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W.Va. manufacturing company changing industry with 3-D printing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Three-dimensional printing is changing the manufacturing industry, Chris Figgatt says -- and it's hard even for people who've been in the industry a long time to grasp it.

"Some of the old-timers who have been in manufacturing for 50 or 60 years just can't wrap their heads around additive manufacturing," said Figgatt, production engineer for the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Manufacturing Technologies in South Charleston.

"They are thinking. 'OK, you are starting with a block.' No, you don't start with any block. You just build."

A project manufactured with 3-D printing starts as a computer-aided design, or CAD, model. Using that model, a coded program is entered into the 3-D printers. The printers then build the actual item "additively" -- that is, printing layer upon layer of the model to create it.

That differs from traditional manufacturing, which starts big and becomes a smaller refined product -- like the steel frame of a car being reduced from a larger piece of steel.

The RCBI in South Charleston serves as a manufacturing incubator for area entrepreneurs, companies and artists.

"Anybody that has the back of a napkin can sketch out a design," said Marty Spears, RCBI associate director of public information. "And at that point that's where someone like Chris Figgatt would take over and talk to them and figure out a way to turn their idea into a physical product."

Above the manufacturing floor room at RCBI is a design room where people can come in and create CAD models. If people don't know how to work the CAD models, RCBI has staff that can help and train them.

Traditional manufacturing limits engineers in many ways, Figgatt said.

"You're limited to the tools you can use -- the size of drill bits that are commonly available, the size of the cutters that are commonly available," Figgatt said. "These are all things that really limit your design in traditional manufacturing. All that goes out the door with additive."

RCBI started working with 3-D printing manufacturing in 2009. This summer, they hosted their first camps for middle school students to introduce them to the technology.

"3-D printing is really on the forefront of manufacturing," Spears said.

RCBI leases its equipment to companies and offers on-the-job training for those who need it. The institute has locations in South Charleston, Huntington, Bridgeport and Mineral County.

Huntington is home to what Figgatt called a "mid-range" printer that costs $50,000 to $60,000. The larger industrial-size printer in South Charleston runs about half a million dollars. RCBI also has various "desktop" printers that work on smaller projects that cost $20,000 to $30,000.

What printer they use depends on the project, Figgatt said. If the product needs to be durable and made out of stronger material, RCBI uses the big printer in South Charleston; if it needs color and detail, the mid-range printer in Huntington makes more sense.

The 3-D printers may use a common plastic like ABS, found in day-to-day components such as cellphone covers or interior car panels. On the higher end of the durability scale is a Federal Aviation Approved-material called Altrum, which can be used on aircraft and can be sterilized.

The printer then binds together each added layer of material until reaching the finished product.

Most 3-D printing still just produces prototypes, but as stronger materials evolve, that will change, Figgatt said.

"We can actually now print parts and pieces and components that we actually use," he said. "They are no longer a physical model or prototype. It's actually the end product."

Prototyping with 3-D printers offers companies more flexibility with their research and development.

"It gives you the freedom to design something and make it and say, 'eh, I don't like that, let's change it,'" Figgatt said. "You can literally change it within a few minutes and have another made in a few minutes."

For all the technology, though, Figgatt said his favorite part about his work is the people he works with -- the people that come in with ideas scribbled on napkins or have an idea in their head.

"For the first time they have their idea in their hand," he said. "They can hold it and look at it and say, 'Wow, that's exactly how I envisioned it' and that's pretty cool to see and we have done that a lot."

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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