Notebook > Technology
Kevin Moloney/The New York Times

Print to fit

Technology | 3D technology allows companies to 'print' everything from jewelry to prosthetic limbs

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

Printing: It's not just for paper anymore. For years, engineers and designers have used rapid-prototype machines-essentially, fancy printers-to turn designs into small, lightweight 3D models, a process which eliminates the need to send designs off to an expensive prototyping plant and wait for their return. The machines work by "stacking" many layers onto one another, which build up until a three-dimensional shape appears. And as 3D printing technology advances, companies are finding new applications for it, especially with falling prices: Though some of the machines are expensive, one called MakerBot can be built from a kit and costs as little as $650.

Bespoke Innovations, located in San Francisco, uses 3D printing technology to create inexpensive prosthetic limb casings-the customer and the company work together to create a design and generate a computer model, and then the printer lays down plastic layers, one on top of the other, until the casing is formed-much like a cake with hundreds of very thin layers. Other companies have made things like jewelry, bottles, lamps, architectural models, iPhone cases, and doorknobs. Because 3D printers create objects that are relatively inexpensive and quick to produce, designers who use 3D printers can afford to try new, innovative designs with less risk: Bespoke is working on making entire limbs, which will cost as little as one-tenth of those produced by competitors-and will be dishwasher-safe, too.

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