CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- 3-D technology isn't just for movie theatres and comic books anymore. In fact, it may very well reshape the landscape for American manufacturing.
It's all thanks to advances in 3-D printing, also called additive manufacturing, which has seen tremendous growth in the last few years.
"It's a quiet revolution," said Marty Spears, spokesman for the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing.
3-D printers turn digital designs into three-dimensional models. Printers can be fed a variety of substances — usually plastics or metal — to build the products layer by layer until they are complete.
RCBI has three such printers at locations in South Charleston and Huntington.
The largest printer in South Charleston, which is about the size of a minivan, uses spools of thin plastic wire to build 3-D models.
"It works much like a hot glue gun," said Chris Figgatt, manufacturing specialist and technical trainer at RCBI.
"It heats (the plastic wire) up and then it just squirts it out at a layer that's about as thick as a human hair. And then it just goes back and forth adding material, stacking it layer upon layer until you have a finished part out of it."
Figgatt said the technology has been around for about 20 years, but developments over the last five to seven years have caused the industry to explode.
"It's an emerging industry, and it's really incredible what it can be used for," he said.
NASA has recently considered using 3-D printers to build everything from spare parts for space stations to lunar bases during space missions.
Princeton University scientists recently used 3-D printing with human cell cultures to create a working, bionic human ear.
The technology is even on President Barack Obama's radar.
During his February State of the Union speech, the president lauded the economic benefits of 3-D printing, saying it "has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."
The Robert C. Byrd Institute's Spears talked about such potential.
"The United States is finding out this technology can help restore the manufacturing base," Spears said. "We're at a great advantage having this kind of technology available."
Figgatt said the technology is especially beneficial for inventors or companies that want to develop prototypes.
He said companies in the past have spent months and thousands of dollars drafting designs, creating molds and testing a part.
With 3-D printing, developers can go from the drawing board to a functional model within days at about a tenth of the cost.
NG Innovations of Cross Lanes recently used the 3-D printer at RCBI to manufacture a prototype.
The research and development company helps develop processes and equipment to clean water for the oil, mining and natural gas industries.
Company field operations manager J.R. Maddox brought some sketches to Figgatt, and after making a few modifications on the computer, they used the printer to make a prototype.
"They were able to print us one out, and it works very, very well," Mattox said. "It was able to prove that this scale model would be able to work in the application we were going to use it in."
Spears said a 3-D model can help companies as they give presentations to banks in an attempt to secure capital for a project.
"When you have that prototype in hand, it helps a lot better than something you've drawn up on the back of a napkin," Spears said.
The printers also can be used to build replicas of items through the aid of a laser scanner.
The laser will scan the item and produce a 3-D digital image, which designers can them modify in the computer.
Figgatt said the technology is also starting to be used to create trinkets, such as desktop business card holders and cellphone cases, that can be customized with a company or person's name.
"3-D printing helps me design and print and build that very inexpensively," he said.