Mike McKibbin

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August 29, 2012
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Computer models turn real with 3-D printer

It may not be as exciting as watching a move in 3-D, but Rifle architects Jeff Johnson and Rich Carter are just as pleased with their recent purchase of a three-dimensional printer.

The high-tech machine allows the two, partners in Johnson Carter Architects, P.C., in downtown Rifle, to "print out" a 3-D form of anything that can be digitally modeled on their computer system.

"The architect business was hurt by the recession just like everyone," Johnson said. "We were forced to change."

"It was a good lateral shift for us, because we know how to do 3-D architecture drawings," Johnson said.

The company acquired the printer about three months ago.

"Our goal is to market it as something we can offer our clients that no one else can," said Carter.

The firm's printing service, called Rifle Creek Studio, will be marketed to other architects, developers and contractors in the creation of printing small-scale buildings for clients to physically hold.

Johnson said the accuracy and detail of the physical models is so intense, the prints even show brick and mortar lines. Print models can range from building design, prototype ideas, gadgets and custom artwork.

The printer cost the company $25,000. Johnson said as time goes on and the equipment gets easier to use and manufacture, the cost will come down.

"If you were to have an architect build a model like this by hand, it would take something like 15 hours, at $100 an hour," Carter said. "So you have an actual mass you can hold. Sometimes it's hard to visualize the details of something in a 2D drawing."

Z Corp. makes the printer, using what is considered "ground breaking technology," Johnson added.

The printer uses fine particles of dust-like material to fill up a five-inch deep chamber and form whatever is being modeled, Johnson explained.

A binding material is then applied to the form, to hold its shape, Johnson said.

"It actually uses an HP [Hewlett Packard] printer cartridge, but it excises the black ink," Johnson added.

Gradually, the fine particles build up in the form of the model, with the binding material added.

"There are other types of printers that inject heated plastic in small amounts" to bind the material, Johnson added.

When the model is finished, it is placed in an adjacent "particle recycling" machine that vacuums and blows off any remaining dust, which is then reused in the next model, Johnson said.

Then a "Superglue" mixture is applied to the model and it is submerged in water to create a more permanent bind on the model, Johnson said.

The process can last up to five hours, depending on the model being formed, Johnson said.

"These are kind of like the first pocket calculators," Johnson said. "Big and expensive, but the technology will improve and they'll be using more flexible material and there will be a smaller scale."

The company machine can now print in 64 colors and is considered a midrange model, Johnson said.

Among the area entities so far using 3-D models from Johnson and Carter are the Rifle Regional Economic Development Corp., New Ute Theatre and River Valley Ranch.

"They require a model whenever they need to have a project reviewed," Johnson said, the most direct architectural-based use of the printer so far.

Other architects from places like Telluride and Aspen have called Johnson and Carter, asking about their experiences with the printer, Johnson said.

Johnson has also used the 3-D printer to help teach youngsters about 3-D design.

One thing the printer could lead to is a "fabrication lab," called "fab labs," in Rifle, Johnson said. A fab lab is a small-scale workshop offering personal digital fabrication. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology began the program.

Johnson said there are some 150 fab labs in the world. The labs all use "open source" information, so everyone has access to all the projects in each lab, he added.

Among the models the printer can produce are arts and crafts items, such as jewelry, and Christmas ornaments. Files can also be downloaded from the Internet to be used as models, Johnson added.

"All we have to do is figure out how to market it," Carter said.

For more information on 3-D printing, contact either Johnson or Carter at 625-0580.

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The Post Independent Updated Aug 29, 2012 06:18PM Published Aug 29, 2012 06:14PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.