3-D printing: The next big thing?

Imagine 'printing' your own 3-D toys or models

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Berman tested a Desktop Factory beta unit for three months. "If you were doing a doll, an expensive 3-D printer would produce something like a manufactured doll you'd get in a store, whereas from this unit, the eyebrows would not be sharp, and a mouth would lack a sharp edge -- like a photo a little out of focus. But obviously it's a much lower price point, and we are enthusiastic about it."

Shaky premise

The whole premise of a consumer RP market seems shaky to Grimm. "I don't think that soon everyone will be printing your own widgets," he said. "The technology is not there in terms of ease of use or material strength. The consumers will not put up with subpar quality. Anyway, how many people bake cookies from scratch? Yet, instead of buying a part, we expect people to sit down and make one?"

"From a hardware standpoint, I think prices could fall to the point where 3-D printers could become home appliances," countered Jon Cobb, vice president for 3-D printers at Stratasys Inc., a 3-D printer maker in Eden Prairie, Minn. "The real impediment would be the software -- how are you going to get the information to create a model? A hobbyist could get information off the Internet, but if you are talking about making replacement parts, it would be incumbent on the manufacturers to supply the information someplace, and no one has done that yet."

A firm that touts itself as the leading online supplier of stock 3-D data models is Turbo Squid Inc. in New Orleans. Michele Bousquet, the company's marketing director, said that there has been little demand for 3-D printer files. Most of its stock files are used for on-screen rendering and animation projects, or by architects who need virtual furniture and other accessories to spruce up virtual buildings prior to virtual walk-throughs by real customers, she explained.

Bousquet also noted that 3-D printing involves details that are usually not considered for screen models, such as making sure no polygons overlap and that all surfaces are connected. These considerations make most of the models offered on her site unsuitable for 3-D printing, she noted.

A 3-D printer from Stratasys for the commercial market.

At FigurePrints.com, Fries said that every figurine file has to be inspected before it's printed, to look for capes with the proper thinness, for example, or flaming swords that require artistic interpretation. "We learn new things every day," he noted.

Fries said there might be a market for home 3-D printing. "When you have children, an amazing amount of plastic crap comes into the house every day, and you might as well download it from the Internet," he noted.

For right now, though, "we're looking for ways to scale up production," he said.

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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