Chris Rodak tells of a company that brought a model in to his business not long ago.
"They said, 'Here's the original handmade prototype. The gentleman who made it has passed away,'" he said.
Rodak, CEO of 3Delivered, a 3-D printing services shop run out of the J.D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship in York, is on the leading edge of a technological wave that is changing the face of manufacturing.
The change: What took the now-departed gentleman countless weeks to handcraft took Rodak's company a few days to copy using the additive manufacturing process of 3-D printing.
The process speeds up making parts, prototypes and models. It allows designers to tweak their creations and see the impact within moments. It allows manufacturers to make virtually anything.
"It is game-changing," said Scott Deutsch, communications director for AmericaMakes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. "In some ways, it's very core, so that it's not just game-changing, it's rule-changing."
Shane Wiest, a senior designer at Phoenix Contact in Lower Swatara Township, said his company bought a 3-D printer three years ago for about $40,000. Before then, the company outsourced its prototypes.
He checked with a contractor and found it would cost about $400 to make one particular prototype part.
"We printed my part on our machine for $7 and change," he said. "And that part was not that big."
Then there is the turnaround time, he said. He said the printer had been working on a part for 81 hours and would be finishing up that night.
"I know that seems like a long time," he said, "but compared to going outside, the time the part has to spend outside, the shipping, everything, it's still a lot quicker."
More and more companies are turning to 3-D printing, and many are seeing the advantage of having it in-house, Deutsch said. It provides "design freedom." Previously, the engineer designing the prototype to be manufactured had to work within certain specifications, based on the person and the machine making it.
The 3-D printer eliminates that, Deutsch said. The part or prototype comes out exactly as the engineer designs it. If tweaks need to be made, the original computer file can be saved and modified, and the results can be seen in a shorter amount of time.
A product that would have hit the market after a year of research and development could get there in half that time or less.
"The beauty of it is you can quickly realize differences in your designs," Deutsch said. "Let's say you have two or three competing concepts. You can easily produce all three with 3-D printing."
Deutsch likens it to the revolution in desktop publishing. There was a time in America when the world of fonts and printing was the skill set of a select few who went to school to learn it. With the advent of the desktop computer and programs such as Adobe PostScript, that's changed.
"My mother can tell you the difference between Helvetica and Times New Roman," he said.
Things are still fairly complicated with 3-D printing, Rodak said. There are several processes that go into one job. There are between 50 and 100 kinds of printers to choose from, depending on the size of the job, the detail required and the material involved. And there are between 100 and 200 kinds of materials that could be used by the machines, he said.
The cost varies, too. A hobbyist could buy a printer for between $1,500 and $3,000, Deutsch said. A high-end machine costs $750,000 or more.
Even with all of the modern technology, Rodak said, that doesn't mean the human touch is completely lost in 3-D printing.
"There is still an awful lot of human input in doing things the new way. It just looks different," he said. "You have to have a CAD operator to build the model in a computer. It has to meet certain specifications to be printable.
"The work is just different."
Forrest Lysinger, an engineering professor at Harrisburg Area Community College, said it's likely model-makers will still be around.
"The old-fashioned way will obviously succumb to time and economic pressures," he said. "However, while in smaller numbers, those skill sets will live on."
According to www.salary.com, a model maker, one who “creates, designs and constructs tools and parts in a variety of materials such as wood and plastic,” has a median expected salary of $49,953.