Vancouver tech startups boost 3-D printing

Locals are making everything from sex products to cell models with 3-D printers

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      Vancouver resident Bartosz Bos hopes to do for sex what activity trackers from Fitbit and Jawbone have done for running. He’s the founder of Intiimi Technologies, a local startup that’s developing a line of innovative sexual wellness products.

      Bos envisions vibrators—for women, men, and transgender people—embedded with accelerometers, gyroscopes, and other sensors. The idea is to monitor the body during sexual activity, display this data on users’ smartphones, and give people a better understanding of their own sexual response.

      “When it comes to sex, a lot of the changes are visible and apparent,” Bos told the Georgia Straight during an interview at MakerLabs, a community workshop in Mount Pleasant. “But there are other changes and other things going on that you don’t see immediately.”

      Bos is a member of MakerLabs, which has three 3-D printers in its 10,000-square-foot “makerspace”. Indeed, he said 3-D printing is the “backbone” of Intiimi’s manufacturing plans.

      Intiimi is one of a handful of companies in Vancouver’s burgeoning 3-D printing scene. Another one is Tinkerine Studios, the publicly traded firm behind three models of 3-D printers geared toward consumers.

      As employees assembled the DittoPro, Tinkerine’s latest model, in the back of the company’s office, Todd Blatt explained that 3-D printers take a digital file and turn it into a physical object that you can hold in your hands. For example, the vice-president of market direction at Tinkerine designed and printed a purple octopus stationed near the office’s entrance.

      “A lot of people confuse it and think you need 3-D glasses to see it,” Blatt told the Straight in the company’s boardroom. “No, this is a machine that makes physical stuff. And the way that ours works is a process called fused filament fabrication, so technically it’s just a hot-glue gun that’s a robot. It draws with molten plastic, one layer at a time.”

      Tinkerine launched the DittoPro, which sells for $1,999, in May. The company also makes the software and polylactic acid filament used to run its printers.

      Seated next to Blatt, Tinkerine founder and CEO Eugene Suyu told the Straight that, when they’re introduced to 3-D printing, many people comment that the process is slower than they anticipated. That’s because they’ve watched videos in which someone presses a button and moments later removes a finished object from a printer.

      “It takes sometimes upwards of eight hours to print an object—and sometimes even longer,” said Suyu, a Simon Fraser University graduate who lives in Langley. “But it’s a process that once you press a button, you walk away and it just gets finished for you. So it’s not instantaneous. It’s not quite yet Star Trek, where you ask for hot Earl Grey in your cup, and it just appears in front of you.”

      According to Suyu, the biggest challenge for people looking to get into 3-D printing isn’t using the machines themselves; it’s learning how to design objects in 3-D modelling software such as the web-based Tinker-cad. His company’s Tinkerine U program aims to address this issue with online courses, workshops, and lesson plans for teachers.

      This CubeX Duo is one of three 3-D printers at MakerLabs in Vancouver.
      Stephen Hui

      In a 2013 report, Deloitte consultant Benjamin Grynol notes that 3-D printing, which was invented in 1984 by Chuck Hull, is also known as additive manufacturing. The report says the primary advantage of 3-D printing is that the technology allows a small number of goods to be made for a low cost. That contrasts with traditional manufacturing methods, which require larger volumes to reduce costs.

      Grynol’s report highlights several milestones in the history of 3-D printing. In 2009, MakerBot Industries (now owned by Stratasys) began selling 3-D–printer kits that could be assembled at home, and Organovo made the first 3-D printed blood vessel. Meanwhile, 2011 saw the unveiling of the world’s first 3-D–printed car and robotic aircraft.

      According to a July 21 report by analysts at Gartner, about 40 manufacturers are selling enterprise 3-D printers and more than 100 startups are making consumer-oriented 3-D printers worldwide. It notes 3-D printing is an umbrella term covering seven technologies: binder jetting, directed energy deposition, material extrusion, material jetting, powder bed fusion, sheet lamination, and vat photopolymerization.

      The Gartner report says consumer 3-D printing, which has less than one percent market penetration, is five to 10 years away from mainstream adoption. It predicts seven of the 50 largest multinational retailers will sell 3-D printers by 2015.

      “Consumer 3D printing is a classic example of how the use of an established technology, in this case, additive manufacturing, transitions over time from one that is prohibitively expensive for all but manufacturing organizations, to one that has pricing within the grasp of consumers,” the report states.

      MakerLabs has a ZPrinter 650 3-D printer at its Mount Pleasant space.
      Stephen Hui

      Tom Bielecki, cofounder and CEO of PrintToPeer, told the Straight his startup is helping pave the road to mainstream adoption. PrintToPeer spent the spring under the wing of Vancouver-based business accelerator GrowLab Ventures (which just merged with Toronto’s Extreme Startups to form Highline). In June, PrintToPeer released software—compatible with many 3-D printers—that uses a credit-card-sized Raspberry Pi computer and a web interface to simplify the printing process.

      “The typical process is you have to go through three different pieces of software, with hundreds of settings in each, just to click ‘Print’, essentially—just to send a 3-D file into the 3-D printer,” Bielecki said by phone from Calgary. “You almost need to be a mechanical engineer to know how the printing process works. We thought this was pretty ridiculous and that there must be an easier way.”

      Innovator in residence Graeme Bennett is giving 3-D printing workshops at the Richmond Public Library.
      Courtesy Richmond Public Library

      Bielecki recently printed himself a pair of Star Wars Stormtrooper cufflinks. For his part, Graeme Bennett, who was named the Richmond Public Library’s first innovator in residence in early August, told the Straight he helped his daughter print a 3-D model of an animal cell for her science class. (Her teacher was impressed and requested a model of the Death Star.)

      Bennett, a data analyst by day, is giving talks on Fridays and workshops on Saturdays about 3-D printing at the library’s Brighouse branch until October. At his “secret laboratory”, he has several 3-D printers from Deltaprintr, FlashForge, and other manufacturers, plus two that he built himself. He noted these machines come in many shapes and sizes, and each configuration has its own pros and cons.

      “Part of my interest, like most people who are into 3-D printing, is producing customized parts for more 3-D printers, because the whole idea of a self-replicating machine is really just magic to a lot of people,” Bennett said by phone from his Surrey home. “ ‘You mean a printer that can print other copies of itself?’ That whole idea is pretty fascinating.”

      Meanwhile, Bos is hoping to launch a crowdfunding campaign in early 2015. He plans to 3-D–print components and moulds for Intiimi’s products, which may include internal and external vibrators for women, and cock rings and “guybrators” for men.

      Specifically, Bos would like to use a Stratasys multimaterial 3-D printer to make the moulds out of Digital ABS photopolymer. This would allow for a smoother surface than is possible with most consumer printers.

      “With sex, you’ve got to have something good,” Bos said. “You can’t just have a minimum-viable product.”