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Your idea, "printed" in 3-D

A new layering process renders prototypes that pop.

(Page 2 of 2)

One company is making a printer for use in the home – or so they say. Desktop Factory, of Pasadena, Calif., is still seeking funding, but Cathy Lewis, its chief executive, says the company has built several prototypes and is beta testing. She hopes to be able to sell a printer for about $5,000 – still expensive, but not that much more than the price of a laser printer back in the 1980s. Their printer uses a halogen lamp to cure the plastic it uses.

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That said, she doesn’t expect to ship any for some time, and notes that for most people it would still be expensive.

Smaller players have taken inventive approaches, too. Alvaro Fogassa, an engineer from Curitiba, Brazil, took an old plotter printer – the kind you can still see in shops – and altered the print head. Mr. Fogassa has been experimenting with different materials, but the idea is the same as with Z Corp.’s printers.

Even though he was able to use off-the-shelf parts – proving that in theory, at least, one could make a printer for a few hundred dollars – the problem isn’t the printers. Fogassa says that using computer-aided design software is difficult at best, and until there is a version that allows even new users to design things easily, then 3-D printing is likely to stay in the office, rather than the home.

Still, the technology is finding a market. Bradley Rigdon, of Tunkhannock, Pa., bought a machine from Dimension. It’s about the size of a refrigerator, and cost the former machine-shop worker $15,000.

For less than $75 (his rates vary according to size and complexity) he can make a plastic model from a computer file, he says, generated by any of a number of popular design programs. Mr. Rigdon’s business is still firmly in the start-up phase. But he says he has done work for design firms and modelers, rendering in plastic everything from engine parts to small figurines, and even an improved iPhone case.

Others are in the hunt. Peter Weij-marshausen, chief executive of the Netherlands-based firm Shapeways, said he wanted to take the ability of the Internet to reach people and combine it with a desire for customization. The Web-based Shapeways can take a photo, Mr. Weijmarshausen says, and create a 3-D rendering using any one of two or three different printers.

Weijmarshausen says one of his biggest orders was for napkin holders for a wedding, and that he expects the eventual market will be in such items – ones that are needed by the tens or hundreds at most, rather than thousands.

Bruce Bradshaw, director at Objet, agrees that the “service bureau” model is likely to emerge first. He envisions an engineering student, say, going to a local Kinko’s and producing his prototype.

Others see developments in more permanent materials, including metal.

ProMetal, of Irwin, Pa., uses a stainless-steel powder heated to high temperatures to create objects that are then coated with liquid bronze that soaks into the stainless steel, infiltrating it and giving it strength.

Jenna Gragg, a ProMetal representative, points to applications in dentistry. Another division of the company uses the rapid prototyping machines to make dental implants.