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12/1/2006
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Your Next House May Come From A Printer

3-D printing is expensive technology used in architectural models and engineering prototypes. But the first consumer Web site using 3-D printing is in development, and prices are coming down.

The era of desktop manufacturing is upon us, thanks to advances in 3-D printing technology. Just as laser printers in the 1980s moved from service bureaus into homes, sparking the desktop publishing revolution, 3-D printers — which render computer files in three-dimensional plaster — are poised to reshape how many products are designed and made.

"I definitely think we're really near that tipping point," says Dina Braun, VP at Alchemy Models, a company that makes architectural models. "Machine prices are going down and output quality is going up."

Alchemy Models specializes in architectural rapid prototyping, converting computer models of buildings into physical ones.

"For architects, their whole world is visualization," says Braun. "If they show a blueprint drawing, the client looks at them like a deer in headlights. When they can give the client something to hold in their hands, turn around, see how everything is placed, then the client finally gets it."

Alchemy uses the Z Corp. Spectrum Z510, which can print in color at 600-dpi resolution. At $49,900, the Spectrum isn't quite priced as a stocking stuffer, but 3-D printing is becoming more affordable every year and over the next 10 years it's likely to follow the same cost curve as color laser printers and other computing devices. The Z Corp. 310 Plus costs a mere $19,900.

Z Corp. saw its revenue grow by 50% in 2005, to more than $30 million. Its customers include BMW, Boeing, DaimlerChrysler, Fisher-Price, Ford, NASA, Northrop Grumman, Porsche, Sony, Harvard, MIT, and Yale.

Z Corp. is working on what may be the first consumer-facing use of 3-D printing, a Web site called Cosmic Modelz where kids can order 3-D figures they designed using SolidWorks' Cosmic Blob 3-D software. This site was supposed to be operational toward the end of the summer but has been delayed, according to a company spokesperson.

While 3-D printing has been used for prototyping products, it is increasingly being used for finished products, says Roger Kelesoglu, director of customer development for Z Corp., who points to architecture and medicine as two fields where this is common.

"In medical cases, if you require some type of CT or MRI scan, that data can be output to a 3-D printer," says Kelesoglu. This lets surgeons plan operations in real space rather than on-screen, a more laborious and less applicable process, he explains.

"If you're doing some type of facial reconstruction where you might need to have fixture plates to realign the patient's bone structure," says Kelesoglu, "if you don't have a physical model to plan this on, doctors will take off-the-shelf metal plates and, once the patient is open on the table, they will try to fit that plate to the patient, during the surgical procedure."

With 3-D printing, a facial model could be generated to size the plates, resulting in a more efficient operation with less risk.

It's conceivable, however, that this technology will raise the risk of product counterfeiting. Real-world merchants have long wrested with counterfeit products. Pirated and counterfeit goods accounted for about $512 billion, or roughly 7% of global trade, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

Tomorrow's businesses may find that 3-D printing has compounded their problems. As the digital and physical worlds converge, online copying will become indistinguishable from many kinds of offline manufacturing.

Just as residents of the virtual world called Second Life recently protested the appearance of software called CopyBot that could replicate the commercially valuable digital objects, tomorrow's sellers of trinkets and novelty items — things easily scanned and replicated — may raise similar objections.

Maybe. Right now, desktop manufacturing is limited by price and the kinds of materials can be produced. Being able to duplicate complex items "is still somewhat off in the future because there's such a wide variety of materials than end up in finished products," says Kelesoglu. "The first phase in the home manufacturing revolution is that somebody in their garage with a Z Corp. printer can compete with the top visualization, design, and engineering firms."

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