New Projects Help 3-D Printing Materialize

Until now, 3-D printers have been something of a novelty. The computer-controlled machines create three-dimensional objects from a variety of materials. Now, they are being discovered by everyday consumers. Jon Kalish reports.

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You may have heard of 3-D printers. These are computer controlled machines that create three-dimensional objects from a variety of materials. They've been kind of a novelty for a while but now they are being discovered by everyday consumers. Jon Kalish reports.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Sean Hurley works for a software company called Autodesk. Not long ago the door on his clothes dryer at home developed a problem. It wouldn't stay shut, which made it impossible to use the dryer.

SEAN HURLEY: The little clip when you shut the door that locks it is just a half-inch flat little piece of plastic with a little channel it. That's all it was. Thirty-nine bucks.

KALISH: Yep, 39 bucks to replace a little piece of plastic. So Hurley used his computer to design the part and then made it on a 3-D printer. Problem solved. Hurley knew how to do this because he knows how to use software to make a 3-D model. But for those of us who don't have that kind of computer chops, Hurley's company makes free software that fills in the gap.

HURLEY: 123D Catch allows somebody to use a regular camera and capture photos that generate a 3-D model. It's kinda like magic.

KALISH: And if even that seems too involved, there are now multiple sites on the Internet that offer free 3-D models for a variety of consumer items. For example, if the headband on your headphones breaks, you can have a new one printed from one of these free files. And more and more of these files are being made available every day.

New Yorker Duann Scott had one of those pricey Bugaboo baby strollers. When a part in the locking mechanism broke he was told it would cost $250 to fix it. Scott spent all of five minutes creating a 3-D model of the broken plastic part and had it printed in a stronger material: stainless steel. The cost: $25.

DUANN SCOTT: It came back just under two weeks later and I put it in the stroller and it worked straight away. And I documented it so that anybody could fix their stroller using my experience. And I made the three files available for download for free so anyone else can repair it. And I don't get any money from it. I just want people to fix their stroller in the same way I could.

KALISH: 3-D printers and other digital fabrication machines are allowing designers and consumers to bypass the traditional factory and create goods on a much smaller scale. But even if you skip the factory, you'll still need access to expensive digital fabrication technology such as laser cutters and CNC routers.

Ponoko is one of several companies that can take a customer's own design, or one made by a professional, and fabricate consumer goods made from a variety of materials, including metals, wood and felt. The company has 15 different production facilities in the United States.

At their Wellington, New Zealand headquarters Ponoko staffer Richard Borrett showed off a pair of stools made from birch plywood.

RICHARD BORRETT: This is one of the first products that came to our showroom when we first launched CNC cutting. He's managed to nest two of the stools onto one sheet of birch ply. And that all slots together, no fasteners. It's a complete sort of flat-pack design and you pop the pieces out and slot it all together.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNC MILLING MACHINE)

KALISH: A few blocks from Ponoko's office in Wellington, parts for a wooden chair are being cut on a CNC milling machine at Victoria University. Two graduates of the university's design program started the SketchChair project, which allows people with absolutely no artistic or computer skills to design their own chairs.

The open source software they use not only figures out how to construct the chair but also creates a computer file that tells a CNC router how to cut out the parts. Tiago Rorke is one of the designers behind SkechChair.

TIAGO RORKE: We weren't so much interested in trying to create a brand of furniture. Like, we were a little bit more interested in taking the model of open source software development and apply that to product design. You know, it's not just the SketchChair software which will be available for free but the designs themselves.

And so, it takes it away from being about the original sole authorship but more about people working collaboratively through a community and I guess sharing their ideas is a big part of it.

KALISH: If you'd like to digitally fabricate a table to go with your chair, there are free designs available from the AtFab project, which was started by architects in Lexington, Kentucky. They also give away files to make cabinets and beds.

Of course, most people don't have access to an expensive CNC milling machine, but there's a web site called 100 Thousand Garages that serves as a matchmaker for consumers and woodworkers who use these digital fabrication technologies. For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.

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