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Desktop Manufacturing Shows Up At CES

Today, it's still a service for small and midsize businesses, but tomorrow it could reach the consumer market.
Today, it's still a service for small and midsize businesses, but tomorrow it could reach the consumer market.

You expect to see new cell phones, ear buds, and flat screens at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. What you don't expect to see is a service bureau out of Holland offering to turn your CAD files into plastic models, putting them into your hands in ten days for prices ranging from $50 to $150 each.

But there it was: Shapeways, spin-off of a Philips Electronics incubator in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. (They were actually exhibiting at an off-site media party rather than on the show floor.) They use a process called 3-D printing (with technology called selective laser sintering) to create CAD files into objects by depositing and the solidifying thin layers of plastic powder.

While Fortune 1,000 manufacturers have been using 3-D printing to make prototypes for two decades with machines that cost in the range of $50,000, Shapeways is bringing it to the SMB market, with a price within reach of anyone who has suitable CAD software.

They were also announcing the launching of Shapeways Shops, a forum where designers can post and sell CAD files suitable for 3-D printing. (E-commerce sites offering CAD files already exist, but the files are intended for graphical use and typically lack the finish needed for 3-D printing.)

But the very presence of Shapeways at CES rather than an industrial show may indicate a new, important trend -- consumer 3-D printing.

Don't laugh -- Desktop Factory in Pasadena, CA, has announced plans to sell a 3-D printer for $4,995, and has spoken of plans to eventually have a machine that sells in the $1,000 range. That would move it toward the home appliance market. Consequently pundits have predicted massive economic disruption as people make their plastic stuff at home, ending the need for manufacturing and shipping.

Of course, in the early days of the World Wide Web similar predictions were made about e-commerce ending the need for stores, but people still use them. But if you can have a home or small office PC with a laser printer, why not add a 3-D printer?

Time will tell.

CES runs through Sunday, with 2,700 exhibitors, and 130,000 attendees hailing from 140 different countries.