The future looks good … on paper

16 Apr 2009

Imagine a world where you can design your own furniture, bring your invention from a sketch to physical reality or even produce an exact model of yourself, all done quickly and cheaply.

Irish firm Mcor Technologies is making this a reality with its unique 3D printing technology. What is its solution? In a word: paper. A4 printing paper to be exact.

For any product to go from idea to physical reality, an important part of the process is the prototype: from the iPod to the Dyson to cities of the future, many, many prototypes must be made for a project to come to fruition.

However, this is an expensive process when using most 3D printing technologies on the market today. Only large businesses can afford to invest and many universities cannot afford to run this equipment for their students.

Aside from the complex and costly machinery needed to translate a design from computer graphics to a physical object, the constant supply of plastic material required — not to mention the laser cutting technology — adds to this expense.

Mcor Technologies has found a way, using A4 paper, to give smaller businesses and, in the future, individuals access to this design technology by making the materials affordable and easily sourced.

Among the big companies showing interest in this new technology are Nintendo, Dyson and IBM, but 3D modelling is applicable to many sectors, from technology to architecture to dentistry and even for artistic purposes.

Co-founder of Mcor technologies Conor MacCormack had previous experience with 3D printers that used plastics. While he was at Trinity College Dublin he saw firsthand that due to the expense of buying and maintaining these machines, students simply weren’t getting access to them.

In 2005, MacCormack and his brother Fintan identified this niche, carried out intensive market research and came away with a unique solution: the Mcor Matrix, the only 3D printer in the world that can use A4 paper to make 3D objects.

“We didn’t just want it to be affordable, we wanted it to be eco-friendly. In order to build up a solid 3D model, each layer of paper must be glued together and we formulated a water-based adhesive to act as the adhesive,” says Deirdre MacCormack, the third co-founder of Mcor Technologies.

Launched last October, the Matrix printer takes sheets

of A4 paper and — using biodegradable glue — it takes a 3D design fed in from a desktop design programme. Then, using blades, it cuts an exact replica of the object.

With some paper and glue, a design can come to life in a precise model that is just as robust as wood, explains Deirdre MacCormack.

The materials required are literally a fraction of the cost of running an equivalent 3D printing machine producing plastic models.

An A4 paper rendering of the human skull, for example, would cost between €8 and €10, whereas a plastic model would cost from €400 to €500, says Conor MacCormack.

Now you can begin to see the implications of such groundbreaking, yet beautifully simple, 3D modelling technology.

Aside from larger companies like Dyson, who are using it for early-stage design work, he says that an interesting array of small businesses are approaching the company.

“We come across a different application every week: this is opening up technology to people who hadn’t used it before simply because it was too expensive.”

In particular, this technology has huge relevance to architects and design firms, but one application that displays its versatility is in the field of dentistry.

“After we demonstrated our work on The Late Late Show we has a call from a dentist’s office looking to use the Matrix printer for producing moulds of dental work.

“Rather than keeping the full-scale plastic moulds from hundreds of patient’s dental work on record, dentists want to keep a virtual model on their database and cost-effectively print out a paper mould as required,” says Deirdre MacCormack.

Storage is not a problem, even for existing models: they can be fully recycled.

A business investing in the machine itself, while costly, will soon make it back because of the low running costs, she adds.

For now, the target markets for Mcor Technologies will primarily be universities, plus educational, commercial, engineering and medical dental applications. But, with over 700 leads in the pipeline, there is an ever-increasing list of new applications.

“We get calls from diverse organisations: Dublin County Council recently asked us to make a model of the ceiling of an old Georgian building under restoration for protection.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the educational applications of the Matrix printer is the National Federation of the Blind’s use of it for the education of blind children.

“In teaching children how to use money and helping them become familiar with coins, a large-scale model of the euro coin or a 50 cent piece can be printed out so they can get used to the ridges and contours of each individual coin,” explains Deirdre MacCormack.

The future of 3D printing brings it even closer to home: in fact it will possibly bring it into the home.

As the computer evolved from huge machines that filled rooms and required several people to operate them to the tiny netbooks we can sling into our bags, the 3D printer is ripe to become more affordable and mainstream.

“Mass customisation — the ability to make custom goods with mass production costs and efficiency — is relatively niche at the moment, but we’re on the verge of really massive expansion,” explains Conor MacCormack.

In between the select few and ubiquity lies bureau printing, he says.

“We’d like to get to the position where customers can go to a 3D print centre with a computer-created 3D design and have their model printed out.”

In the 1967 film The Graduate, when Dustin Hoffman was told by a stuffy businessman that the future was in plastics, he was wrong. Clearly, the future looks good on paper.

By Marie Boran

Pictured: Deirdre and Conor MacCormack, co-founders of Mcor Technologies