The objects displayed on a shelf in the depths of UAV Solutions' headquarters in Jessup might look like toys, out of context.
To the untrained eye, the plastic doodads – some thick, some thin, some glossy, others matte, and in a variety of subdued colors, like black, brown, tan and white – could be sandcastle molds, toy submarines – maybe DEVO hats in conservative hues.
The reality is much more practical: They're parts of engines, circuit boards, radios. And each was printed by one of the company's 3D printers.
Howard County officials toured UAV's facilities Friday morning as part of an event unveiling a new program to promote digital manufacturing in the region.
In partnership with the Howard County Economic Development Authority, the county is working to bring 3D printers to small business owners and startup entrepreneurs throughout the state.
County Executive Ken Ulman said the project's goal was to make a currently expensive technology accessible. The county budgeted $500,000 over two years for the initiative, which brings three 3D printers to HCEDA's business incubator at the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship.
"How many small, startup companies are there out there that have an idea, have a prototype, but just can't afford the equipment?" Ulman said. "We know that the jobs of today and the jobs of the future are created by the private sector, but we also know that the public sector can do something to create the environment that enables private sector investment."
Jan Baum, who ran a 3D-printing "Object Lab" at Towson University before being hired as director of the 3D Maryland initiative, said making 3D, or additive manufacturing, technology accessible was crucial in keeping and bringing business back to the state.
"We're at the dawn of a new age of manufacturing and making," Baum said. "Additive manufacturing is being referred to as the next industrial revolution… We're additively manufacturing the physical world layer by complex layer."
MCE Executive Director Julie Lenzer Kirk said the 3D Maryland initiative would combine smaller-scale commercial printing with networking opportunities for business owners already engaged in 3D printing, such as UAV Solutions, and those looking to get started.
Beginning in spring 2014, the 3D printing lab at MCE will be available for small business owners to design and print objects, for a fee.
"We want it to be something that is sustainable long-term," she said. "3D printing is cheaper, faster and local. It's about bringing business back and keeping it here."
While UAV Solutions uses its 3D printers to manufacture parts for unmanned aircraft, commonly referred to as drones, the machines can print almost anything – as long as there's a design.
Additive manufacturing "allows us to manufacture for design instead of designing for manufacture," Baum said.
Whereas traditional manufacturing operations would need to produce thousands of copies of an object to make the venture worthwhile, 3D printers can easily be reconfigured to fit the specific needs of a customer.
"Our customers aren't looking for an off-the-shelf type of product," Bill Davidson, CEO of UAV Solutions, said. "We don't need to put a lot of effort into making a change."
Davidson, an early adopter of 3D printing technology, who bought his first machines in 2007, said his engineers can often make necessary changes in about 5 minutes.
The turnaround time from design to production is much faster as a result.
Baum said the president of MCE's current resident startup came to her with a design and was shocked to see a prototype on her desk 48 hours later.
"He said 'this is like magic,'" Baum said. "Additive manufacturing makes mass customization a reality."
District 1 County Council member Courtney Watson, who is running to succeed Ulman as county executive in 2014, wore an orange plastic bracelet printed for her at the MCE incubator to the event.
She called 3D printers a "game-changer.
"They're a key to really helping economic development in the county," she said.
State Sen. Allan Kittleman, the Republican candidate for county executive, also attended the event. He lauded the initiative as a way to make Howard County more competitive economically.
Kittleman said he planned to push a bill to align Maryland tax laws on accelerated depreciation with federal laws, which would allow businesses to pay lower taxes on an asset in its early years. Kittleman said the early deductions, which would decrease over time, would make it easier for businesses to invest in more expensive technology like 3D printers.
"We really need to encourage these businesses to expand," he said.
Davidson credited additive manufacturing with much of his business' success. When he founded the company in 2006, he had four employees. Now, he has 52.
"I can honestly say [3D printing] has helped our business grow," he said.
As he toured UAV Solutions' headquarters, District 13 State Sen. Jim Robey remembered his first job working for a traditional manufacturer.
Looking at the machines, he shook his head. "It's like I'm a dinosaur, and they're the astronauts," he said.