Maybe Someday We Can Download MP3 Players, Too…

4 comments May 7th, 2007at 10:47am Posted by Eli

It’s still in its early stages, but this is just too cool:

Sometimes a particular piece of plastic is just what you need. You have lost the battery cover to your cellphone, perhaps. Or your daughter needs to have the golden princess doll she saw on television. Now.

In a few years, it will be possible to make these items yourself. You will be able to download three-dimensional plans online, then push Print. Hours later, a solid object will be ready to remove from your printer.


Three-dimensional printers have been seen in industrial design shops for about a decade. They are used to test part designs for cars, airplanes and other products before they are sent to manufacturing. Once well over $100,000 each, such machines can now be had for $15,000. In the next two years, prices are expected to fall further, putting the printers in reach of small offices and even corner copy stores.

The next frontier will be the home. One company that wants to be the first to deliver a 3-D printer for consumers is Desktop Factory, started by IdeaLab, a technology incubator here. The company will start selling its first printer for $4,995 this year.

Bill Gross, chairman of IdeaLab, says the technology it has developed, which uses a halogen light bulb to melt nylon powder, will allow the price of the printers to fall to $1,000 in four years.

“We are Easy-Bake Ovening a 3-D model,” he said. “The really powerful thing about this idea is that the fundamental engineering allows us to make it for $300 in materials.”


“In the future, everyone will have a printer like this at home,” said Hod Lipson, a professor at Cornell University, who has led a project that published a design for a 3-D printer that can be made with about $2,000 in parts. “You can imagine printing a toothbrush, a fork, a shoe. Who knows where it will go from here?”


IdeaLab hopes companies will sell three-dimensional designs over the Internet. This would allow people to print out replacements for a dishwasher rack at home. And it would open up new opportunities for toys.

“You could go to, download Barbie, scan your Mom’s head, slap the head on Barbie and print it out,” suggests Joe Shenberger, the director of sales for Desktop Factory. “You could have a true custom one-off toy.”


Professor Lipson said researchers are developing ways to use the process to build parts with more complex functions. They have preliminary designs for batteries, sensors, and parts that can bend when electricity is applied.

“A milestone for us would be to print a robot that would get up and walk out of the printer,” Professor Lipson said. “Batteries included.”

This reminds me quite a lot of Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age, in which every home has a nanotechnology fabricator which can build anything if provided with raw material and a template. If you think digital piracy’s an issue now, just wait until physical goods become downloadable.

UPDATE: Just a few follow-up thoughts:

1) I think it will take nanotechnology to get to the robot-printing stage. Something like my digital camera, for example, has fine circuitry and precision lenses that I just can’t see being replicated through extruding stuff from syringes, or building up from layers.

2) This would have huge impacts on the manufacturing sector. Smaller products would be printed entirely in the home, or at the retail outlet, and larger products might be printed by giant factory printers instead of being assembled. At a bare minimum, the parts would be printed instead of manufactured.

3) None of this may ever happen. 3D printers may never evolve beyond creating simple mechanical or possibly electrical (but not electronic) devices.

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Technology


  • 1. LJ/Aquaria  |  May 7th, 2007 at 8:12 pm

    I guess I’m the only fellow tech geek nerd to find this really interesting. Glad you shared it.

    Of course, being the world-class pervert that I am, my first thought was, “Wow–imagine being able to make your own sex toys, from the privacy of your own home!”

    No more having to settle for what size/shape products a manufacturer thinks I want…

    A girl can dream.

  • 2. Eli  |  May 7th, 2007 at 8:18 pm

    I probably should have added another bullet about the potential explosion in CAD software…

    But yes, sex toys are something that 3D printers would be quite good at. Preferably the ones that extrude stuff, as opposed to the ones that build stuff in layers… with rough edges.

  • 3. LJ/Aquaria  |  May 7th, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    I won’t go into that pleasure and pain dynamic. I tend to scare people when I get started on it.

  • 4. virgotex  |  May 7th, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    3) None of this may ever happen. 3D printers may never evolve beyond creating simple mechanical or possibly electrical (but not electronic) devices.

    oh I think it will. Nanotechnology Institutes abound.

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