Opinion: How Ottawa can lead the 3D printing revolution

Low-cost digital design and fabrication tools bring manufacturing power to individual desktops

Last year, The Economist heralded the breakthroughs in digitized manufacturing as The Third Industrial Revolution.

By Luc Lalande.

Of the many technological advances driving this wave, none have captured the public’s imagination as much as the emergence of three-dimensional printing and its seemingly limitless potential to make just about anything.

Regions around the globe are awakening to the tremendous economic opportunities made possible by this revolution, with government offering support to businesses in this emerging sector. New York City has recently launched several initiatives aimed at making the Big Apple a top-tier centre of design and manufacturing innovation, including a contest named New York’s Next Top Makers. Launched by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, it challenges participants to create new physical products with commercial potential.

While Ottawa lacks the resources to compete using similar strategies with cities such as New York,  our community has the essential ingredients – namely the depth and diversity of design, software and hardware talent as well as education partners and a small but growing “maker” community – to become a contender in this next industrial revolution.


3D printing comes of age

News articles documenting the miracles of 3D printing seem to be published almost weekly.

Customized prosthetic limbs. An ultra-lightweight car. A concrete house. Even food. There are seemingly no limits to 3D printing beyond one’s imagination.

Unlike traditional fabrication technologies that remove or subtract material from larger blocks, 3D printers efficiently create objects by depositing material – often plastic or metal – one layer at a time until the prototype or final product is finished.

Three-dimensional printing has been around for decades and was traditionally used to develop prototypes and custom manufactured goods. The current rapid expansion is driven by improved performance and lower costs that have enabled hobbyists and established manufacturers alike to take advantage of the technology.

Take ProSlide Technology Inc., a global leader in waterslide products and technology. Officials at the Ottawa firm say they’ve used 3D printing to rapidly prototype waterslide models to use at trade shows. The 3D printing of models also helps ProSlide designers scrutinize the physical layout of a waterslide structure, complementing the detailed computer-assisted designs viewed on a screen.

ProSlide is far from the only local firm that recognizes the possibility of these tools. Robustion Technologies co-founder Rod Sprules is looking at how modern digital fabrication technologies can accelerate the prototyping of new product ideas for his future ventures.

The inventor of the commercially successful Java-Log – firewood made from coffee grinds – says a current consumer design project is pushing the capabilities of present-day 3D printing technology. Robustion has had to source elements of the project from as far away as California, although Mr. Sprules notes he believes the effort is worth it.

“I believe that this is one of the rare cases where the concept, ‘If you build it, they will come’ is valid,” says Mr. Sprules, adding that his product development cycle would be significantly shorter if there was a “makerspace,” a physical space where specialized digital fabrication equipment is available for a community of designers and engineers to create prototypes and custom goods.


Open-source hardware

While 3D printing has captured the attention of the mainstream media, that particular technology is only one of a larger wave of low-cost, digital design and fabrication tools that bring the power of individual manufacturing to the desktop.

Open-source hardware tools such as the Arduino electronics prototyping platform and Raspberry Pi, a fully functional $25 Linux computer, are drastically reducing the time and cost of transforming product concepts into reality. Arduino played a little-known yet critical role in the early development of a smartwatch called Pebble. Last year, Pebble made history as the most successful crowdfunding project with more than $10 million in contributions.

The versatility of the Arduino prototyping platform can also be used in the emerging “Internet of Things,” or IoT, revolution that involves connecting everyday objects to the Internet.

Jacques Renaud, founder of Ottawa-based consulting firm SensiVU, says Arduino provides a complete IoT technology infrastructure that would have cost thousands of dollars to develop only a few years ago.

“Now, with the cost and complexity removed, practically anyone can create a compelling connected product or solution from the kitchen table,” he says.


Engaging the education sector

If Ottawa is to emerge as a player in the digital-to-physical revolution, it must place talent at the centre of a community-wide effort that starts with the education system.

The idea of developing 21st century innovation skills among youth has captured the imagination of Shannon Smith, principal of Glen Cairn Public School in Kanata. It will be the first in the Ottawa region to integrate a “makerspace,” which is part shop class, part computer lab, and equipped with both advanced and conventional tools and supplies.

Students – our future innovators – will gain first-hand experience in transforming ideas from digital blueprints into physical objects while learning critical discovery skills such as problem-solving and experimentation.

Advanced digital fabrication technologies can also boost the economies of Ottawa’s surrounding rural communities that have been hit hard by the decline of traditional manufacturing.

“The combination of digital fabrication technologies and access to world markets via the Internet makes possible the creation of highly specialized manufacturing opportunities,” says  Steve Dinsmore, whose manufacturing roots grew from working with the family-owned Grenville Castings of Merrickville and more recently with Hangers of Canada in Smiths Falls.

This, he says, can lead to micro-enterprises being formed in any rural community.

It’s still early days of the digital-to-physical industrial revolution. But as a community steeped in technical ingenuity and talent that’s embracing this new technology, Ottawa has the potential to be a world-class contender in this promising field.

Luc Lalande is the founding partner of True Innovators and the former director of Carleton University’s innovation transfer office.