One (microscopic) layer at a time

One (microscopic) layer at a time

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How a Virginia shop is changing the game of 3-D printing

STORY | ROBYN SMITH

PHOTOS COURTESY OF HATCH3D

While for many, being on the forefront of cutting edge technology can only be a fantasy, for the team at Hatch3D, it’s a reality. Whistles, gears, jewelry, art. Wine bottle holders that can’t stand up on their own, but somehow perfectly stand with a bottle attached. It’s all being printed.

John Kilday opened Hatch3D, the first commercialized 3-D printing shop in Virginia, in February 2015. Its current goal is to survive its second year

Kevin Kilday, John’s 27-year-old nephew and the shop’s director, sits on a round table toward the front waiting for customers, or even just the curious, to arrive.

“We basically want people to come see us, see what we do, learn about us,” Kevin says. “I would say 95 percent of the time that people will stop in not really knowing what we do, and then they’ll leave with something in mind for us to do.”

Lining the windowsill are Shelfies, the shop’s most marketable item. They’re visible from the outside of the shop so that any passers-by peeking in can see the tiny sandstone figurines.

Some Shelfies are of people draped in graduation gowns, others are hardly covered at all — bodybuilders showing off their rippling, oiled muscles in bikini bottoms. Each is a memorable moment in someone’s life, frozen in sandstone for $129.

The most popular items are the Shelfies used as wedding cake toppers.

“A couple drove seven hours,” Kevin says. “The groom was actually the owner of an air conditioning company, so he actually brought in an air conditioning unit to be scanned in along with him and the bride to be. So it was them along with an air conditioning unit with his company on it.”

A mobile hand-held scanner takes two-to-three minutes to work its magic, and it takes between seven and 10 days to complete a Shelfie. Props, clothing and people must be screened by Kevin and his team of design engineers to make sure the technology can make their dreams a reality

While there are limits to what the shop’s scanner can do, they’ve only had to say ‘no’ to beloved animals.

“The pets can’t sit still long enough,” Kevin says.

Other products Hatch3D makes include architectural models and anything that could fall under the category of “customizable gifts.”

“Essentially, we can hand-hold a customer from beginning to end for a concept they may have but have no idea how to begin to produce it,” Kevin says.

There are a lot of trade secrets in 3-D printing. The community is spread across the globe and has existed underground since the ’80s, but it’s been less than a decade since the industry began to commercialize.

Since Hatch3D opened, the two full-time design engineers have had to master a technology that’s still developing. Because 3-D printers are a cutting edge technology, it’s taken time to learn how to manage the quirks that come with new machinery.

Kevin’s tour of the shop is orchestrated by the whirring of the printer, which is printing a small, nearly flat piece of red plastic. A cherry red tube of filament, the plastic “ink,” melts through the printhead and hardens as it’s molded into what will eventually become a ukulele wall hanger. In its early stages, being printed by one-tenth of a millimeter per layer, it’s hard to tell.

Later, design engineer Josh Stahl reveals that the hanger came from a design he found on the Web and converted into a 3-D file. Whether they’re based on a customer’s idea, an actual design or even their own bodies, all of Hatch3D’s products begin as 3-D files before they’re printed.

Using computer-aided drafting programs similar to the industry standard, Solidworks, Stahl can create a 3-D file to send to the printer. He determines how many tenths of a millimeter each layer is, whether the object will bear weight or be ornamental and many other factors.

“You can see in this preview, you can see all of the layers,” Stahl says. “You can see every path that the tool is going to take and you can actually take it down and watch each layer fill.”

It’ll take a few hours to complete. Sandstone prints in full color, while plastic must be airbrush painted to achieve a similar look.

There are only three other employees who work full time in the shop, but they all contribute to the “fun and energetic” atmosphere of the office in their own way.

Steph Andrews, the office manager, drives 45 minutes into work every day. She lives in Mt. Jackson, Virginia, in the mountains with her husband. She wasn’t familiar with 3-D technology until she applied to work at Hatch3D, but she loves it.

Joseph Stoll graduated from JMU last May with a bachelor’s of science degree in engineering. He’s the only one who came in with a familiarity with the technology, due to JMU’s resources.

Stahl interned for Hatch3D as a student at Blue Ridge Community College studying computer and electronic technology. He says he sort of just fell into the world of 3-D printing, and much of what he’s learned, he picked up through the Web.

shelfies5
SHELFIES are one of HATCH3D’S most popular items

“The 3-D printing community is just really open,” Stahl says. “They’re really about being open source and just providing information and education to anybody seeking it, really, so that’s been really helpful, the fact that I have nearly unlimited resources as far as help through the internet.”

His most memorable product doesn’t belong on a shelf.

“A JMU student, for one of her final projects for a class, she designed a modeled prosthetic leg socket and we 3-D printed that for her as a prototype,” Stahl says. “I think that’s one of the coolest things we’ve made because not only did it engage the community and we helped out a local college student, but it’s actually a practical medical use that’s improving people’s lives.”

Prosthetics are just one revolutionary example of what 3-D printing can do.

WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co., a Shanghai-based architectural company, took less than 24 hours to print 10 houses using recycled material from construction sites, and sold them for less than $5,000 each. Many experts believe this technology could be used for disaster relief or to aid those who live below the poverty line.

“Just imagine a giant 3-D printer printing out … a house that you can actually live inside as a temporary home disaster relief that was 3-D printed,” Kevin says.

Along with housing victims, making affordable resources and aiding those with lost limbs, 3-D printing companies can feed the hungry.

Choc Edge, a U.K.-based company, created the world’s first commercially available 3-D chocolate printer. It recommends using Belgian dark chocolate, due to the higher amount of cocoa solids, but other types, such as white chocolate, also work. Rather than using a cartridge system, Choc Edge printers use syringes.

Knowing what they know, the employees at Hatch3d are excited for what this technology can do for the Valley. Though they’re trying to survive year two at the current moment, their long-term goals go far beyond overcoming the basic challenges of a start-up business.

“3-D printing is limited by people’s imagination,” Stahl says. “Being able to give people the ability to empower themselves to create an event and prototype their ideas.”