Plastic Tigers: Richmond Makers Hope to Beat the Odds With 3-D Printers 

click to enlarge Ian Sole, co-founder of 3D Central, which opened last month on West Main Street, is hoping 3-D consumer printing will take off in Richmond.

Ash Daniel

Ian Sole, co-founder of 3D Central, which opened last month on West Main Street, is hoping 3-D consumer printing will take off in Richmond.

Make me a custom Les Paul and a Marshall amp — and a tour bus, too! We’re headed for Vegas, y’all!

There are plenty of rock-star ideas coming out of Silicon Valley, and 3-D printing is a top-of-the-charts contender that might turn out to be a lip-sync star..

While apps are relegated to the world of specialists, three-dimensional printing has the appeal of letting everyone feel like they’re Thomas Edison. Of course, not everyone has the skills to design something complex such as an electric guitar, and these printers often are used for turning out plastic doodads and tchotchkes.

Several 3-D printing services are popping up in Richmond, and business owners are unanimous about their biggest challenge: educating customers on the limitations of such machines. Sorry, dreamers, that means no printable tour buses.

“3-D printing is a simple concept, because you’re just building something layer by layer, at fractions of an inch,” says Ian Sole, co-founder of 3D Central, which opened in August at 1308 W. Main St. “But you need people with experience to guide you.”

Sole is trying to build revenue by not only selling printers and ready-made goods, but also building business partnerships. A former Fisher Price executive, Sole says printing can be your ally if you’re an entrepreneur who’s testing a new product.

But Jeff MacDonald, who teaches free courses about the process, is skeptical about the profitability of this new industry. By day, MacDonald is a creative technologist at the Martin Agency who’s also been listed on Forbes’ 30 under 30.

“Lots of 3-D printers being used by startup shops are just consumer-grade machines, not the million-dollar machines used by companies like MeadWestvaco,” MacDonald says. “Because of that, you’ll have failed prints and size constraints. I see it as very difficult to be profitable in that business simply because your clients’ expectations of on-demand manufacturing simply are not supported by the technology yet.”

Cyndi Laird, a co-owner of 3D Central, says the process can improve its image and its reach with charitable work. Laird used to research Alzheimer’s disease before shifting to the world of 3-D printing. She works with a company called E-nable to print low-cost prosthetics from open source designs. She also prints headphones for people who have hearing problems in one ear.

For these types of specialized products, Laird suggests going to a designated store. “People expect the equipment to be plug and play,” she says, “when really so many things can go wrong during the process.”

Yet there’s lots of demand in Richmond to learn how — and people want to learn without dropping cash. There are free workshops through the Richmond Public Library and Virginia Commonwealth University’s innovative media department. A co-working space at Broad and Allen, called 804RVA, also offers free classes. All of these spaces are within the university’s growing footprint. Students would appear to be an ideal target market for disposable consumer goods and prototype services.

It just so happens that’s where many of these for-profit services are located.

Besides 3D Central, there’s Third Surface at 205 N. Foushee St., and Short Run 3D at 120 W. Marshall St. Brick and Maker, a Charlottesville company, also has plans for a Richmond location. Plus, there are smaller players such as 3D Print RVA, Abc Xyz Printing, and Kiss of Ink Tattoo in Short Pump. The latter will print you a keychain or a phone case while you get “Mom” poked into your bicep.

Leave it to a few scrappy Richmonders to run headlong against the odds. Austin Reid, owner of Third Surface, was approached by the producers of the AMC spy drama “Turn,” which films locally. They needed to manufacture medallions that proved too detailed for jewelers.

“Technology prevailed,” Reid says. “We even redesigned the whole thing because the photo they sent me was too pixilated to use as a reference model.”

Richard Shannon, owner of Short Run 3D, says he’s turned 3-D printing into a sustainable career.

“If you don’t have a grasp of basic principles, a 3-D printer is just a worthless robot that extrudes plastic,” says Shannon, whose primary clients are seeking patents or prototypes. “You want a professional who can navigate design software, who can fuse pieces together and spend five hours buffing and sanding and buffing until you get a flawless piece of art.”

At 3D Central, Ian Sole compares the industry to Richmond’s booming craft beer scene. “We can all co-exist here, like microbreweries,” he says. “It’s about having people come in, sample the goods, and see how it’s all done.” S


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