3D printing picks up slack from slumping manufacturing

Natasha Hope-Simpson, right, demonstrates the prosthetic leg she created on a 3D printer. She is now working with Thinking Robot Studios to turn her prototype into a product others could use

3D printing is empowering a new class of entrepreneurs and could help breathe new life into Canada’s manufacturing sector, experts say.

3D products are created by printing repeated layers of material. Manufacturing expert Nigel Southway hopes Canada will start investing in the new technology .

“3D printing...is an opportunity and it's a question of how we embrace that new technology,” says the former Toronto chair of the Society For Manufacturing Engineers.

​Aspiring Wolfville, N.S.,-area artist, Natasha Hope-Simpson, never thought she’d embrace the 3D revolution. But after losing her lower leg in a hit and run accident last year, she yearned for a more personalized prosthetic, something that was an extension of herself.

“There's certain aspects of a prosthetic being visually pleasing that're really important to me...having sort of a feminine feel amongst all of the steel and pieces that are put together,” she said.

Customizing her own artificial leg by traditional methods would be out of reach. Just developing a prototype with a designer could cost tens of thousands of dollars and the entire process could take months.

But 3D printing is a game-changer. People can design a prototype themselves using 3Dmodelling software and then print it in a matter of hours at a place like 3DPhacktory in Toronto.

“Every day something new comes through the door,” says 3DPhacktory’s president, Laurie Mirsky.

His studio offers help both designing and printing novel ideas, from artwork to inventions like a gadget to sanitize credit cards.

“We opened about 18 months ago and since then every day is busier. People are starting to realize the potential of 3D printing,” he said.​

Hope-Simpson teamed up with Nova Scotia’s Thinking Robot Studios to realize her idea. The medical device company helped her quickly create and print an artistically designed prosthetic leg prototype. “I think it’s beautiful,” says Hope-Simpson, “I’m proud of it.”

They’re now working on turning the model into a fully functional product that will be printed at a fraction of the cost of regular prosthetics.

It was so inspired by the project, Thinking Robot Studios has hired Hope-Simpson to help it jump start a business creating more 3D printed prosthetic products.

“It's crazy that this opportunity is so good, just came my way so quickly after seeing what I wanted to do,” she said. “It's really exciting for me and for everybody involved in the project to see what's possible in 3D printing.”

3D printing is also creating opportunities for entrepreneur Lee Renshaw. The newest version of his easy-rinse razor has arrived hot off the printer at 3DPhacktory, just in time for his meeting with a big razor company. Renshaw says his prototype cost him $300 but that the bill would be $3 000 if he did it the traditional way.

“It saves me time, money, materials; you can go right to the finished prototype with this,” he says.

Southway says the technology can also cut costs on the factory floor by printing metal moulds, parts and tools for production.

“It’s not a silver bullet for our [manufacturing] recovery but if we don’t embrace it and add innovation to it, we’re not going to get anywhere,” he said.

Manufacturing jobs in Ontario alone declined by 30 per cent over the past decade.

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