Discovery Files

Local 3-D printing hubs bring manufacturing back to US

NSF-supported startup demonstrates method for finding, printing parts locally

[The following is part 3 of a Smart America series showcasing NSF researchers designing improved cyber-physical systems. In parts 1 and 2, learn about cyber-dogs and tele-robotics research.]

Imaginestics is a startup company founded in West Lafayette, Ind., by Nainesh Rathod. At the Smart America Expo in June, Rathod was part of a team that demonstrated the potential impact of what they are calling "smart shape technology."

The system Rathod and his collaborators developed lets a person take a picture of a part of a larger device with a mobile phone and then identify a local retailer where this part can be found or instantly print it at a local neighborhood 3-D printing service provider.

The demonstration showed how smart shape technology--combining a novel shape-based search engine, active labels (like next-generation RFID tags), 3-D printing technologies and neighborhood smart hubs--can create local jobs and increase local skills.

"This technology doesn't have to be locked up in big business," Rathod said. "To make it available at our fingertips is within reach."

Rathod was twice a recipient of NSF's Small Business Innovation Research grants, which helped to turn his radical idea into a business with several hundred employees.

"NSF to us has been a big risk-taker," Rathod said. "When we went to them and said we're thinking about this, they didn't throw us out the door. They basically said, 'Great idea, here's some money, see what you can do.' They played, I think, a foundational role for us. Without that kind of a beginning, we wouldn't be where we are."

The Smart America Expo brought together leaders from academia, industry and government and demonstrated the ways that smarter cyber-physical systems (CPS)--sometimes called the "Internet of Things"--can lead to improvements in health care, transportation, energy, emergency response and other critical areas.