Friday, December 14, 2007

3D “printers” go mainstream

A recent Wall Street Journal article (“How 3-D Printing Figures To Turn Web Worlds Real”, 12/12/07) reported on the changing world of 3D printing. The “printers” are in fact automatic model makers that take 3D designs generated on a computer and sculpt models based on the digital information. There are various technologies, including ink jet-like versions, but the result is a three-dimensional model in plaster or composite materials, including starch, paper, metals, or sand.

Until recently, these devices were used almost exclusively for high-end product modeling and prototyping for companies like automakers and aircraft manufacturers. They are also used in medical labs, engineering firms, and the industrial design departments of high-tech firms.

But the cost of these devices is coming down. While such machines used to cost $300,000 or more, they now run for around $20,000, and there are newer machines in the pipeline for $5,000 or less. This is spurring a new set of companies that target 3-D models at specific niche markets, such as architects, role-playing game enthusiasts, custom toy makers, and designers of keepsakes and souvenirs (custom doll-house furniture).

At $5,000, 3D printers start looking like Easy-Bake ovens for tech geeks. And the latest models will be almost desktop-size in dimensions. One application that is starting to appear is food sculpture, using chocolate, Cheez-Whiz, sugar, or dough. Think of favors for a birthday party or 3D bride and groom statuettes on a wedding cake. A brave new world of “printing” is just beginning.

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