October 11, 2007

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Print in the third dimension
3-D printers getting cheaper all the time
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

If you could create any object just by designing it and printing it out, what would you make?

Now, what if you could only make things up to, oh, say, a foot square? And you could only make them out of a plasticky material that really isn’t strong enough to bear any weight?

Your instant robot tank of doom isn’t looking so imminent now, is it? Sorry to get your hopes up. But never fear — the technology I’m rambling about this week actually can make your world domination plans come a bit closer to fruition. That technology is 3-D printing, and while it’s not brand new this month or anything, it is getting much cheaper.

Here’s the concept: while a regular inkjet printer lays down a single layer of ink to create images or text on a page, a 3-D printer just keeps adding layers, building each upon the other. Instead of ink, the aforementioned plastic is used, so you end up with a physical object you can touch, hold, drop and break.

Up to now, 3-D printers have been used mostly by engineering design firms to create quick prototypes without having to find a manufacturer, procure materials and all that hassle. They can know within a few minutes if something they’ve hacked up in a computer-aided design program is worth pursuing or fatally flawed.

In Japan, researchers are experimenting with making artificial bones with these things. They’ve already implanted the polymer bone replacements in 10 people, bringing us that much closer to our glorious cyborg future.

Maybe you’re not a medical scientist. Maybe you’re an amateur product designer, or maybe you just want to replace that napkin holder you made out of Lego bricks five years ago with something more stylish. Like I said before, the technology’s gotten much cheaper in recent days.

It’ll still cost you $5,000.

So yeah, it’s cheap in relative terms. These things have been costing upwards of $20K for the low-end models, so five grand really is a steal. That’ll get you the Desktop Factory 125ci, a printer that can make things up to five inches cubed. The cost per cubic inch is supposedly $1, so it’s still quite a bit more costly than a mass production line in China, but way cheaper than traditional methods of building prototypes.

Within a few years, though, the costs could come down even more. In the 1980s, personal computers in the $5,000 range were the norm. Now you can pick them up for practically nothing. In 2030, you might be able to pick up one of these babies for a lot less and start cranking out whatever you desire. You’ll probably be able to buy and download 3-D designs for printing whenever you please, so if you really need that pair of dachshund bookends right frickin’ now, well, just print them off.

Of course, that’ll open up a whole new can of intellectual property worms, just as downloadable music and movies have already done. Why buy a name brand, famous designer thingamabob when you can find the 3-D model of it online? Anyone who owns the original could scan it and sell the pattern, or share it for free.

You heard it here first.