Joel Graves, a 3-D printing engineer at NovaCopy, holds a prototype of a duck foot prosthetic from a 3-D printer. / Larry McCormack / The Tennessean
By Lexy Gross / The Tennessean
Engineers at NovaCopy Inc. didn't think saving the life of a disabled duck would be a project they would encounter during the rise of 3-D printing.
But this week, Joel Graves, a 3-D printing engineer at NovaCopy, produced the prototype for a mold that will be used to create a prosthetic foot for a duck named Buttercup.
It's just one of a myriad of uses for 3-D printing, which is rapidly being used in a number of industries. While still expensive for the consumer market, more companies are either buying their own printers or hiring outside firms to use the technology to rapidly build prototypes, for instance.
Buttercup was hatched last year in a high school biology lab with a backward left foot. His second owner, Mike Garey of Feathered Angels Waterfowl Sanctuary, knew Buttercup wouldn't survive in his condition.
"When he would walk outside, his leg would start bleeding," he said. "I knew Buttercup would be better off as a peg-leg duck than a duck with a disabled foot."
A local veterinarian amputated the duck's left foot in February and began a long healing process. In the meantime, Garey looked for options in creating a prosthetic foot for Buttercup.
Garey considered 3-D printing because the exact model for a mold could be built with extreme precision. He looked at several organizations in Nashville with 3-D printers, but chose to pursue NovaCopy because of their unique, high-resolution technology.
Mellissa Ragsdale, the president of 3-D printing solutions for NovaCopy, decided to donate their 3-D printing technology to help Buttercup.
Garey developed a design after taking photos of a similar duck's foot and combining them in an AutoDesk program. He sent the files to Graves, who started the 13½-hour printing process.
Buttercup's foot is one of the many prototypes NovaCopy has printed this year. Ragsdale explained the diverse nature of the technology, which is typically thought of as a manufacturing tool.
"There are wide-ranging uses aerospace, medical, consumer and industrial purposes are a few," she said. "It gives most businesses the ability to take products to the market faster than their competition."
Graves said sales of prototypes and printers have increased the past few years.
Ragsdale said having companies in the U.S. to print rapid prototypes is making the process cheaper and more popular. She said many companies previously would outsource their files, which would be costly and often time-consuming.
Now, a company can take their file to a printer and have the prototype in less than 24 hours.
Graves said rapid prototyping is the most beneficial form of 3-D printing for some companies, while purchasing a printer may be more cost-efficient for others.
Graves said he expects the industry to grow tremendously over the next several years, and for the technology to become common.
"Like anything else, there will be more people getting into this new technology," he said. "As long as the core interest and efficiency is there, it'll accelerate."