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Technology takes printing to whole different dimension

| Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, 9:23 p.m.
Pittsburgh 3D CEO Patricia Greene uses a wand inside a 3D printer to blow layers of gypsum powder and bonder from a piggy bank that was built from 4000th of an inch layers of gypsum powder and bonder by the 3D printers at the Pittsburgh 3D offices in Blawnox on Thursday, January 10, 2013. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Items that were printed with 3D printers line the windowsill at the Pittsburgh 3D offices in Blawnox on Thursday, January 10, 2013. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Patricia Greene and Ken Lovorn of Pittsburgh 3D pose for a portrait in front of one of their 3D printers at the Pittsburgh 3D office in Blawnox while holding two products of their 3D printing process on Thursday, January 10, 2013. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh 3D CEO Patricia Greene brushes layers of gypsum powder and bonder from the nose of piggy bank that was built from 4000th of an inch layers of the powder and bonder by the 3D printers at the Pittsburgh 3D offices in Blawnox on Thursday, January 10, 2013. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh 3D CEO Patricia Greene sticks her hands inside a 3D printer to blow layers of gypsum powder and bonder from a piggy bank that was built from 4000th of an inch layers of gypsum powder and bonder by the 3D printers at the Pittsburgh 3D offices in Blawnox on Thursday, January 10, 2013. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

Patricia Greene was in the middle of a sales pitch when she suddenly barked at her prospect, “Not that one!”

Greene had offered some home-baked cookies to the potential customer. But the cookie in question wasn't what it appeared to be.

Instead of one of her real cookies, it was an inedible version produced by 3-D printing equipment Greene was selling as CEO of Pittsburgh 3D L.P. in Blawnox.

Three-D printing — also known as “additive manufacturing” — is a cutting-edge process that sounds futuristic but has already evolved into a sizable industry segment, experts say.

It involves building a product, prototype or component by stacking, or printing, thousands of precision layers of a material to form a solid model of an object such as a statue, a part for a machine, a shoe or ... a cookie.

“It used to take about two weeks and cost around $2,000 to make a prototype of something” out of clay or wood, Greene said. “With 3-D printing, it takes just hours and only costs a few hundred dollars.”

The printer shoots precision layers of hair-thin gypsum powder or plastic or even molten metal into a container. The raw materials are held together with a binding agent, usually epoxy.

The 3-D printing process reduces costs for raw materials, energy and time over conventional methods of making prototypes.

“It's like printing 5,000 layers of a star on paper. It's in three dimensions,” said Scott Deutsch, spokesman for the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining in Blairsville, Indiana County.

The center manages the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute formed last summer in Youngstown, Ohio, which already has 140 members, he said.

One is ExOne Co. LLC, a North Huntingdon-based maker of 3-D printers. Founded nine years ago, ExOne has grown quickly, topping $15 million in annual revenue and adding locations in three states, plus Germany and Japan.

Last week, ExOne filed for a public stock offering that could raise an estimated $75 million. Spokeswoman Nicole McEwen declined to comment on Monday, citing a quiet period triggered by ExOne's securities filing.

“In the next 10 years, you could have hundreds of thousands of additive manufacturing parts being made,” Deutsch said.

The most promising niche for the machines is in creating prototypes.

“Just about every shoe manufacturer now uses 3-D printing to make prototypes,” Pittsburgh 3D's Greene said.

Pittsburgh 3D is a distributor of Z Corp.-brand 3-D printers and scanners in Western Pennsylvania and western New York. It is one of 109 distributors for Z Corp., a division of 3D Systems Corp., Rock Hill, S.C.

One of Pittsburgh 3D's local customers is Kennametal Inc., a tooling and advanced materials company based in Unity.

“We use 3D printing to create a physical model of products and solutions that helps to improve communication and collaboration between research teams and customers,” said Kennametal spokeswoman Christina Sutter. “We also use it in our R&D and in development of new tooling and solutions.”

In a sense, 3-D printing evolved from desk-top laser printers, which shoot microscopic droplets of ink onto a page, Deutsch said.

The 3-D printing process starts with a computer file of code that describes an object's dimensions and properties. The file is sent to the 3-D printer, which could be located anywhere.

The future of additive manufacturing is the ability to manufacture something on demand and in the field, Deutsch said.

“Our biggest challenge is getting people to understand what 3-D printing is,” Greene said. That included banks that she and fiance and business partner Kenneth Lovorn approached two years ago for start-up capital.

“I even offered to mortgage my home, and the banks wouldn't do that for just a $35,000 loan,” Greene said.

Greene and Lovorn, who is Pittsburgh 3D's technical consultant, pooled retirement savings to start the company — even though both are in their 60s.

“There's a lot more at stake here than the business if it fails,” Greene said with a laugh.

Given the production cost advantages and growth potential of 3-D printing, Lovorn, an electrical engineer, is not worried.

“We think we'll be up to a half-dozen employees and about three-quarters of a million in revenue within five years,” Lovorn said.

Thomas Olson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached a 412-320-7854 or at tolson@tribweb.com.

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