Jul 16 2013

Another Dimension: 3D Printers Bring New Vision to Government

Localities tap 3D printers to spur innovation.

For Louisville, Ky., urban planning has the opportunity to take on a new dimension.

City planners in Louisville can access 3D printers and associated software to create 1:1000 scale detailed models of buildings, landscapes, neighborhoods and more. The 3D models can offer the community new insights as they prepare for and advance Louisville's future.

A 3D printer can create a solid object from a digital model that directs the successive layering of materials in an additive process. Layer by layer, the printer builds the object, often within just a few hours. Pete Basiliere, research director for Gartner, says, "You can easily get a 3D printer for less than $15,000, and that makes the technology feasible for city and state governments."

From Liquid Layers to Solid States

3D printers can use a variety of materials — molten plastic, metals, cement, food and even living cells. The growing interest in 3D printing is fueling many innovative applications. NASA, for example, is researching the use of 3D printing to create spare parts in space. State and local governments could also use these peripherals to manufacture parts. 3D models of bridges or buildings could help inspectors visualize a proposed project. And agencies could offer 3D printing services to the community to help spur innovation and economic development.

Basiliere says all major printer manufacturers are actively watching the 3D printing market and participating in some way. For example, HP provides inks that can be used by both 2D and 3D printers, and Ricoh owns intellectual property pertaining to the technology.

Driving Development, Enlivening Ideas

In Kentucky, 3D printing is central to the Vision Louisville planning initiative that seeks to capture ideas about the city's development and future from business, government, nonprofits and residents.


Estimated cost of enterprise-grade 3D printers by 2016

SOURCE: "How 3D Printing Disrupts Business and Creates New Opportunities" (Gartner, March 2013)

A public/private partnership, Vision Louisville acquired six 3D printers that it shares with the community. The printers debuted last fall at Louisville's IdeaFestival, where they churned out structures that attendees could place on a map of the city.

Today, everyone from children attending workshops at the library to city planners can use the printers, and they've already had a major impact. "Typically, we have to engage planning firms to carve foam mock-ups of a design," says Ted Smith, director of economic growth and innovation for the Louisville Metro government. "3D printing will dramatically change that work and provide the opportunity to make modifications and changes very quickly and cost-effectively."

In Fayetteville, N.Y., the Fayetteville Free Library's Fab Lab houses three 3D printers and associated drafting software. Patrons can use the devices after attending a training session to learn how to use the technology. They pay a small fee to offset the cost of materials and schedule a two-hour time slot.

Susan Considine, Fayetteville Free Library's executive director, says 3D printing helps bring ideas to life. "We're not interested in telling people what to do with the technology; our goal is to let them have an experience with it."


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