(HOUSTON CHRONICLE) OCTOBER 11, 2016
20 machines grace Houston Community College’s advanced manufacturing center in Stafford.
Houston inventor Kieu Phan’s product is relatively straightforward. It’s a spherical plastic cage that snaps shut around a woman’s brassiere, allowing it to be tossed into the washing machine without risk of damage to hooks and wires.
“If men had boobs this would’ve already been invented centuries ago,” Phan says, after explaining how she came up with it to avoid the drudgery of hand-washing her bras.
Thousands of women agreed, and Phan had been producing and marketing the BraBall for several years, when tragedy struck: The mold that her manufacturer had been working off of suddenly broke. Making a new one could’ve cost tens of thousands of dollars, since she didn’t have the original designs.
But by then, she knew of a better way: 3-D printing, the technology that can produce nearly any solid product by adding layer upon layer of thin plastic. Phan went to a local company that could make one for her. “Right now it’s really cheap,” Phan says. “I can get a prototype for a few hundred dollars.”
Starting soon, thousands more entrepreneurs could use the same shortcut, with the help of a giant 3-D printing lab at Houston Community College’s new manufacturing technology center in Stafford, which has its grand opening on Wednesday.
Houston Community College has had a manufacturing trades program since 1971, pumping its young graduates straight into the robust ecosystem of small and large factories that dot Houston’s outlying areas. A couple of years ago, it got funding to beef up its advanced manufacturing curriculum, which involves a lot more robots than its older training centers.
That’s very much the trend in the economic thinking about how manufacturing will grow in the United States: not through the labor-intensive assembly lines of old, but rather highly automated, precision machines that do what they’re told.
Which isn’t to say that older technology isn’t still useful. The $26 million facility has big rooms devoted to welding, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and manual machining, all of which are skills that manufacturing companies say they desperately need. The center was designed in response to employer feedback.
Right now, the 3-D printing lab is still more about the future than filling a demand for labor. A new course covering 3-D printing technology is still under development. What HCC hopes, primarily, is that entrepreneurs like Kieu Phan will use it as a way to accelerate their own businesses.
“It’s really a makerspace,” says Madeline Burillo, president of HCC’s Southwest Campus, using the trendy term for places where creative types tinker with physical objects. “We want this to be engaged with the community.”
The room itself has large workstations with specialized screens that allow designers to digitally “sculpt” their new products. When that’s finished, they send the files to one of 20 3-D printers of different types, from the smaller, microwavelike Makerbot machines that you can get for a few thousand bucks on Amazon to a refrigerator-size edition that can make much larger objects. The more sophisticated models can cost tens of thousands of dollars and work with greater precision and more durable materials, as a designer refines a prototype to perfection.
The results of this process are strewn around the lab, from replicas of turbines to ornate lampshades to a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral mask. It almost looks like a toy store that’s been ransacked.
Photos can be rendered in textured plastic, so the light shines through to make a similar image. There’s a box of bracelets churned out in a rainbow of colors.
At this point, 3-D printing — which was pioneered at the University of Texas decades ago, but only gained notoriety in the United States after 2010 — hasn’t been adopted by the many small factories that supply the oil and gas and medical industries in Houston. It’s way cheaper than traditional forms of prototyping, which can involve painstaking processes like injection molding and welding pieces of plastic together, but still too expensive to produce large quantities.
“They’re apprehensive,” says Sanju Patro, director of the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center – Gulf Coast, of small manufacturers. “They don’t know when the investment is going to pay off. They’re kind of in the waiting mode to see, is this going to catch on?”
That’s why Frederick Heard, the manufacturing center’s director, thinks the new printing lab will be useful: Familiarity breeds adoption.
“Those who can’t hold it and trust it are going to have problems,” Heard says. “They can come here and test them and try them.”
Even Kieu Phan, who’s already got a commercial 3-D printing company doing her prototypes, says the new HCC lab could still be useful to her. She’s getting ready to start a Kickstarter campaign for her latest model, a BraBall for especially large brassieres, and wants to make sure she stays ahead of the curve.
“I would check it out, because the technology of 3-D printing changes so often,” she says.