learn Montclair State University had moved to a cloud-based platform for 3-D printing, enabling the school to handle jobs from local businesses in a faster and easier way than most others.
“We’ve used 3-D printing before, but here’s a place that allows us to send the data right to them online and they will print the part,” he said.
It’s exactly what officials at the school had in mind at the start of the fall semester, when they unveiled their new Feliciano School of Business building, a 143,000-square-foot space designed to be a business school for the 21st century.
The building emphasizes new trends such as co-working spaces and sustainability. But, as Lamarca pointed out, it’s the 3-D printing lab that makes the facility uniquely modern. The lab has 35 cloud-connected 3-D printing devices, technology that puts it at the cutting edge.
“It’s one of nine such innovation centers in the world where we have this cloud-based technology,” said, Jason Frasca, a startup mentor at the Feliciano School of Business. “We are the only ones in the New York metropolitan area that has this platform.”
Here’s why that matters: Because the school’s 3-D printers are connected to the cloud — an unusual occurrence with this technology — plans not only can be sent directly to the printer, but the workflow is improved tremendously.
More than a fad
At the start of the semester, 3-D printing was relatively new to Montclair State University. As such, there wasn’t even one of the staples of college life focused on the technology: A club. That all changed at the beginning of the fall semester, when interested students took to the administration to form an official 3-D printing club at the university.
And the response is indicative of the popularity the technology is currently enjoying.
“When they went to the student union, as all clubs do, to recruit, he had 85 signups in two hours,” said Jason Frasca, a startup mentor at the university. “We’re well over 100 members now.”
The cloud technology provides a flexibility that allows the lab to leverage its 35 printers more efficiently than another lab that has more of the machines, but operates in collections of clustered printers.
Montclair State was able to achieve this because all of its printers are made by New York-based MakerBot, which is one of few 3-D printers to have a cloud connection.
“We’re able to administer incoming requests to print to our lab,” Frasca said. “I know there are local universities with more than 100 (printers), but there’s bottlenecks when they’re in clusters of five or seven. They bottleneck quickly when 3-D printing has a success rate of 75 percent and, if you only have five printers clustered, you’re constantly dealing with a lot of down time.
“We’re never not printing.”
This network is based on the MakerBot Innovation Center platform, which Frasca says is the only cloud-based solution to network 3-D printing currently available.
The not-so-new technology
As a technology with double-digit growth and exciting implications for industries ranging from manufacturing to health care, 3-D printing is a topic that has been “#trending.” But all this recent attention may be misleading, causing one to think 3-D printing is a new technology.
Spoiler alert: It’s not.
The technology that makes 3-D printing possible has actually been around for roughly 30 years, though the practice has yet to become commonplace. What has taken so long?
While some suggest it’s because the technology is finally catching up in terms of its costs, others suggest that patents on the technology have been keeping costs up. As they expire, costs have been dropping and the technology has become more readily available.
Many of these key patents expired in 2014 and, as they expire, the cost of the technology drops.
While many implications are still uncertain, this wider availability may be the push that finally brings ubiquity to 3-D printing.
“I’m certain that, in two years, there’ll be a lot of options in this area,” he said. “But, right now, this is the only one.”
The university realizes this technology is a great way for students to get their first foot through the doors of private industry.
“We have a lot of companies coming to us saying they’re interested in our 3-D printing talent,” Frasca said. “So, we’re trying to create internships with companies that are looking for students with 3-D printing knowledge.”
Lamarca, too, sees added value from the perspective of a potential employer.
“I think what they’re doing is great because the students are going to come into this new technology out of college and actually work with companies like ours that need physical parts in the real world,” he said. “I think Montclair is well ahead of the curve with putting this facility and making the investment.”
Frasca said there is even another benefit for the school’s students: increasing the speed at which they can prototype, which allows for a process of more breadth within a single semester.
“They use it to bring their prototypes to life and get instant feedback on what they are creating,” he said. “We don’t have an engineering school to create their prototypes for them, so we’re sort of eliminating the engineer so they can get that instant feedback.
“They can do it much quicker, in just a few weeks, so they can have several iterations throughout the course of the semester.”
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