Editor’s note: This is another in an occasional look at up-and-coming technology businesses operating in San Luis Obispo County.
Michael Balzer's office near downtown San Luis Obispo is a 3-D playground. It's chock full of computers, printers and scanners designed to create three-dimensional images or objects with the push of a button.
As the founder of slo 3D creators, which he opened nearly a year ago to serve mostly product designers, artists and Cal Poly engineering and architecture students who need to create designs as quickly as possible, Balzer prints computer images and fabricates 3-D models out of different types of plastic. With his equipment, he can print as small as 50 microns — about half the width of a human hair, or up to 18 inches tall and close to a foot wide.
Using a Structure.io device, he can also produce 3-D scans in real time, which Balzer stitches together to create composite models.
The price varies depending on the job, but most customers pay close to $200, "when you account for the time I charge for fixing or modifying the design," Balzer said. Some jobs can take up to 24 hours to complete.
Balzer, who worked as the IT manager and director of 3-D visualization at RRM Design Group for 10 years and has owned technology-related businesses, has a penchant for technology on the bleeding edge.
In the early 1980s and 1990s, he designed five after-market multimedia products for the Commodore Amiga personal computer. One of the peripherals, ChromaKey+, a consumer-based video color keyer — a special effects technique for compositing two images or video streams together based on color hues — won Video magazine's product of the year for 1991.
"It was my interest in the Amiga that I learned how to use 3-D rendering software with a product called Lightwave," he said.
Now, he sees himself as being part of a new technological revolution.
"I try to see a market that is emerging, and I see how my talents and expertise can move it forward," said Balzer, whose background is in engineering and computer programming.
Balzer, who declined to disclose financial information about his firm, said he currently "earns enough to pay the office rent." A challenge, he said, is that the most up-to-date equipment costs between $800 to $5,000 — if it can be acquired at all because it's so new.
"I did not realize that it would be so difficult to obtain the printers and even the scanners required to accomplish some of my goals at a reasonable investment," he said. "In fact, I am still filling technical gaps — like a quicker, high-resolution 3-D scanning device at a reasonable price. As well as mature software for manipulation, design and printing."
Balzer acknowledged the inherent risks in starting up such a new venture.
"The concern with any cutting-edge service is having enough clients to sustain the day-to-day costs of doing business and providing services that are unique or too costly/difficult for the consumer to do on their own," he said. "It is also important to educate the public to the uses of 3-D fabrication for unique and customized products, and the benefit in having someone local."
Despite these challenges, Balzer continues to build clientele.
"An upcoming market that I see becoming a huge potential is the use of 3-D tools and fabrication in medicine to create prosthetics, teach medical professionals, plan surgical procedures and even fabricate tissue and organs," he said.
Once a month, Balzer shares formation about 3-D technology through the Central Coast 3D User Group, which he launched in October 2013. He also produces a weekly podcast, in which he discusses 3-D technology with international and local guests who are using 3-D technology in medicine, engineering or architecture, as well as with Cal Poly and Cuesta students.
In the next decade, he believes 3-D technology "will only get better, faster, cheaper and easier to work with."
More people, however, will need to be convinced that such technology is worth the investment.
"We live in a throw-away society, where many things come to us easy, fast and cheap," he said. "Why would you want to waste hours and money to make something you can buy on eBay or Amazon that is cheaper, and in many cases, better made? My simple answer is customization and creating something that no one else has based on your own creativity or tweaked to your liking from someone else's creativity."