Rick Pollack's 3-D printers are multiplying.
At his home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, four small 3-D printers he developed run around the clock churning out plastic parts for — that's right — more 3-D printers.
He and his five colleagues at MakerGear LLC need to keep those printers busy. The people who consider themselves part of the growing “maker” movement are looking for cheap, fast ways to make tools, toys and prototypes.
Hence the demand for the company's printers, which cost between $800 and $1,500.
Orders for the 3-D printers keep coming, even though the 3-year-old company has done almost no marketing.
“We can't keep up with demand,” Pollack said.
Three-dimensional printers, which can create parts in almost any shape by printing thin layers of material on top of each other, have been around since the mid-1980s. In the past, however, buying one meant spending tens of thousands of dollars.
During the past few years, however, a handful of companies have started selling smaller printers that individuals and small businesses can afford. One of the most well-known is MakerBot Industries LLC of Brooklyn, N.Y., a venture capital-backed company that, like MakerGear, sells a machine that takes up less counter space than a microwave.
The bigger, more expensive 3-D printers have their advantages. They often can make parts from several types of materials, and some even can make parts out of metal. Plus, they can print bigger parts, and they tend to be better for printing parts that need to be smooth.
Still, there's a lot of demand for smaller machines, Pollack said, noting that he's sold about 700 printers, enough to make his company profitable. Today most of his 3-D printers go to individual “makers,” who design and build things as a hobby, as well as artists and schools, which use them for educational purposes. Eventually, however, he wants to sell more of them to small businesses, which can use 3-D printers to create prototypes and, in some cases, final products.
“You put this in the hands of people, you don't know what's going to pop out,” he said.
21st-century table saw
Pollack was a principal at a Cincinnati-based automotive software company that was sold to Reynolds and Reynolds Co. of Kettering, Ohio, in the late 1990s. He became interested in manufacturing about 10 years ago. He wanted to make a Nintendo Wii-style motion controller that his kids could use to play computer games, but at the time he could not afford to produce it.
During the next few years, though, he watched the cost of electronics and manufacturing equipment come down, which helped drive the maker movement. Seeing a need for a cheaper way to make parts in small numbers, he started outfitting his house with the equipment he'd need to make 3-D printers.
In addition to his four printers, Pollack has lathes, mills, a laser cutter and other equipment at his house. He eventually wants to make smaller, MakerGear versions of some of that equipment.
“A laser cutter and a 3-D printer are like the band saw and table saw of the 21st century,” he said.
Nowadays, it's easier for an individual or a small business to access manufacturing equipment as well as free, open-source product design software, said Joe Gorse, a member of the 2-year-old Maker Alliance Inc., a Cleveland-based nonprofit group of local makers.
That increased availability should make it easier for entrepreneurs and small businesses to develop products that rival those made by larger companies, said Gorse, who until last year was an electrical engineer at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. They can even work together to create “open source” products just as individual software developers do today.
“You just need the idea,” he said.