Photos by Jake Frankel. Click here to see a video of the 3-D printer in action at the new lab.
Back in February, President Barack Obama hailed 3-D printing as having “the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” And now, Asheville area residents have affordable access to that innovative technology, which transforms digital designs into actual real-world objects.
On Nov. 20, Mojo Coworking, in partnership with The Van Winkle Law Firm, unveiled the 3D Innovation Lab at Mojo’s facility at 60 N. Market St. in downtown Asheville. Available to the public for a small fee to cover the cost of materials, the new facility features a pair of 3-D printers and a computer station with design software. It’s the first public 3-D lab in Western North Carolina, and while the sponsoring businesses don’t expect the lab itself to be profitable, they’re hoping it will become a hub of creative economic activity that might yield them some indirect benefits.
“It’s really disruptive technology. …. just like the Internet was 20 years ago,” says Brian Johnson, a patent and trademark attorney at Van Winkle. “The world is different when we disrupt the normal sequence of how we use information. And this is what we’re doing now: We’re disrupting the design sequence.”
Already, websites such as Thingiverse and Cubify have begun springing up, encouraging users to design, share, buy and sell products made with these groundbreaking machines. Jewelry designers, for example, can use the software at the lab to create and “print” designs and sell them on those sites. Or they can upload their designs and work with a growing array of partners around the world to “print” and ship them anywhere. Meanwhile, children (with their parents’ help) can design and produce their own toys on-site.
“It’s more than just printing,” says Johnson. “It’s a way to make your concepts real.”
Residents can also use the lab as a training ground for learning skills that could help them enter the burgeoning field of industrial 3-D printing, or “additive manufacturing.” The printers at the Innovation Lab use plastics to create objects up to the size of basketballs, but higher-end industrial machines elsewhere are starting to use various other materials, such as titanium, to build everything from hip replacements to airplane parts. In the years to come, whole houses could be constructed using massive high-end printers, predicts Adam Reichental, national retail sales manager at 3D Systems in Rock Hill, S.C. Company founder Chuck Hull invented the world’s first 3-D printing technology 30 years ago.
Since then, the technology has vastly improved while becoming more affordable, says Reichental. “We wanted to democratize incredible technology and bring it to everyone. Because if it’s simply for the million-dollar users, there’s no opportunity for us to truly advance with it,” he explains. “We’re hoping to power the next wave of entrepreneurship.”
Meanwhile, Mojo, which rents open office space as a way to bring together independent small-business people, hopes the lab will help propel its facility into a center of local learning offering a variety of classes and workshops.
“Since Mojo is the place in Asheville where anyone can plug into social, creative and entrepreneurial energy, it makes sense for us to stay on the leading edge of technologies that support these values,” says co-founder Craig McAnsh.
Before using the 3D Innovation Lab, participants must take a 30-minute orientation class at Mojo Coworking. For more information or to sign up, visit mojocoworking.com.