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Innovation in 3D printing

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Innovation in 3D printing

Wandering the brightly lit halls of the 3D Systems’ plant in Rock Hill, South Carolina, I gaze upon objects strange and wondrous. A fully functioning guitar made of nylon. A phalanx of mandibles studded with atrocious-looking teeth. The skeleton of a whale. A five-color, full-scale prototype of a high-heeled shoe. Toy robots. And what appears to be the face of a human fetus. “That was made from an ultrasound image,” Cathy Lewis, the company’s chief marketing officer, tells me, shrugging.

This collection of objects shares one feature: All were “printed” by machines that, following instructions from digital files, join together layer upon layer of material—whether metals, ceramics or plastics—until the object’s distinctive shape is realized. The process is called 3-D printing (or additive manufacturing, in industrial parlance) and if you haven’t heard of it by now, you haven’t been paying enough attention to scores of breathless news stories and technology blogs—or to President Barack Obama, who declared in his most recent State of the Union address that 3-D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost anything.”

While many people only now are hearing about the technology, engineers and designers have been using large and expensive 3-D printers for nearly three decades, making rapid prototypes of parts for aerospace, defense and automotive companies. Over the years, however, digital design software has matured, scanners have become ubiquitous and affordable desktop printers have come within reach of self-starting entrepreneurs, schools and home tinkerers. Technologists boisterously proclaim that 3-D printing will democratize design and free us from the he­gemony of mass manufacturing.

But just because anybody’s ideas can take shape doesn’t necessarily mean they should—a notion that struck me in 3D Systems’ lobby,

where I saw shelf after shelf of what some people try very hard not to describe as cheap plastic crap: brightly colored miniature vases, phone cases, jewelry, dolls and, inevitably, skulls. (On just one 3-D file-sharing site, I found 101 designs for skull rings and pendants.) The creator of these lobby tchotchkes? The Cube, manufactured by 3D Systems.

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