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From Guns To Chocolate: The Possibilities Of 3-D Printing


Human ears, gun parts, bars of chocolate, musical instruments, robots - just a few of the things that have recently been created from scratch by 3-D printers. Apparently and amazingly, you just put in the materials, upload a design and press start. My printer doesn't even work with just old paper and ink. But we'll hear more about this potential. The possibilities seem endless. Some believe 3-D printing will revolutionize manufacturing, but the technology is also raising thorny questions about copyright and regulation.

If you use 3-D printing, tell us what you make. Our numbers are 800-989-8255. Our email address: talk@npr.org. And if you're on Twitter, here's your challenge. Tell us what you'd like to print on a 3-D printer. We'll ask our guest whether he thinks you'll get your wish. Joining me to talk about the promise and possible pitfalls of 3-D printing is Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm that follows the 3-D printing industry. He joins us by phone from Fort Collins, Colorado. Welcome to the program.

TERRY WOHLERS: Oh, thanks, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: So what are some things you have used 3-D printing for?

WOHLERS: Well, I've had many different types of parts made over the years - automotive parts, parts of scanned images of faces. Just last week, I received 50 stainless steel bottle openers that have our name on the side to give away as gifts. Just a wide range of - well, we have a little 3-D printer in our office just mostly for playing, experimentation. And we made some Christmas tree ornaments and other little items like that as gifts. And so you can make just about anything you can imagine and model up on a computer.

LUDDEN: OK. And I've seen the pictures of these products. We've had them on our website. Lots of stories done this week, since President Obama mentioned 3-D printing in his State of the Union. But I just - I can't quite get my mind around it. Can you please give us a layman's description? How does this work?

WOHLERS: Sure. I'd be happy to. So you start out with a computer model. And the way that's constructed is usually with computer-aided design software that's intended to allow you to create a three-dimension object. And it can be a technical part, like a cell phone or automotive part, or it can be a figurine or an action figure. It can be just about anything. And then special software slices that model, that digital model up into thin, horizontal cross-sections.

And then it takes each of those cross-sections, sends them to the 3-D printer, and the 3-D printer prints each one after the other, one on top of the next, to create an object. And so it can be a very complex shape, like even a human skull that would be difficult to manufacture any other way. But the computer doesn't care, nor does the 3-D printer. It just takes these cross sections and prints them. And it can work with powder and a laser.

And then your parts are fully encased in a powder at the end. And you remove the powder, brush it away, and there are your parts, along with internal cavities and channels and so forth, whatever the...

LUDDEN: But, I mean, what materials go in? Don't you have - do you have, like, a big cavity? Is there heat involved? Is it, you know, molded in there? What do you put in to make this happen?

WOHLERS: Yeah, well - sure. Well, you start out - in this case, the one I was describing is a plastic powder. And the - it's called thermoplastic, like a nylon or ABS plastic, and it melts under heat. So a laser's used, and the laser traces it, draws the - each of those cross-sections that I described one after the other. And the second cross-section adheres to the first, and the third to the second, and so forth.

And so it melts the plastic together, but it does it in a very precise way so that the quality of the parts can be quite good, especially with the high-end professional-grade systems. There are...

LUDDEN: And it's being built there. You can see while it's being built? Or does it just kind of pop out of the machine all made?

WOHLERS: Well, when the part - and typically, you build multiple parts at once if you can - will be fully enclosed inside the material. So when the build process is finished, the parts are inside, in this case, the powder, and you remove the powder, and then your parts are inside. There are systems that will print a polymer, a plastic material with an inkjet print head, and so it deposits layer by layer in the same fashion.

And then at the end, there's some extra material that you have to remove, because it can have overhanging features that need to be supported. And so there can be some handwork at the end, but the same basic idea is you're printing layer by layer.

LUDDEN: Wow. All right. Let's get some callers on the line. Mark is in Gainesville, Florida. Hi, Mark.

MARK: Hi there. How are you doing today?


MARK: Yeah. So I'm an engineering student at the University of Florida, and we actually use the same exact 3-D printers that have been described here in our - in my undergraduate classes. One thing that we did was we kind of had to design something using computer-aided graphic design. We actually used SolidWorks in my class, and me and my group made a Rubik's cube. Unfortunately, it doesn't print in color. It's just kind of like an off-white color is what ours printed, at least. And so we painted on the different sides, and were able to use it. So I thought it was kind of interesting that it's being used in higher education, as well.

