MERRIMACK - In the current season of "Grey's Anatomy," cast members have been fighting over a 3D printer to make replacement body parts. Twenty years after a New Hampshire company pioneered similar technology, the applications for 3D printers have grown in complexity, and their use has gone mainstream, with desktop models selling for about $2,200.
Solidscape handles the higher-end industrial models - wax printers that sell for $25,000 to $49,000 that are used by aerospace companies, industrial manufacturers, jewelry designers, toymakers and medical researchers. The company, founded in Wilton in 1994 as Sanders Prototypes, employs 63 people at its headquarters on Daniel Webster Highway in Merrimack.
While Solidscape isn't pumping out ready-to-install body parts, that practice is hardly science fiction any more.
"It really gets into FDA-approved material," said Bill Dahl, vice president of marketing and communications. "That will be the next thing, and it takes awhile to do. Right now, the actual working models for replacement parts are being made."
Solidscape has been working with the University of Arizona, which uses the company's technology to study cerebral aneurysms. Bioengineering researchers create wax models of an aneurysm and its vascular structure. After casting them in metal and putting them in a clear plastic mold, they burn out the metal and use the molds to perform flow studies. Such work also is helping medical device companies to design better stents and other products, Dahl said.
Solidscape executives were touting such breakthroughs during a stop Friday by Gov. Maggie Hassan, who included the company as part of her ongoing Innovate NH tour. Hassan discussed work force, energy needs and other issues during a brief talk with executives, then toured the manufacturing center and gave a brief talk to employees.
"I gave my State of the State speech yesterday, and one of the things I said was that we are really well-positioned as a state to lead the country in this kind of innovative economic development," Hassan told workers assembled in the company's cafeteria. "And it's always nice to see that reaffirmed when I come to a company like Solidscape and find out how fast you're growing, how much you all are working day to day to improve your operation to find new ways to serve customers and enter new markets."
Among the employees in the room was Chas Sullivan, a 24-year-old graduate of the University of New Hampshire who joined Solidscape as a manufacturing engineer and recently was promoted to product marketing specialist. Sullivan is the kind of worker Solidscape is hoping to attract as it competes with Boston-area tech companies for employees.
"I was always on the fence between engineering and business, so to be able to tie them together was a perfect role," Sullivan said. "I get to go out in the field and see how other products work and figure out how we can work into all sorts of technologies: aerospace, medical and all that and figure out how we can tweak our next-generation product to work around that."
Sullivan said he likes the diverse opportunities the small company offers and the security of its corporate parent: Since 2011, Solidscape has been a subdivision of Minnesota-based Stratasys, which last year acquired MakerBot - the company that makes a $2,200 desktop 3D printer.
Solidscape co-founder John Wigand said he uses one of those at home to make plastic replacement parts for his Audi. The car only came with one front-seat cupholder so he printed another one.
"I designed a cupholder that sits on the passenger side that clips in and fits in flat so it looks like it's part of the car," said Wigand, vice president of product development and strategy.
One of Wigand's favorite companies is Modern Meadow, which has developed a 3D printer that makes artificial meat.
"The ramification of that technology is huge," he said. "It cuts out all the methane emissions from cattle and you could feed people in starving countries."
Wigan said it reminds him of the food synthesizer in the original Star Trek series that could could produce a cup of tea from thin air.
"Some day. Not in our lifetime, but maybe three generations from now," Wigand said.
If you want to pump out a burger and fries from the printer, get in line.
Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.