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Six minutes with the 3D printer fairy at CES

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3D Systems Senior Researcher Scott Turner didn’t buy these glasses. He printed them. You could design and print your own goodies, too, if you buy a Cube for $1,299.
Photo: Erin Ryan

When 3D Systems debuted its Cube 3D printer at last year’s CES, people went pretty bonkers. From mod watchbands to toy robots, personal portraits to custom Olaf Diegel guitars, the stuff that can be printed is out of this world.

At this year’s CES, a representative of a totally unrelated mega-electronics company said if I wanted to see the coolest thing in the entire show, I should head to the back corner of Central Hall, where 3D Systems had a wall of printers going nonstop—plus one attached to the chest of senior researcher Scott Turner. While we chatted, his printer worked on an over-sized rook chess piece (he printed his sweet Vegas glasses in advance).

Cube 3D printer - from YouTube.com

The only other 3D printer I’ve heard about is the one that works with foodstuffs in Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab. With your product, what are the uses to the average consumer, other than pure fun?

One of the things I’m wearing is a Nano wristwatch, and the bracelet is printed on this printer. So it’s not just tchotchkes—it’s something I use, and I actually really like it because I can take it running, get as sweaty as I want and then take the Nano out and put the band in the dishwasher.

What’s the band made out of?

This is printed with ABS. So, we print with two plastics, ABS and polylactic acid, PLA, which is a very eco-friendly material; it’s compostable. ABS is recyclable. As you can see here, when we’re printing we don’t waste any material; we’re only depositing the material needed for the part. So, for $1,299, you’ve got a device in your house that lets you make Nano wrist bracelets, novelty sunglasses for a party saying “Vegas Baby” or “Happy Birthday Mom.” … The material comes in many colors, and the cartridges are $49. My Nano bracelet, you could probably print 12 of those, so it’s $4 or less.

How do you design custom objects?

That’s the other part of our company, the apps and the software to create 3D content, ’cause you can download things off the Internet now that are in 3D. There’s a ton of open-source material out there. We offer a ton of content. But the real trick is personalizing it. So you want to add your face, your name, make it fit you exactly, and that’s where you have to use a software tool or an app to customize the 3D file just for you. … We’ve got an app that runs on a tablet. We’ve got an app that you take a series of photographs and it converts to a 3D file. We’ve got a sculpt program … so if you can push clay around, you can push digital clay.

How long has this been on the market?

This is our second CES with this product. This is the Cube; we introduced it last year. This is Generation 2, so we’ve added two print materials; we’ve got a cool build plate now so we’re really trying to drive it down to kids and education, so kids can start printing when they’re in school. We introduced our CubeX, which is a more powerful, hobbyist, do-it-yourselfer to small professional office system. It’ll print something the size of a basketball.

Can you print a basketball?

Absolutely. There’s one right over there on the table.

Does it bounce?

Not very high in ABS (laughs), but it does bounce.

So, last year when you debuted this technology, how crazy did people go?

People went wild. It was amazing. We’ve had a ton of traffic again this year. This CubeX product won CNET’s Best of CES in emerging technology, so we’re really proud of that.

What kind of competition do you have right now?

We have these consumer products, so we’re competing with the hobbyist companies that are out there, but we also sell industrial systems. Most hearing aids are manufactured using our equipment, so we have competitors in the manufacturing space, too. We really have, in the industry, the broadest range of printing technologies and intellectual property to protect that.

Given how gobsmacking the product is, why aren’t you nestled in next to the big dogs at the front of the showroom?

Being new in the consumer space, we just don’t have that seniority for the good booth spaces. So this year we took one of our Cubes, we mounted it on a little backpack rig, and we’re printing as I walk around. This rook will take a little under three hours. This is about three and a half hours for my wrist bracelet. My glasses took an hour and a half. So, while you’re getting ready for the party, you can print something out and show up and impress the host.

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Erin got her first newspaper job in 2002 thanks to a campfire story about Bigfoot. In her award-winning work for ...

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