LUDDEN: Huh. Interesting. All right. So you're still in school?

MARK: Yes.

LUDDEN: OK. So you don't know if you're going to make a business using all of this technology yet.

MARK: Not quite, no. But I just thought it was exactly the same thing. He actually - he pulled it up in class. He had a webcam set up on the printer, I don't know, from a building on campus, and he showed it to us. We checked in on it a random few times during class, and he pulled it up on this other projector and showed us through the - it was printing and moving around, doing layer by layer and moving. And so each person got to kind of like make their own thing and send it to the printer.

LUDDEN: Oh. Thanks so much, Mark.

MARK: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Let's get another call - Jon in Ithaca. Hi, Jon.

JON: Hi, there.

LUDDEN: What do you print?

JON: So I run a startup called Widetronix. We're making very tiny batteries. And we actually use a 3-D printer to make what's called the transistor outline, or the standard semi-conductor packaging that you can buy in the millions in the marketplace. But we wanted to develop something custom and prototype it, and it was much less expensive for us to actually develop these really tiny packages for our battery technology.

LUDDEN: OK. And this is - so you're using it and manufacturing - you're not - you don't feel threatened by the technology. You're taking advantage of it.

JON: Well, it's a much less-expensive way to actually prototype a semi-conductor package that is kind of non-standard. Typically, it's been upwards of 10 or $15,000 to actually have a packaging manufacture do the molds and kind of put it all together and stamp out, you know, a couple of thousand of them for you, which is kind of overkill when you're just trying to prototype something.

LUDDEN: All right, Jon. Thank you so much.

JON: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: Terry Wohlers, was there some weird thing like this on "Star Trek" some years back or something? Did someone imagine this? You know, we heard about Steve Jobs imagining iPhones and things years, decades ago. Did I miss that "Star Trek" episode that had all this happening?

WOHLERS: Well, there's a "Star Trek" replicator you may be thinking of, and some people have thought of that as, in the future, we'll be able to walk up to a device and get whatever you want. And, essentially, it's headed in that direction. We will have that opportunity to get parts made much quicker, less expensively, easier. And there'll be many factories set up - well, I can't say everywhere, but in a lot of places, even in some homes, where people will operate businesses, hobbyists have already started to buy these machines. And so it's really changing the face of manufacturing.

It's really a fundamental way of thinking of manufacturing, because in the past - well, even today, a lot of products are built in the thousands or millions at a big organization where you have hundreds of thousands of people coming to that location, and now, if you can imagine an individual having a personal factory in his or her home or dorm room or small office somewhere.

LUDDEN: But is that going to mean fewer jobs? I mean, it's some people take advantage, and other people get hurt by this. I mean, what's this going to do to China?

WOHLERS: Well, I think if you're wanting to buy a trashcan or equip a stadium with stadium seats, you'll go to China or someplace else to get those because they're big, basic in shape, inexpensive items. But if you want more specialized, custom or semi-custom, limited edition products, or even small quantities of some type of product for aerospace, medical, some consumer products, then this makes a lot of sense. So I think it's going to create not thousands, but tens of thousands of new opportunities, businesses throughout the U.S. and elsewhere. So it's a very exciting time.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's get a call in. Joe is in San Francisco. Hi, Joe.

JOE: Hi. I just want to add that I think it's just another one of those tools that come on and democratize a process that typically before was limited to big engineering companies that has the tools to do it. I went to a how-to fair with my son this summer, and there was probably half a dozen or so booths using the 3-D printer in all sorts of different ways.

One, a guy made a guitar using a 3-D printer, and it took just a few hours, I guess, from what he told. It put out the parts, and then assemble it, and it played. And it was pretty amazing what the capabilities of this equipment is. And it just - I think it's just the beginning of what is - kind of the potential is.

LUDDEN: All right. Joe, thanks so much.

JOE: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: Terry Wohlers, I mean, do you see the shift in manufacturing already? Or have companies been using this, and are they - what shifts do you see?

WOHLERS: Well, we're already seeing companies in aerospace, such as Boeing, they're flying 22,000 parts made in this way on 10 different types of aircraft, both military and commercial.

We're seeing medical orthopedic implant companies in Europe, and now in United States. More than - for example, more than 80,000 metal and titanium, solid titanium hip implants have been manufactured to date. About 30,000 of those have been implanted into patients. More than 15,000 dental copings are made everyday. A dental coping is the main body, the main structure of a crown or bridge. About 15,000 of those are being made - manufactured every day of the week.

