A 3-D printer, which has nothing to do with paper printers, creates an object by stacking one layer of material — typically plastic or metal — on top of another, much the same way a pastry chef makes baklava with sheets of phyllo dough.
The technology has been radically transformed from its origins as a tool used by manufacturers and designers to build prototypes.
Kevin Moloney for The New York Times
A California start-up is even working on building houses. Its printer, which would fit on a tractor-trailer, would use patterns delivered by computer, squirt out layers of special concrete and build entire walls that could be connected to form the basis of a house.
It is manufacturing with a mouse click instead of hammers, nails and, well, workers. Advocates of the technology say that by doing away with manual labor, 3-D printing could revamp the economics of manufacturing and revive American industry as creativity and ingenuity replace labor costs as the main concern around a variety of goods.
“There is nothing to be gained by going overseas except for higher shipping charges,” Mr. Summit said.
A wealth of design software programs, from free applications to the more sophisticated offerings of companies including Alibre and Autodesk, allows a person to concoct a product at home, then send the design to a company like Shapeways, which will print it and mail it back.
“We are enabling a class of ordinary people to take their ideas and turn those into physical, real products,” said J. Paul Grayson, Alibre’s chief executive. Mr. Grayson said his customers had designed parts for antique cars, yo-yos and even pieces for DNA analysis machines.
“We have a lot of individuals going from personal to commercial,” Mr. Grayson said.
Manufacturers and designers have used 3-D printing technology for years, experimenting on the spot rather than sending off designs to be built elsewhere, usually in Asia, and then waiting for a model to return. Boeing, for example, might use the technique to make and test air-duct shapes before committing to a final design.
Depending on the type of job at hand, a typical 3-D printer can cost from $10,000 to more than $100,000. Stratasys and 3D Systems are among the industry leaders. And MakerBot Industries sells a hobbyist kit for under $1,000.
But as 3-D printing machines have improved and fallen in cost along with the materials used to make products, new businesses have cropped up. Freedom of Creation, based in Amsterdam, designs and prints exotic furniture and other fixtures for hotels and restaurants. It also makes iPhone cases for Apple, eye cream bottles for L’Oreal and jewelry and handbags for sale on its Web site.
Various designers have turned to the company for clothing that interlaces plastic to create form-hugging blouses, while others have requested spiky coverings for lights that look as if they could be the offspring of a sea urchin and a lamp shade.
“The aim was always to bring this to consumers instead of keeping it a secret at NASA and big manufacturers,” said Janne Kyttanen, 36, who founded Freedom of Creation about 10 years ago. “Everyone thought I was a lunatic when we started.”
His company can take risks with “out there” designs since it doesn’t need to print an object until it is ordered, Mr. Kyttanen said. Ikea can worry about mass appeal.
LGM, based in Minturn, Colo., uses a 3-D printing machine to create models of buildings and resorts for architectural firms.
Full and unedited article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/technology/14print.html?src=me&ref=general