3-D printing enters the retail arena

A 3-D printer, the Bukobot 8 Duo (Dual Extruder).

Today, scientists at MIT are expected to launch a revolutionary 3-D printer. The technology has been around for a while, but as 3-D printers get more advanced, they're also getting cheaper, and finding new homes -- like at a new retail 3-D printing shop in Southern California.

Deezmaker lies in a mini mall in Pasadena. Inside, along its walls, sit about half-a-dozen 3-D printers. They're small rectangular machines and inside, a mechanical arm moves back and forth.

Diego Porqueras is the store's owner. He prints some key chains working off dimensions fed to the printers by a computer. But instead of putting ink on paper, this printer uses plastic.

"The physical printing itself starts at the spool. That's a plastic. The plastic gets fed into the extruder," he says.

By "extruder" he means, the tip of the mechanical arm, which looks like an extra fine pencil.

"And there's a special motor that drives it into the hot end tip where it melts and it extrudes it out very very small, like 0.3-milimeter widths," says Porqueras.

Once the shape is outlined, the printer fills it in with layer upon layer of plastic. And about 10 minutes later, you get a 3-D plastic key chain.

Right now, there are about half-a-dozen 3-D print shops like Deezmaker around the country. They're mostly used by crafts people making key chains and other tchotchkes. But the promise of 3-D printing is much bigger.

"It's a completely disruptive technology," says Ping Fu, founder and CEO of Geomagic, a high-end 3-D software company in North Carolina.

Among her achievements, Fu invented 3-D printing software to make hearing aids -- the kind that fit the shape of your ear. She says, once upon a time, a highly skilled craftsmen could make eight such hearing aids a day. "Today, a high school drop out can print a few hundred of them at once," she says.

In five years, Fu thinks we'll see 3-D printers in department stores. If you can't find a pair of jeans, tennis shoes or high heels that fit right, they may be able to print one out for you.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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