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2014-02-17

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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. Such 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. Tien said custom-made fixes for a broken or off-kilter object is where he sees 3D printing integrating itself most prominently in the typical consumer’s life.

“The end target is the average person on the street,” Tien said. “They’ll say, ‘I broke this part, I need it fixed by tomorrow. I could order it through Amazon and maybe have it in a day, or I could have it in an hour.’”

Synder added that 3D printing could help eliminate the custom of tossing broken objects. Along with making it easier to fix broken objects, Synder said 3D printing can make objects more personalized, more sentimental and more likely to not end up in America’s growing landfills.

“You can throw away your blender because it’s a blender,” Synder said. “It doesn’t work, why would you fix it? But you’d never throw away that treasured stuffed animal.”

Allowing people to select their color and monogram their products will ensure they will hold on to them, which is possible with 3D printed products.

“Creating more personalization in the manufacturing business, getting people to be really attached to their appliances or new technology, they’re gonna wanna fix them more often instead of just throwing them away,” Snyder said. “3D modelling offers a really new exciting possibility in that field because you can personalize products.”

However, 3D printing is still relatively unknown. That lack of awareness, Tien said, is his business’ key issue. He said he became interested in it in his early adulthood, during his college years at Grand Valley State University and running a coffee shop in Midland.

“I mean it is cool, right?” Tien said. “I’ll be honest, I like shiny new things. I just am one of those people.”

He chuckled and added that he was also inspired by Robohand, a 3D-printed medical advancement that’s helped over 200 people globally.


3D scanner.

Patrick Barron/Daily Digital fabrication specialist Shawn O’Grady examines a functioning model solar panel that was made in the 3D printing lab in the Duderstadt center.
“It’s one of those great examples where the average guy has a problem, collaborates with someone across the world online and comes up with a solution that’s being spread around the world and actually helping people,” Tien said. “It’s hard not to fall in love with that sort of narrative.”

That echoes the story that Snyder has seen in her time at Thingsmiths. She said 3D printing is enabling people who lack manufacturing or design training like her and her peers.

“I think to some extent every person is a creator is a designer,” Snyder said. “Realizing that we all have that responsibility and thinking of smarter solutions working with everyone can really make that difference.”


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