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.