Matthew Fiedler’s life has taken him from Jefferson-Scranton High School to a meat-packing plant in Perry to a job with NASA and now to the forefront of 3-D printing. In 3-D printing, physical objects are made one layer at a time using plastic filament.
Matthew Fiedler’s life has taken him from Jefferson-Scranton High School to a meat-packing plant in Perry to a job with NASA and now to the forefront of 3-D printing. In 3-D printing, physical objects are made one layer at a time using plastic filament.

April 24, 2015

It’s one of those movie scenes you know even if you’ve never actually seen the movie — a young Dustin Hoffman is taken aside in “The Graduate” and given some career advice by a middle-aged man in a business suit.

“I just want to say one word to you,” he says. “Just one word ... plastics.

“There’s a great future in plastics.”

The guy was right.

It’s just taken nearly 50 years for plastics to become cool.

Scranton native Matthew Fiedler is among a group of innovators worldwide taking plastic — long synonymous with mindless conformity — and stretching it beyond our wildest imagination.

Fiedler, a product of Dan Benitz’s shop program at Jefferson-Scranton High School in the ’90s, designed, engineered and built Gigabot, touted as the world’s only affordable, toilet-sized 3-D printer, a revolutionary device that builds objects one layer at a time out of plastic, ceramics, metal or other materials.

But what’s even cooler than plastic?

Recycled plastic.

“We have an opportunity to change the way people think, live and play,” Fiedler, 38, theorized recently from Houston, where he’s lived since working for NASA. “This isn’t mass production. This is mass customization.”

Look no further than what Fiedler was “printing” at that very moment: A prosthetic hand.

“I’m printing one right now,” he said.

Fiedler was set to meet with a physical therapist who wanted to see what the emerging technology holds — and what better time to print one out than during an interview with the hometown newspaper back in rural Iowa?

For the record, it takes about six hours to print a prosthetic hand.

“Every technology has a limit,” Fiedler explained. “We have not found the limit.”

As co-founder and chief engineer of re:3D — a Texas startup that manufactures Gigabot, which retails fully assembled for $8,950 — Fiedler has seen his 3-D printer put to use by an impressive array of customers since 2013, when he left a six-year scientific career at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

The Field Museum in Chicago has a Gigabot and has printed replicas of animal skulls and a reproduction of a horse mingqi, a Chinese burial figure.

The technology is potentially a boon to those institutions that own rare and precious artifacts.

“You can put the replica in people’s hands, and the kids can play with it,” Fiedler said.

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman is using Gigabot to prototype parts for tanks.

“They couldn’t share much with me,” Fiedler said of the giant defense contractor.

Even bigger things would seem to be on the horizon for 3-D printing.

A Popular Science story in 2013 heralded, “How 3-D Printing Body Parts Will Revolutionize Medicine.”

“The future,” Fiedler said, “we can’t even imagine.”

Each weighing 110 pounds, 250 Gigabots have so far been dispatched to 30 countries. A photo snapped at last month’s South by Southwest Festival shows Fiedler meeting — for a second time — with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who came to Austin, Texas, to promote Ireland as a place to do business.

“I had no idea I’d be here today,” confessed Fiedler, a 1994 Jefferson-Scranton graduate, “but I knew I liked to build things.”

Let’s just say it’s a long way in more than just miles from the family farm south of Scranton to Santiago, Chile. There in South America in 2013, re:3D received seed money from the Chilean government as part of Start-Up Chile, a global business incubator.

An additional $250,474 poured in online via the crowdfunding site Kickstarter — 626 percent of what they actually set out to raise — to give re:3D the funds needed to engineer a low-cost, large-scale, industrial-strength 3-D printer.

“We were overwhelmed by the response,” said Fiedler, who initially envisioned some friends sitting around in a garage, drinking Red Bull and making a few machines in the process.

An additional Kickstarter campaign that ended on April 12 raised $50,239 more for re:3D to create, with community input, an open-source 3-D printer.

It’s clear that Gigabot is a project people believe in.

“There are printers this size,” Fiedler said, “but they cost like $200,000, and you wouldn’t take them to the developing world.”

Fiedler and Samantha Snabes, a Detroit native he met while working at NASA in spaceflight science — he studied the physical effects of spaceflight on astronauts — at first hit on the idea of taking recycled plastic and 3-D printing useful objects for the developing world, such as composting toilets, rainwater barrels and even shoes.

“We wanted to do something bigger than just ourselves,” Fiedler said.

Fiedler isn’t sure where his social consciousness came from, but growing up as the eighth of 10 kids on a farm in Greene County might have played a part.

“You learn how to share,” he said.

After briefly working after high school in the freezer of IBP in Perry, Fiedler moved to Omaha and earned degrees in tool and die, manufacturing engineering, biomechanics and biomedical engineering.

“We looked around for someone who had a printer to use, but there wasn’t one,” he said. “We got held at this stage in the game.”

Partially detoured by the need to engineer a large-scale 3-D printer, re:3D is now beginning to make real its initial vision of helping the underserved.

He personally demonstrated Gigabot to an indigenous tribal leader inside an adobe house with a thatch roof in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

“The juxtaposition was crazy,” he said.

The tribe was interested, he said, in printing small replicas of wildlife to trade with tourists.

“We’re giving them the ability to create where they never had that ability,” Fiedler said. “It’s a personal-sized factory.”

In more recent months, re:3D began a partnership with an Argentinean company that makes plastic filament for 3-D printers from recycled Coca-Cola bottles.

Last summer, re:3D donated a Gigabot to e-NABLE, an organization of volunteers who fabricate prosthetic hands with their 3-D printers.

The organization has prosthetic hand designs that are free for anyone to download and fabricate.

The hands — mostly in use by children in the developing world — offer the basic ability to grasp with the flexing of a wrist.

The hands are distributed free of charge. Each one costs less than $40 in material to the person making it.

By comparison, a professionally made prosthetic hand costs thousands.

The donated Gigabot, according to e-NABLE, will provide needed access to a large printer capable of prototyping and creating mechanical arms.

Ninety percent of available 3-D printers are still of the small, desktop variety, according to Fiedler.

He envisions a day when a 3-D printer is found in every home.

“Wouldn’t you like to have a machine that could make almost anything?” he asked.

At this year’s SXSW festival, re:3D demonstrated Gigabot’s potential by printing prosthetic hands — then they turned around and printed bottle openers at the Google Next Wave for Entrepreneurs VIP lounge.

“For a 3-D printer to work,” Fiedler said, “you need a good imagination.”

After all, a 3-D-printed object starts from nothing.

Unlike traditional manufacturing, which takes something and turns it into something else, 3-D printing — also known as additive manufacturing — begins with nothing and ends with a physical object.

Getting there requires only a digital blueprint made using 3-D modeling software.

“It’s that bridge between your imagination and the rest of the world,” Fiedler said. “By nature of the process, you’re able to create things that are impossible by any other technique.”

When asked who the target market is for Gigabot, he doesn’t hesitate.

“Everyone.”

“I don’t see the limits,” Fiedler said, “and that’s the most exciting thing.”