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3D printing business opens in Ann Arbor

By Rachel Premack, Daily News Editor
Published February 16, 2014

Most 3D printing businesses cater to engineers, hobbyists and other tech-savvy folks with thick wallets. However, this is not the case at the recently opened Thingsmiths.

Owner Owen Tien said he opened the State Street business last month to cater to anyone with an interest in 3D printing.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s sketched on a napkin,” Tien said. “We’ll do our best to make sure it’s good for our customer.”

Napkin-sourced designs are not hypothetical. Art & Design sophomore Rachel Snyder, who assists with 3D modeling at Thingsmiths, said she recently helped a customer produce his napkin schemes in two weeks.

“I find it actually really exciting,” Snyder said. “I think the big responsibility that I have as a designer is to make someone’s creative idea a reality and help them make exactly what they wanted, exactly what they envisioned.”

Few 3D printing stores exist to serve the average consumer. Even fewer exist in brick-and-mortar forms.

3D objects

Patrick Barron/DailyVarious 3D printed objects sit on a table in the 3D printing lab in the Duderstadt center. These objects were used with colored modeling to create a more detailed and colorful object.

Thingsmiths fulfills both of those rarities. Thingsmiths opened last month and joined what Tien estimated to be fewer than 50 physical 3D printing shops in the United States.

Tien said the Ann Arbor location was ideal for attracting tech-aware customers. He also considered Bloomfield Hills and Grand Rapids as potential locations.

Most 3D printing shops are online. They won’t explain how the 3D printing process works, how to submit your ideas in the requisite computer-aided design format or a host of other techie complications. There are barriers for the Average Joe to explore the much-hyped world of 3D printing.

“It seemed to me that there should be a process where someone with no experience with 3D printing or no experience with the CAD stuff could walk in and have a conversation with someone and discuss what they want to have,” Tien said.

Located on State Street, Thingsmiths is in a small room above Five Guys. Printed objects sit on shelves around the room – a multicolored rocket, a tiny, detailed Eiffel Tower and even a small bust of a Thingsmiths volunteer. With a printer running, the smell of a glue gun lingers and it sounds vaguely like a Clinton-era Ethernet connection.

Those printers, Tien said, are similar to industrial models – minus a few hundred thousand dollars. Nevertheless, he said the printers have 90 percent of the capability of the arm-and-a-leg ones.

“A lot of it is a difference in volume and a difference in precision,” Tien said. “If you’re prototyping an automotive engine, you need the accuracy to be down to 10 microns and you need to be able to print a 250-pound piece. The average consumer is not gonna do that.”

The low-cost printers allow the products to remain relatively cheap. For instance, a custom-built iPhone case costs about $10.

That’s one thing the average customer might like from a 3D printer. Custom-made cookie cutters, jewelry and figurines are other options. Most prominent is the potential 3D printers have for fixing or tinkering with household objects.