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Car and airplane parts, kids' toys - those are just a few of the many things that can be made using 3-D printing. The technology has been around for three decades. But now, it's finally started to take off - both for manufacturers and for regular consumers. NPR's Laura Sydell has the story of one designer who is pushing the limits of 3-D printing, by printing out an acoustic guitar.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: As a teenager, Scott Summit had a dream. He wanted to be a rock star, and like his rock heroes, he wanted to design his own guitar.

SCOTT SUMMIT: One that had a sound that was designed by me. I just didn't like the idea of off-the-shelf guitar. I wanted my own guitar.

SYDELL: Summit's dream to be a rock star? That's over. But he finally made his own acoustic guitar. So he handed it over to a professional, Shelley Doty, to give it a try.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)

SHELLEY DOTY: Wow, it's true. It's not like anything I've played before.

SYDELL: Or looked at. It's gray and smooth, like painted ceramic. It's got leafy engraving on the front. But what makes it really different is that it isn't wood. Scott Summit printed it.

SUMMIT: Out of powder; out of very, very fine, nylon powder. And when you do that a lot of times, you can create any shape you can dream up.

SYDELL: Scott Summit keeps a printer in his office. It's a mini version of the one that made the guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINTER)

SYDELL: The printer has a laser arm that's squirting a thick, red liquid onto a flat surface.

SUMMIT: So it's just as though you're squirting out toothpaste from a toothpaste tube, doing it in very fine layers. And they're all solidifying as you go. And you do it layer by layer and eventually, you'll get a physical, solid thing with a complex shape.

SYDELL: A little complex shape. With this printer, it has to fit into a 5-by-5-inch cube, but it only costs about $1,200. The printer that created the guitar? That one was 800,000 bucks. Mostly, those big ones are used to make parts for cars and airplanes, but Summit says 3-D printing an acoustic guitar seemed like a really cool challenge.

SUMMIT: Because it has all this complexity inside, and all these mechanical attributes in it that contribute to the acoustics; and we just don't know what's going to happen when you do that. So in this case, the idea was to see, could we actually do an acoustic guitar, and could it actually make a sound; you know, not necessarily sound good, but could we make some sound at all?

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)

SYDELL: Shelley Doty gives it a spin.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)

DOTY: Responds well to jazz.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)

SYDELL: Summit perks up as he watches Doty play.

SUMMIT: So as far as I know, this is the first of its type. And I didn't know it can play, as well, until 10 minutes ago.

(LAUGHTER)

SUMMIT: I was like, wait - the reason it sounds bad isn't the guitar. It's me.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)

SYDELL: Summit's office is filled with lamps with latticework, chainmail, children's toys, prosthetic limbs - all made with 3-D printers. Summit's an industrial designer, and director of technology for 3D Systems in San Francisco. He relishes the idea that if you can turn a meltable substance into powder, steel, silver, nylon, chrome; you can 3-D print with it.

SUMMIT: When you take the control of the design of something - you know, in this case, a guitar - and you democratize that; you just give it out to the world - and you say, here you go, here's the tools, have fun, do what you want with it, impress us; show us what you're going to come up with - that's what really excites me, is democratizing design.

SYDELL: Summit says if you can think it, you can print it.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUDIE CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.

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