3-D Printing Spurs a Manufacturing Revolution
By ASHLEE VANCE
Published: September 13, 2010
SAN FRANCISCO — Businesses in the South Park district of San Francisco generally sell either Web technology or sandwiches and burritos. Bespoke Innovations plans to sell designer body parts.
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Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
Scott Summit, co-founder of Bespoke Innovations, with a prosthetic limb.
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Kevin Moloney for The New York Times
Charles Overy, founder of LGM, with a model of a resort in Vail, Colo. “We used to take two months to build $100,000 models,” he said, adding that now they cost about $2,000.
The company is using advances in a technology known as 3-D printing to create prosthetic limb casings wrapped in embroidered leather, shimmering metal or whatever else someone might want.
Scott Summit, a co-founder of Bespoke, and his partner, an orthopedic surgeon, are set to open a studio this fall where they will sell the limb coverings and experiment with printing entire customized limbs that could cost a tenth of comparable artificial limbs made using traditional methods. And they will be dishwasher-safe, too.
“I wanted to create a leg that had a level of humanity,” Mr. Summit said. “It’s unfortunate that people have had a product that’s such a major part of their lives that was so underdesigned.”
A 3-D printer, which has nothing to do with paper printers, creates an object by stacking one layer of material — typically plastic or metal — on top of another, much the same way a pastry chef makes baklava with sheets of phyllo dough.
The technology has been radically transformed from its origins as a tool used by manufacturers and designers to build prototypes.
These days it is giving rise to a string of never-before-possible businesses that are selling iPhone cases, lamps, doorknobs, jewelry, handbags, perfume bottles, clothing and architectural models. And while some wonder how successfully the technology will make the transition from manufacturing applications to producing consumer goods, its use is exploding.
A California start-up is even working on building houses. Its printer, which would fit on a tractor-trailer, would use patterns delivered by computer, squirt out layers of special concrete and build entire walls that could be connected to form the basis of a house.
It is manufacturing with a mouse click instead of hammers, nails and, well, workers. Advocates of the technology say that by doing away with manual labor, 3-D printing could revamp the economics of manufacturing and revive American industry as creativity and ingenuity replace labor costs as the main concern around a variety of goods.
“There is nothing to be gained by going overseas except for higher shipping charges,” Mr. Summit said.
A wealth of design software programs, from free applications to the more sophisticated offerings of companies including Alibre and Autodesk, allows a person to concoct a product at home, then send the design to a company like Shapeways, which will print it and mail it back.
“We are enabling a class of ordinary people to take their ideas and turn those into physical, real products,” said J. Paul Grayson, Alibre’s chief executive. Mr. Grayson said his customers had designed parts for antique cars, yo-yos and even pieces for DNA analysis machines.
“We have a lot of individuals going from personal to commercial,” Mr. Grayson said.
Manufacturers and designers have used 3-D printing technology for years, experimenting on the spot rather than sending off designs to be built elsewhere, usually in Asia, and then waiting for a model to return. Boeing, for example, might use the technique to make and test air-duct shapes before committing to a final design.
Depending on the type of job at hand, a typical 3-D printer can cost from $10,000 to more than $100,000. Stratasys and 3D Systems are among the industry leaders. And MakerBot Industries sells a hobbyist kit for under $1,000.
Moving the technology beyond manufacturing does pose challenges. Customized products, for example, may be more expensive than mass-produced ones, and take longer to make. And the concept may seem out of place in a world trained to appreciate the merits of mass consumption.
But as 3-D printing machines have improved and fallen in cost along with the materials used to make products, new businesses have cropped up.
Freedom of Creation, based in Amsterdam, designs and prints exotic furniture and other fixtures for hotels and restaurants. It also makes iPhone cases for Apple, eye cream bottles for L’Oreal and jewelry and handbags for sale on its Web site.
Various designers have turned to the company for clothing that interlaces plastic to create form-hugging blouses, while others have requested spiky coverings for lights that look as if they could be the offspring of a sea urchin and a lamp shade.
“The aim was always to bring this to consumers instead of keeping it a secret at NASA and big manufacturers,” said Janne Kyttanen, 36, who founded Freedom of Creation about 10 years ago. “Everyone thought I was a lunatic when we started.”
His company can take risks with “out there” designs since it doesn’t need to print an object until it is ordered, Mr. Kyttanen said. Ikea can worry about mass appeal.
LGM, based in Minturn, Colo., uses a 3-D printing machine to create models of buildings and resorts for architectural firms.
“We used to take two months to build $100,000 models,” said Charles Overy, the founder of LGM. “Well, that type of work is gone because developers aren’t putting up that type of money anymore.”
Now, he said, he is building $2,000 models using an architect’s design and homegrown software for a 3-D printer. He can turn around a model in one night.
Next, the company plans to design and print doorknobs and other fixtures for buildings, creating unique items. “We are moving from handcraft to digital craft,” Mr. Overy said.
But Contour Crafting, based in Los Angeles, has pushed 3-D printing technology to its limits.
Based on research done by Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, Contour Crafting has created a giant 3-D printing device for building houses. The start-up company is seeking money to commercialize a machine capable of building an entire house in one go using a machine that fits on the back of a tractor-trailer.
The 3-D printing wave has caught the attention of some of the world’s biggest technology companies. Hewlett-Packard, the largest paper-printer maker, has started reselling 3-D printing machines made by Stratasys. And Google uses the CADspan software from LGM to help people using its SketchUp design software turn their creations into 3-D printable objects.
At Bespoke, Mr. Summit has built a scanning contraption to examine limbs using a camera. After the scan, a detailed image is transmitted to a computer, and Mr. Summit can begin sculpting his limb art.
He uses a 3-D printer to create plastic shells that fit around the prosthetic limbs, and then wraps the shells in any flexible material the customer desires, be it an old bomber jacket or a trusty boot.
“We can do a midcentury modern or a Harley aesthetic if that’s what someone wants,” Mr. Summit said. “If we can get to flexible wood, I am totally going to cut my own leg off.”
Mr. Summit and his partner, Kenneth B. Trauner, the orthopedic surgeon, have built some test models of full legs that have sophisticated features like body symmetry, locking knees and flexing ankles. One artistic design is metal-plated in some areas and leather-wrapped in others.
“It costs $5,000 to $6,000 to print one of these legs, and it has features that aren’t even found in legs that cost $60,000 today,” Mr. Summit said.
“We want the people to have input and pick out their options,” he added. “It’s about going from the Model T to something like a Mini that has 10 million permutations.”