Orlando entrepreneur Ken Church said his first brush with 3-D printing came years ago when he used a tiny laser beam to put an antenna on the head of an ant.
At the time, he hoped the federal government would find a national-security use for it, said Church, president of nScript Inc.
"We were so excited, we thought we were going to get rich,'' he said. "But when we tried to sell it, nobody was buying. It was like the opposite of 'Field of Dreams.' We built it, but nobody came."
More than a decade later, nScript is now negotiating deals to sell those tiny antennas to every major smartphone maker in the country. Its annual sales approach $10 million, with clients in aerospace, medicine and microelectronics.
nScript has tapped into what is now a multibillion-dollar global business of sophisticated machines that build everything from aerial drones and smartphone microchips to medical prosthetics. Using tiny computer-guided pumps, its 3D-printers create widgets, transistors and biomedical components by depositing precise bits of material in shapes defined by a digital program.
Its "bio-printer" even uses human tissue and bone to create components for therapeutic and regenerative medicine.
And they say have just scratched the surface in an industry some experts have called the next big thing in manufacturing.
"It's still in the single-digit billions, a far cry from the trillions you need for a revolution," said Church, whose company is at UCF's incubator in the Central Florida Research Park. "But I can tell you what is coming: I believe digital manufacturing will be the third Industrial Revolution, and the anchor of that will be 3-D printing."
Church's company is part of a small nucleus of operations in Central Florida working on 3D-printing technologies, said Martin Richardson, a laser physicist and director of the Townes Laser Institute at the University of Central Florida.
Many large companies — including Lockheed Martin Corp. and Siemens Corp. — already use 3D-printing, and even more than want to use it. That's a strong indication of demand for the high-tech systems, said Richardson, who has studied the Southeastern U.S. as part of UCF"s research in 3-D printing.
One area nScript has attempted to avoid, however, is creation of plastic firearms, which some experts have tried to ban because of the security challenges of detecting such weapons in airports and other public facilities.
Though companies such as nScript are on the vanguard of the technology, 3-D printing still has a long way to go, said Alex Fong, a laser industry executive in Orlando and president of the Florida Photonics Cluster, a local trade group.
"There has been a lot of buzz in engineering circles about whether this is the real deal and whether you can really do large-scale manufacturing with it," Fong said. "Clearly it has great potential. But for now, it is seen more as a great tool for prototyping, used mostly by engineering and architectural firms."
Over the long term, however, as prices for 3-D printing come down, the real revolution will come when mom-and-pop companies can make things better and cheaper than big players, Church said.
"That's when the big companies will no longer rule the world," he said. "That's what I call the third industrial revolution."
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