And so that's - these are very recent developments, just in the last few years. And as medical companies and aerospace companies certify more designs, we're going to see the demand for machines, the materials and new businesses to support the need that's developing.

LUDDEN: All right. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Madeline is in Ferdinand, Indiana. Hi, Madeline. Welcome to the program.

MADELINE: Hello. How are you?


MADELINE: Hello. I'm a junior at Forest Park High School here in Ferdinand. And I'm a Project Lead the Way student in engineering, and we've had a 3-D printer for over two years. And by using that technology and printing out things we developed on Autodesk or CAD, it has really helped us foster creativity and make things for projects or displays and learn about isometric views.

LUDDEN: Excellent. Thank you for sharing, Madeline.

MADELINE: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: What was your favorite project or product?

MADELINE: Well, we've made so many things. I don't know. I got to make some little key chains and things to my friends, which is really great, but we're actually working on a wind energy project, and we've made a lot our components with it. So it's been a great help.

LUDDEN: All right. Thanks so much for the call.

MADELINE: Thank you.

LUDDEN: But, Terry Wohlers, aren't there still some legal issues here at play, and copyright? What about, you know, see it and make it, but someone else has already made that first? What does the law say here?

WOHLERS: Well, you're right, Jennifer. It has never been to easier to copy a design and then print it. And so it's going to be a big - well, I guess the legal professionals certainly benefit from this new development. We have three-dimensional scanning tools that can capture a shape, an object, and create that digital model that we talked about earlier. And then once you have that, then you can print it out.

And, of course, some people can copy things any - well, let's hope that not too much of this goes on, but we know it will, and it already has. And so is there a problem? Yes. There's been IP laws in place for very long time, copyright trademark and patent laws. So it's hopeful that most people will respect those, but we know that many won't. So now we have the tools to copy and remake things. And so, well, it's anybody guess as to how that will unfold.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, meanwhile, we have people who've responded to our Twitter challenge. Some tweets came in, one from @fourwhitefeet: I'd like to print breakfast, lunch and dinner on a 3-D printer like the Jetsons. Any chance for that?

WOHLERS: Well, we've already seen companies and universities experiment and develop processes of 3-D printing that can print chocolate and can print cheese.

LUDDEN: That you can eat. You can eat these things.

WOHLERS: That's correct. Yes. And so - cheesecake icing, as well. There's a development going on here in the United States, the ideas to print beef. So instead of slaughtering cattle, you could print a fillet and serve it.

LUDDEN: Oh, I hear a new food movement coming, and a backlash against it. OK. From claraharris: I want a 3-D printer to make Lego pieces to replace the ones Kiddo loses, or specialty pieces to let him design his own. How about that? That sounds pretty reasonable.

WOHLERS: Yeah. Well, we've already seen some of that. If you go on the Web and Google the right terms, you can find some examples of that already. So, yeah, that's - makes a lot of sense.

LUDDEN: More things to step on in the house. OK. This is from @idlbeokay_bob, I believe: I would make copies of rare artwork, like statues. That might get into the legal arena, no?

WOHLERS: Yeah. Well, you know, that's a good point. If you have something that could be stolen or broken or somehow damaged, it'd be nice to have a backup copy of that. And so, yeah, that's possible now in museums like the Smithsonian. They're looking at digitizing and making replicas of these different artifacts and other pieces that they have. And, of course, if you go into these gift shops, they have scaled-down versions of these different items that you see in museums. So it could be used in that way, as well.

LUDDEN: Wow. All right. A final tweet, Julian Brooks(ph) says: A functional government, definitely.


LUDDEN: We wish him luck on that one. Final few seconds, what else are you looking for as this technology develops, Terry Wohlers?

WOHLERS: What else am I looking for? Well, we - the really big opportunity is to use this to manufacture parts. It's been used for more than two decades as a tool for prototyping. So the real big opportunity and where the money is is in manufacturing, and to do the types of products, hopefully, here domestically, rather than outsourcing around the world, and to do that in a very smart way and in - on a demand basis - in other words, rather than building millions of something or thousands and having them in warehouses, to have your inventory digital, and to print on-demand.

LUDDEN: All right. Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates on the 3-D printing industry. Thank you so much.

WOHLERS: Oh, you're welcome.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, it's Book Club day on TALK OF THE NATION. We'll discuss Dian Fossey's "Gorillas in the Mist." This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.