3-D Printing Brings Sci-Fi Concept to Life

Printers for tangible objects already are in homes, industry and medicine.

July 15, 2011, 5:32 PM

July 19, 2011 — -- Your faucet is leaking at home again, spreading a puddle of water all across your kitchen floor. You go to find the crescent wrench but it's nowhere to be found, and the hardware store is closed. What do you do now? For some people, it's now easy: Go to the computer and print a crescent wrench.

The technology, known as 3-D printing, makes this idea, once the stuff of science fiction, very real.

A 3-D printer, which is very diferent from paper printers, creates an object by binding layers of material, either powder or plastic, to create a physical sculpture or object. The concept, first introduced by MIT in the early 1990s, has radically changed from its first days of printing physical objects to now printing prosthetic limbs for orthopedic surgeons, prototypes for vehicle companies and even toys for children.

One company, Z Corporation, located in Burlington, Mass., and specializing in 3-D printing technology, said it has sold its printers and technology to companies including Motorola, Nike, Toyota and Black & Decker.

A 3-D printer from Z Corporation ranges in price between $15,000 and $60,000, but Joe Titlow, the vice president of product management, said the value outweighs the price for these companies.

"This technology enables the ability to create physical models," said Titlow in an interview with ABC News. "It enables them to do something amazing and increase innovation; they can design a product, print it out and get instant feedback of their model."

The Z Corporation printers don't just print models and sculptures, but fully operable wrenches, tools and even parts for a car.

Titlow himself has taken advantage of the technology and proudly told ABC News his vehicle has a part helping to keep it run that was "printed" by his machines.

A 3-D Printing Community

The biggest change isn't necessarily the technology itself, said Keith Ozar, head of marketing at Makerbot in Brooklyn, N.Y., another company specializing in 3-D technology.

"It's an innovating thing," Ozar said. "It's going to change how people think. People can think in 3-D. ... A paintbrush is used by a painter and the Makerbot is used by anyone who wants to empower their creativity."

Ozar argued the consumer version the company offers spurs another realm of creativity, Ozar added.

"When you get a Makerbot, you also get these goggles," he said. "You start looking in a different way, thinking, 'Can I buy that or can I make that?'"

The company offers 3-D printers to the home consumer in two models: a do-it-yourself model for $1,299 and a fully assembled model for $2,500.

Thingiverse.com, a website developed by the company, allows consumers with 3-D printers in their home to upload and share designs to print. Ozar claimed the website and "community" reflect a revolution.

"People used to be sharing music and movies online," he said. "Now they're sharing chess pieces and sculptures."

As a consumer of 3-D printing himself, Ozar has experienced its advantages.

"I'm a guitar player and I never need to buy picks anymore," he said. "I just print them."

Printing for a Cure

One company, Bespoke Innovations, is even using 3-D printing technology in the medical field by printing prosthetic limbs.

Scott Summit, founder and CTO of Bespoke Innovations, said the new technology "allows for something never possible before."

"Once your leg is gone, getting symmetry to your body is almost impossible," Summit said. "Casting the body is a dumb technology. You're not going to truly be able to provide symmetry."

The only way cure the problem and accomplish true symmetry, he said, is through new digital technology and 3-D printing.

"We are taking advantage of the technology that lends itself well in that you can create one part specific to one person's needs," he said. "That is traditionally very difficult to do, as it has to be a very fine craft or it's very expensive."

Prosthetic legs normally would range in cost between $10,000 and $15,000, but Summit believes such prices are going to be things of the past.

"The legs we create for people [cost] around $4,000," Summit said.

And the 3-D printed prosthetic limbs are even dishwasher safe.

With 3-D printing new to the medical field, Summit said he believes it is only years away from creating a "revolution."

"Every attribute ... cost, speed, size, will increase dramatically," he said. "I see it in space stations. And only a few years away, I see 3-D printing houses. ... It's a tool that lets you imagine something with incredible complexity and simply print it and have it in your hand the next day.

"We now have the freedom of creation," he said.

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