By Bob Reinert, USAG-Natick Public AffairsMarch 31, 2014
NATICK, Mass. (March 31, 2014) -- When Steve Smith was growing up in Wayland, Mass., he would go to a movie like "Star Wars," rush home, and try to replicate the technology he had seen using parts from models that he had already built.
All these years later, not much has changed for Smith, who works as a graphic designer in Strategic Communications at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC.
"This is the job I've been training to do all my life," said the 48-year-old Smith, who has been with NSRDEC as either a contractor or government employee for nearly two decades. "I had no clue that I was actually training for this job."
Just as in his youth, Smith spends a fair amount of time at NSRDEC StratComm making scale models. Now, however, he uses a 3D printer that uses liquid polymer exposed to ultraviolet light to turn out highly accurate, solid models of products researched and developed at Natick for Soldiers.
"If I had had one of these things when I was a kid, you would have had to use dynamite and a crowbar to get me out of my room, you know?" Smith said. "I'd just be making things all day long, coming up with things for people. I've gone from the physical to the digital, and now I'm going from the digital to the physical again, actually creating physical models out of digital material, digital media."
Smith began working with 3D printing at Natick about a year and a half ago as a way of improving customer displays. Even he admits to being amazed with what this technology can produce.
"These solid objects pop out of basically digital commands, virtually from nowhere," Smith said. "Now we've got people building prosthetics with them. I feel pretty confident that there's going to be a merging of the materials people and biological people. Nature has designed so many things that we're looking for already that we should be taking advantage of that."
Smith added that as their costs come down, these printers have become more accessible.
"There are cottage industries springing up all around this kind of stuff -- people creating artwork from mathematical models and things like that," Smith said. "Most of the work that I'm doing here is kind of illustrative, more than anything else."
This isn't the path Smith started down as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, where he enrolled as a microbiology major.
"About halfway through, I realized that really wasn't what I wanted to do," said Smith, who earned his bachelor's degree with an individual concentration in computer science and fine art.
After graduating in 1988, Smith did some video editing and worked at a sign shop before settling in at Natick as a government contractor. He came here in 1996, and never left.
"When I came over here, I was doing a lot of PowerPoint slides, that kind of thing," Smith said. "Then we threw in some computer animation, illustration for tech manuals, field manuals, then for conceptual stuff. This is the kind of place where, if you want to wear a [a different] hat, they're glad to hand you another hat to wear."
Smith has even applied moulage -- mock injuries -- to simulated victims in mass-casualty exercises at Natick.
"I really enjoy that," Smith said. "That's a lot of fun, but you talk about going back to an old skill set and revitalizing it and making it a part of what you do.
"So I get to do a lot of different things. There's no other graphic artist that I know of who gets to do as many different things as I get to work with."
He may have left microbiology in the past, but that doesn't mean Smith doesn't love interacting with Natick's world-class scientists and engineers.
"And for the most part, I can keep up with the conversation," Smith said. "A lot of what I do is taking what they are doing and trying to put it into some sort of visual communication form that the average person will look at, and be able to understand.
"It doesn't get boring," Smith continue. "Everything that we do now is a new challenge and has its own set of limitations or difficulties or challenges. I'm like a bulldog with that kind of stuff -- I don't let it go. I really enjoy solving problems."
The way Smith sees it, 3D printing might be the answer to more and more problems in the future. He pointed out that one project he worked on with NSRDEC's Technology, Systems & Program Integration Directorate took less than four weeks to be suitable for field evaluation and provisional patenting.
"That's an unheard-of tempo," Smith said. "It used to be three years, from research and development to fielding."
Smith promised to continue probing the "limitations and possibilities" of 3D printing as he seeks to fully exploit the technology in his work at Natick.
"I just want to be able to continue to be able to use this kind of stuff to tell the stories," Smith said. "It's really what we're doing is telling the customers' stories so when they go out, they have a really good set of tools to explain themselves."