Good on paper: Interview with Dr Conor Maccormack, Mcor technologies
The last few years have seen a massive increase in public interest in 3D printing and rapid prototyping techniques. Inevitably, this has led to speculation about the future, much of which has revolved around the possibility of every home having a 3D printer.
The major obstacle to this democratisation of technology at the moment, however, is the sheer cost of the machines and – as significantly – the materials required. However far the cost of particular machines may fall, the need to purchase expensive proprietary materials has tended to put this type of prototyping out of the range of all but the wealthiest amateur.
A technology that may put 3D printing within the grasp of the many, however, comes from Irish company Mcor, whose machines circumvent this problem by using ordinary office paper as their medium.
Dr Conor MacCormack, the company's CEO, founded Mcor alongside his brother (and Chief Technical Officer) Fintan. And it transpires that the mission to democratise was there from the start. "The reason we got into this is that – as corny as it sounds – we really wanted to upset the status quo and make a difference to this market," he says. "When we started, the machines were very expensive and the consumables even more so.
So we thought: can we make a entry-level machine where the cost of the parts was going to be irrelevant? So we asked what's the lowest-cost, entry-level sheet material you can get? The obvious answer was paper."
Mcor's machines (the Matrix 300+ and the new Iris True Colour printer) use information based on a 3D scan. They then use three reams of standard A4 office paper one sheet at a time. Before loading, a layer of adhesive is applied to the paper, which is then pressed down. The machine's cutting head then cuts out the 2D profile with a tungsten carbide blade.
The adhesive presented a problem, as Dr MacCormack was keen that the technology should be environmentally friendly. "Water and paper don't mix," he says. "Traditional water-based adhesives blistered the paper. So we had to spend a couple of years in R&D developing a water-based dispensing device."
The new Iris machine takes the colour information of the scan as well as the dimensional data. It then sends that information to a 2D machine that prints that colour and profile information in duplex in very high resolution. Thus, the Iris only puts the colour where the cut is going to go. The ink permeates, but does not saturate the sheet. Thus, when the shape is cut out, there is colour all the way through the edge.
Says Dr MacCormack: "It's a specially-modified ink that permeates the media. If you didn't do that, you'd get a layer of white when you made the cut. Then, when you remove the waste material, you have the full colour prints." Although this ink is proprietary, it in fact costs less than more standard colour printer inks.
It is this machine that has excited the interest of office supplies giant Staples, with which Mcor recently struck a deal to launch a new 3D printing service called 'Staples Easy 3D'. This will offer low-cost, coloured, photo-realistic 3D printed products from Staples stores. Customers will simply upload electronic files to the Staples Office Centre and pick up the models in their nearby Staples store, or have them shipped to their address.
"The deal with Staples has had a big impact," says MacCormack. "Traditionally, we were dealing with engineers and product designers, architects, medical and dental, etc. We've always felt that, because of our technology, there's a natural synergy with a big, paper-based company like Staples. So what we've found since the Staples agreement is that we have a lot of reprographics and 2D printing industries interested who wouldn't have looked at 3D printing before."
This 'copy shop' model has been mooted before, but without success.
Dr MacCormack believes this has had much to do with cost. He says: "Our competitors have tried to put their technologies into these areas before, but it hasn't worked because, by the time you've factored in your consumables and the mark-up you want to make, then you're talking about hundreds of dollars per print. On the other hand, if you're talking about $10 or $20, then the consumer will pay that up front."
This approach, Dr MacCormack believes, is indicative of the opportunities for 3D printing technology in the consumer market. He says: "Is every home going to have a 3D printer? I doubt it. I know plenty of people who have difficulty getting the Sky box to record, let alone using a 3D printer. On the other hand, if you can go down to a store and get something 3D printed for a reasonable price, then that's a different matter. I think that every consumer household will have a desire for 3D printed content, but that doesn't mean they'll want a 3D printer."
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