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Another dimension: 3D Maryland to open in HoCo

A new program in Howard County is looking to expand the reach of 3-D printing technology so that more businesses can benefit from creating a tangible product almost instantly.

At its annual meeting on Wednesday, the Howard County Economic Development Authority announced 3D Maryland, run through its Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship. The program will open an additive manufacturing lab at the center and facilitate collaboration between businesses and industries that either use the technology or want to use it.

“It still feels like science fiction to so many people,” said Jan Baum, director of 3D Maryland and former director of the Object Lab at Towson University. “When people see it, see us working with it … they get it in a little bit of a different way.”

The aim of the new program is just that — to allow business leaders to better understand the benefits of using 3-D printers.

Photo of Jan Baum and interns watching a 3-D printer

Left to right, Jan Baum, now director of 3D Maryland, and interns Sierra Turner and Jessica Searfino watch as a 3-D printer in the Object Lab at Towson University goes to work.

This technology, also known as additive manufacturing, allows the user to create an object from a digital blueprint, by way of a printer that assembles the material in layers.

The process has a wide variety of advantages, said Baum. Manufacturers can create certain items as one piece instead of an assembly of many pieces or find a cost-effective way to produce oddly shaped items. Entrepreneurs and businesses developing new products can present a prototype with more ease, helping them to pitch ideas more convincingly.

They can do this relatively quickly, taking a product from digital image to tangible object in a matter of hours.

Educational institutions throughout the state are providing students with hands-on training in additive technology, but 3D Maryland will be the first such opportunity for business and industry in the state, said Julie Lenzer Kirk, executive director of the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship.

3D Maryland will also aim to create an additive manufacturing community within Maryland’s business community. This kind of collaboration has proven useful at the Towson University Object Lab, said Baum, and could make the use of 3-D printing more feasible and effective for businesses that are just getting started, as well as those who have a head start.

Baum is kick-starting this collaboration by mapping out current locations of 3-D printers in Maryland. By knowing where the rapid technology resources are, businesses can work together to make more diverse products.

For example, a printer that makes metal products is the most expensive, so many companies may be unable or unwilling to buy one. But larger companies with that technology may be able to provide that printing service to a company that needs it.

Photo of Jan Baum

3D Maryland Director Jan Baum holds some items produced via a 3-D printer in the Towson University Object Lab. The Howard County initiative seeks to show businesses the advantages of additive manufacturing technology.

“I can enable that business to sell its capacity rather than duplicate that and create competition,” said Baum, referring to her experience in the Object Lab. “What I’ve always kind of preached is: ‘Let’s not duplicate, let’s build.’”

This collaboration could give Maryland as a whole a competitive edge.

“What we’re doing is helping regain the competitive advantage of manufacturing locally,” said Lawrence Twele, CEO of HCEDA.

Manufacturing as a sector has struggled in Maryland and throughout the country in recent years, said Lenzer Kirk, but promoting additive technology could bring new life to the business.

“This has the opportunity to make manufacturing look cool again,” she said. “This is sexy new stuff.”

Lower employment in manufacturing can be attributed to new technology, said Baum, and innovation in manufacturing can be controversial, but that is no reason to shy away from new, cost-saving methods.

“Job skills are changing. … It shouldn’t threaten us,” she said. “The proper attitude is: ‘How does this allow us to be competitive, and how can we utilize this to create more jobs?’”