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3-D brings car parts, theme park floats to life

There isn't much Gaston resident Robin Oeffner can't make at local shop

COURTESY PHOTO - Robin and Patty Oeffner, Tom Engle and Mike Larkin of Ultimate 3D stand outside the company's offices on Southeast Alexander St. in Hillsboro. The business opened in December 2014.The concept of 3-Dimensional printing seems like a new landscape people have been exploring in recent years. But for Gaston resident Robin Oeffner and Hillsboro resident Mike Larkin, the practice was a lot of years in the making.

“You know what they say — it takes a lot of years to become an overnight success,” Larkin joked.

Oeffner and Larkin own Ultimate 3D, a 3-D printing business in Hillsboro.

The earliest use of 3-D printing can be traced all the way back to the early 1990s, which is how long Larkin and Oeffner have been dabbling in the art. But they didn’t start working with each other until 2003.

At one of the machine shops where they worked early on, Larkin and Oeffner had tried to get the owner to jump into the realm of 3-D printing. But it was too “out of the box” for him. In 2012, they both ended up working for a start-up company called Northwest Rapid in McMinnville. HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: MICHAEL SPROLES - Mike Larkin poses beside a $500,000 3-D printer at his business, Ultimate 3D.

“About a year and a half ago, things started happening there that caused us to start thinking about doing something different,” said Larkin.

Larkin and Oeffner began writing up a business plan. Everything finally came together last year in October when they secured their Hillsboro facility.

By November, the duo purchased their 3-D printer, which is valued at nearly half a million dollars. And on Dec. 1, they opened the doors of Ultimate 3D to the public, ready for business.

“Since Robin and I were the face of Northwest Rapid in our time there, when we left, customers found us at our new place,” said Larkin. “People asked around for us, and sent us their business because of our reputation.” HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: MICHAEL SPROLES - Mike Larkin creates 3-D ventilation units for drones.

The whole process starts with creating a virtual design of the object you want to create. The design is made in a computer-aided design (CAD) file using a 3-D modeling program for the creation of a totally new object.

To prepare the digital file for printing, the 3-D modeling software slices the final model into hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers. When the sliced file is uploaded into a 3-D printer, the object can be created layer by layer.

The 3-D printer reads every slice and creates the object by blending each layer without the signs of any layers at all, and the final result is a three-dimensional object.

Not all 3-D printers use the same technology. Larkin and Oeffner use selective laser sintering (SLS), one of the more common methods, which uses a high-power laser to fuse small particles of plastic, metal, ceramic or glass powders into a mass that has the desired 3-D shape.

The laser selectively fuses the powdered material by scanning the layers generated by the 3-D modeling program from the CAD file.

Don’t be fooled — although this method is common, high precision and durability make it one of the most sophisticated as well.

The automotive industry was one of the first adopters of 3-D printing.

Taking advantage

Larkin and Oeffner have no doubt taken advantage of this. Not only do they produce parts for Indy cars, but they also sponsored Palatov Motorsport, a business in Portland that manufactures race cars.

The duo printed some car parts for a car Palatov entered in a car race at Pike’s Peak, Colo., and the car nabbed first place in its class. According to 3Dprinting.com, the expectations are that 3-D printing in the automotive industry will generate a combined $1.1 billion by 2019. HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: MICHAEL SPROLES - Patty Oeffner removes remaining powder from a 3-D printing project at Ultimate 3D in Hillsboro.

Larkin and Oeffner also print aerospace parts for drones used by the military — another common application for 3-D printing. NASA, for instance, prints combustion chamber liners using 3-D printing, and in March of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration cleared GE Aviation’s first 3-D printed jet engine part to fly.

There are a number of other fields 3-D printing can be found in: the medical industry, in which patients can receive improved quality of care through 3-D implants or prosthetics; industrial printing; personal printing, in which people can come up with a design of their own in a CAD file and send it in to be printed.

“The craziest thing we’ve printed so far were a bunch of huge parts for theme park floats of the characters from ‘Inside Out,’” said Oeffner, referring to the most recent Pixar hit from Disney.

The basic production material that Larkin and Oeffner use for their printing is Nylon-12, a plastic that is incredibly durable, flexible and heat resistant. However, if customers need something different for their 3-D models, the duo is happy to offer up optional compounds such as carbon or glass-filled nylon.

“The customer usually specifies the material they want to use for a print,” said Larkin. “They usually know what they want, since they made their design.”

Virtual design

A plus is that since CAD files are a virtual design, if a customer ends up changing their design halfway through the process, adjusting is no problem. The cost of the prints depends on the size — and if something is too big to print, it obviously can’t happen.

Usually, the tasks Larkin and Oeffner are handed are finished within a week, and if someone wants a part printed, they can have the part in the customer’s hands within two days of receiving the CAD file. They go off the volume of the part, the amount of material used and charge a fee by the volume of the printed object.

For many, 3-D printing is a giant leap toward the future. And while there’s certainly a long way to go in the field, for now these designs and models are literally being brought to life, right before our eyes.