Want to Build Something Cool? Just Hit Print

It sounds like something out of science fiction — and in fact some have compared it to the “replicator” on Star Trek, which could dispense any food or liquid at the press of a button — but 3-D printing is rapidly becoming a reality. It isn’t quite the same as printing with paper, of course, but the idea is the same: you feed a design in one end, and out the other end comes a 3-D version of that object. And there are signs that it is closer to becoming a part of your life, even if you don’t command a spaceship — one 3-D printer company just got $5 million in funding, and some are planning to use a similar process to make artificial limbs and possibly even entire houses.

This week, Shapeways — a Dutch startup that was spun off from electronics and engineering giant Phillips as part of an incubator program — announced a Series A funding round from Union Square Ventures and Index Ventures (the company is also moving to New York as part of the funding). Ben Holmes of Index Ventures said in a blog post that Shapeways is “democratizing production”, and that the investment firm sees it as similar to some of its other investments such as Etsy, an online marketplace for crafts, while Albert Wenger of Union Square compared Shapeways to the Star Trek replicator in a blog post about the revolution going on in custom manufacturing and design.

Shapeways’s 3-D printing has come a long way even in just the past year: the company originally only created objects out of various plastics and polymer compounds, which are easy to mold and shape, and they were only available in a single color. But in January the startup began offering different colors of custom objects, and several months ago it started offering full 3-D fabrication in metal and even glass. Shapeways will make and ship small objects for as little as $25, and says that users are “printing” more than 10,000 objects such as jewelery and small pieces of art every month.

So how does it work? The plastic version of the “printer” or fabricator deposits small amounts of a compound in layers, which then hardens and is dipped in a chemical bath to set (the plastic can either be flexible or semi-rigid). The metal version uses a fine stainless-steel powder, which is deposited in a thin layer and then combined with a chemical binding material so that it becomes solid. Objects are built layer by layer gradually, until they are finished, and then “infused” with bronze and cured in an oven. Deposition-style fabrication has been available to designers of aircraft parts and other custom fabrication shops for years, but the price of the equipment has been falling and the quality and range of materials that can be used has increased.

As the New York Times described in a recent feature, there are other companies applying the same kinds of technology in other areas as well: Bespoke Innovations, for example, is planning to make customized prosthetic limbs through a similar process, allowing the disabled to design and create their own arms and legs, and to do so much more cheaply than traditional manufacturing methods allow. A Dutch firm makes custom furniture for hotels and other locations using a 3-D printing process, and a U.S. company called LGM makes architectural models. Contour Crafting of Los Angeles, meanwhile, says it has developed an extra large-format printer that can make buildings.

Lighting design firm MGX gets designers to create lighting fixtures using a variety of 3-D printing methods. And 3-D printing was even used during the making of the movie Iron Man to rapidly create pieces of the comic-book superhero’s suit, using a “desktop” 3D printer from Objet Geometries. Shapeways won’t be the only 3-D printing concern in New York City either: hacker Bre Pettis’s startup, called MakerBot Industries, sells a small open-source, custom-manufacturing device that costs less than $1,000 and will make plastic objects to any design, provided they are less than 4 inches by 4 inches by 6 inches — the only downside being you have to put the machine together yourself.

Embedded below is a video of Shapeways doing custom metal “printing.”


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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Nail Soup