3-D printers becoming common

PHOTO: Creative Tools / via Flickr.com

Jeff Lipton has hooked his laptop to a printer that's no bigger than a microwave. It looks a bit like a robotic pastry-filler. He's deciding what the printer will create.

"So once you select the shape, its size, what material it's made out of and at what resolution, we can create the print job," says Lipton.

Lipton is a PhD candidate at Cornell University. Today he's printing a silicone gear. Lipton starts by loading a three dimensional design into the software that directs the printer.

"We can also do everything from Play-Doh to stainless steel and everything in between," said Lipton.

He fills a syringe with silicone. And finally lets the printer take over.

"So then we just say make the job," he says.

Lipton helped create a 3-D printer called the Fab at Home. It fabricates objects the same way a two-dimensional printer prints pictures. A print head moves back and forth along a bar. The syringe lays down silicone layer by layer until the gear is created.

The 3-D printer was first invented in the eighties. Since then, car designers have used them to create new car models. Drug makers print pills with them. A company in San Diego has even developed one that can print human tissue.

Don Domes of Hillsboro, Oregon uses one in his drafting class.

"When a student can hold something that they created on the computer, it just makes it come alive," Domes said.

Domes says there are two students applying for each seat in his 3-D printing class.

But 3-D printers won't become a household item until the price goes way down. Vice president Scott Harmon says his company Z Corporation makes printers that cost between 15,000 and 60,000 dollars.

"I think you have to look at things like Xbox and PS3, I think this thing has to be down around 500 dollars before this thing becomes a mass device," said Harmon.

Harmon says Z Corp is looking at ways to introduce 3-D printing to more people. The industry today is where computers were in the late 70s and early 80s. And everyone is trying to figure out how to make the technology available to regular consumers.

The first 3-D printers were like the mainframes of computing¿s early days. And if Z Corp is 3-D printing's versions of IBM, then there is also a world of hobbyists working in their garages vying to create this industry's version of the Apple II.

Bre Pettis is one of those hobbyists. His company, Maker Bot, produces an at-home, easy to use 3-D printer.

"We wanted one but we couldn't afford any of the commercial versions out there that were like 100 grand and so we started hacking and we got it so that we could make one for really cheap," Pettis says.

A Maker Bot doesn't print with the same detail or colors as a Z Corp printer. But its sticker price is twenty-five hundred dollars. And it gets much cheaper if you use the open source designs to build your own.

So 3-D printing's future could be home-use printers likes the Maker Bot. Or it could be companies that print objects based on customers' ideas. One way or another, it seems likely that soon enough you'll be able to create your own spatula, or oven knob, or music box, or plates, or sneaker, or just about anything you can think of.

Read more at InnovationTrail.org.