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Originally published Sunday, September 19, 2010 at 10:07 PM

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3-D printing: a technology that set inventors free to dream

Bespoke Innovations 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.

The New York Times

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.

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," 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 startup 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," Summit said.

Design software

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.

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"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. 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," 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.

Hefty cost

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, The Netherlands, 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 website.

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, Kyttanen said. Ikea can worry about mass appeal.

Models created

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 hand craft to digital craft," 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 startup 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, Summit has built a scanning contraption to examine limbs using a camera. After the scan, a detailed image is transmitted to a computer, and Summit can begin sculpting his limb art.

Summit and his partner, Kenneth Trauner, the orthopedic surgeon, have built some test models of full legs that have features like body symmetry, locking knees and flexing ankles.

"We want the people to have input and pick out their options," Summit said. "It's about going from the Model T to something like a Mini that has 10 million permutations."

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