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A desktop factory

3-D printers, which can make plastic objects, are creeping into the home

July 28, 2013|Shan Li
  • Diego Porqueras, owner of Deezmaker in Pasadena, is visible through one of the plastic objects he made with a 3-D printer.
Diego Porqueras, owner of Deezmaker in Pasadena, is visible through one… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Diego Porqueras' Deezmaker store in Pasadena is a geeky version of Santa's workshop, brimming with action figures, chess pieces and jewelry.

But instead of relying on elves, Porqueras has built his own one-man factory using 3-D printers capable of churning out plastic objects within a few hours. He sells the printers, which go for as little as $650, at the shop, which opened in September in a strip mall.

The 37-year-old entrepreneur is part of an emerging industry for affordable 3-D printers. The technology has long been used in the aerospace and automotive industries, among others, to create prototypes, but has slowly crept into the consumer market with simplified printers that can be had for a few hundred or thousand dollars.

"You can make so many things with them," Porqueras said. "People who have businesses buy them for making prototypes. Parents buy them to make toys for their kids. Hobbyists buy them because they like to tinker."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, July 29, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
3-D printing: In the July 28 Business section, an article about 3-D printers said the U.S. market for the devices totaled $1.8 billion in 2008. The correct amount is $1.18 billion.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 04, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
3-D printing: In the July 28 Business section, an article about 3-D printers said the U.S. market for the devices totaled $1.8 billion in 2008. The correct amount is $1.18 billion.

3-D enthusiasts imagine a day when these printers are as ubiquitous as phones and people print out many household goods instead of stopping at a store. Small-business owners are already switching to these printers from more expensive industrial machines. Prices are expected to drop even further after key patents on 3-D printing technology expire next year.

Usually about the size of a microwave, these machines "print" three-dimensional objects by melting plastic and depositing the material layer by tiny layer based on a three-dimensional computer-generated design of a necklace, say, or a fork. More advanced -- and expensive -- printers can use materials such as metal and chocolate.

For those who are less tech savvy, there are new smartphone apps that streamline the process of crafting or altering a design. Online markets have also popped up in which shoppers can customize and order 3-D-printed clothing, toys, gadget accessories and other products.

Industry experts say 3-D printing could revolutionize traditional manufacturing, much as the Internet upended the music industry, and fundamentally alter how consumers shop and how much they pay. Some tech companies are already foreseeing a day when every home contains a 3-D printer churning out custom furniture and clothes, or a Kinko's-esque store in every neighborhood where items can be manufactured on demand via printers.

It's also raised concerns among law enforcement professionals, who worry that criminals will be able to print untraceable guns and other weapons at home.

"The billion-dollar question is, how big will this become and when?" said Terry Wohlers, president of consulting firm Wohlers Associates, which tracks the industry. "You see companies already making fashion garments and jewelry through printing. And we have seen demonstrations of 3-D printing food and living tissue."

Wohlers said that by 2021, the U.S. market is estimated to hit $10.8 billion, up from $2.2 billion last year and $1.8 billion in 2008. The industry has been growing, on average, more than 25% a year for the last decade. The consumer side, which is in its nascent stages, is especially ripe for growth, Wohlers said.

Tech companies are already salivating at the opportunities.

Last month, 3-D veteran Stratasys Ltd., which for decades has made ultra-pricey printers for companies such as Boeing Co. and General Motors Co., announced plans to buy MakerBot, which specializes in affordable desktop printers. Rival 3D Systems Inc. launched two consumer-oriented models this year, the Cube ($1,299) and the CubeX ($2,499 and up).

Formerly headquartered in Valencia before moving to South Carolina, 3D Systems has deep roots in Southern California: Its chief technology officer, Chuck Hull, is widely credited with pioneering 3-D printing about three decades ago. He still leads a research lab in Valencia, where scientists such as engineer Scott Turner experiment with new materials in the chemistry lab and tinker on machine prototypes.

Turner said that healthcare is one of the biggest areas for 3-D printing; already, companies are testing living cells with a view toward making organs and other human parts such as ears. In March, a man in the U.S. had 75% of his skull replaced with a 3-D printed implant.

Another early adopter is the education sector: With a 3-D printer, students can make and play with models of cells rather than just study them in textbooks, or make custom robots in physics class.

The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena already owns seven 3-D printers and plans to order more. The machines give students the luxury of repeatedly tweaking their designs for products as varied as car fenders and kitchenware, said David Cawley, director of the school's rapid prototyping and model shop.

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