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3-D Printing Empowers Designers to Be Factory of One

Naysayers who thought 3-D printing was a gimmick likely had a change of heart recently when Adidas unveiled performance footwear featuring a 3-D printed midsole that could be customized to fit the wearer’s foot.

To anyone who’s still skeptical: talk to Brandon Davis, CEO of Blue Dragon, a 1-year-old 3-D printer manufacturer that’s exhibiting this week as part of Sourcing at Magic’s wearable technology showcase in Las Vegas.

“We teach people how to make money with 3-D printers,” Davis quipped.

Suitable for both rapid manufacturing and rapid prototyping, prices start at $2,499 for a 12-inch by 12-inch by 12-inch printer called the Fireprint KH-1728 that’s designed and assembled in the U.S. and built to interface with a PC, laptop, tablet, cellphone or any web-enabled device, and which Davis said can print almost anything.

“We think [3-D printing] is growing pretty fast, especially in that small, profitable place where people are trying to use it to make money,” Davis said, noting that the initial surge (and subsequent fall) in the technology’s popularity was all consumer hype, as opposed to being used for mass production. “They were slow, they didn’t print a variety of materials. Our printer can print over 50 materials, including six different types of nylon. We have a co-polyester that you can print that’s really functional. We have co-polymer metals. We have a line of colored filament that’s completely Pantone matched with 32 colors.”

Fireprint KH-1728 also features a solo nozzle system that allows users to print three colors or materials simultaneously.

“That’s a feat in itself in that it makes the machine easier to use because you’re not calibrating multiple nozzles to extrude,” he explained. “It really makes you powerful. We call it the personal industrial revolution because you are a factory of one all of a sudden so it’s really empowering.”

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And while most consumers associate 3-D printed goods with being hard and plastic, Davis said that’s no longer the case.

“People think it doesn’t feel good but it feels super soft and smooth. It depends on what materials you use. We have flexible materials that feel soft like a lace,” he said, noting that there’s a woman in China who’s making 3-D printed undergarments. “The printers only started getting into this 3-D printed trend. We didn’t choose the material. It was just the materials that were there. Now what’s happened is we’re getting to make materials that are specifically for 3-D printing and specifically for applications that we want to use them for.”

Aside from being an innovative technology and having that “cool” factor, 3-D printing can also make a lot of sense financially.

“It’s fast and easy, really cheap and the difference between 3-D printing, which we call additive manufacturing, versus what we call subtractive manufacturing is that there’s 90 percent less waste with 3-D printing,” he pointed out. “Think about it from a business perspective, a bottom line perspective, you’re saving tons of money on materials, not to mention material costs.” And the less dense you make a product, the less time it takes to print and the less material the machine uses.

Looking ahead, Blue Dragon is working on ways to create 3-D printed denim. “The cool thing is we can print a conductive filament that can conduct electricity so I can print circuitry laced into a design so you can add lights or send data to a smartphone,” he said. “The sky is the limit.”