When Jennifer Sinclair looked around Tucson this spring, she didn’t see a lot of chances to land a tech job.
So she and her fiancé Clifton Hollis, both of whom have a background in computer science, decided to start their own 3-D printing business, Iconic 3D. A desk-sized printer now hums along for hours at a time in the spare bedroom of their Glenn Street house as it carves figurines of local athletes and dancers.
The “spark” for the idea to enter the growing field of 3-D printing came at a Marvel Experience event in Phoenix in December, where they saw a vendor selling figurines of comic book fans for about $200.
“We thought it would be really cool, and then we saw the pricing,” said Sinclair, 34, who graduated from the University of Arizona in May and starts an MBA program there in the fall.
That spark caught flame three months later when they took their son Tristan, 12, to compete in an Irish dance competition in Montreal. Vendors were selling cutouts of participants for about $70.
“I was like, wow, if we could do something like that in 3-D and keep it at a reasonable price point, that would be a good market,” said Hollis, 38, who is studying computer science and also tutors at Pima Community College.
After taking on a business loan and buying a Mcor Iris printer, they set off to an Irish dance competition in Scottsdale and made their first sale at the end of May.
Most of the 50 figurines they have sold so far were to Irish dancers, who wear expensive costumes and prepare for months before a competition, Sinclair said.
Other figurines, which range in price from $89 to $135, went to companies looking for low-cost, full-color prototypes.
“Everybody’s fascinated with 3-D printing,” Hollis said, adding he is hoping Iconic 3D can ride the momentum of the growing industry.
Among the notable advances are a wrench printed aboard the International Space Station in December, a 2,000-square foot office building planned in the United Arab Emirates, and prototype cars and motorcycles.
In Tucson, UA architecture and engineering students use 3-D printing, as does the university library system. Tucson-based Arizona’s Printer Services prints parts for tattoo needles and medical equipment. The online service 3Dhubs.com shows a dozen local 3-D printers.
Like Sinclair and Hollis, many small companies are attracted to falling prices, said Sandra Kay Helsel, editor since 2012 of the trade publication Inside3Dprinting.com.
Less costly printers help small companies get started, but they also invite tough competition from larger companies, she said, giving the example of an industrial-scale factory inside a UPS Inc. facility in Louisville, Kentucky.
“But if smaller companies get some niche products and niche customers, it can be a really worthwhile product,” she said.
What sets Sinclair and Hollis apart, they say, is that their printer is full-color and mobile.
“As far as we know, we are the only company that has the portable (printer), where we will go and actually do the scan at the site and you won’t have to come into a studio,” Hollis said.
Instead of a studio, they travel to events and use a Fuel 3D scanner and a Structure scanner, which is based on the technology behind the Kinect console for the Xbox gaming system, to scan all sides of the subject.
They process the image and then software draws the design on pieces of paper, which are colored, stacked, and then scored by the printer.
Carefully pulling the block apart until the figurine is revealed, known in the industry as “weeding,” is often a family affair done while watching television, Sinclair said.
Given that they are working out of their house, none of the materials used in the printing process emit toxic fumes and most are recyclable, she said.
Going forward, Sinclair and Hollis are applying for a vendor booth at the Tucson Comic-con in November, but they also want to start printing figurines of pets and offering their services at weddings.
“We can scan the bride and groom and actually make them for their own cake-toppers at their weddings,” Hollis said.
From there, they plan to break into the industrial world by printing for engineers, architects, archaeologists, museums and prototypes for large companies such as Raytheon.
“We were prepared that it was going to be a slow start and we were going to have a year of growing pains,” Sinclair said. “But I really think this is an awesome market that has a lot of possibilities.”