3-D printing set to break out of mold

New machines can sculpt with sugar, chocolate


Some of the oddest items on display this past week at the International CES gadget show were edible, origami-like sculptures made of sugar, their shapes so convoluted as to baffle the eye.

The treats were just one of many signs that we will all be getting a taste of 3-D printing soon — and the phenomenon won’t be confined to the realm of engineers and tech enthusiasts.

The sugar sculptures are the output of the ChefJet Pro, the first commercial, kitchen-ready food printer. It looks like an oven, and works by depositing sugar layer by layer in a tray, then melting the parts with water so they solidify together, much as sugar in a bowl hardens over time in moist air.

Ink can be selectively added to the water so the sculptures come out in full color — a feature sure to set the minds of wedding and party planners spinning.

Next to the geometric sculptures was a wedding cake supported by a delicate latticework tower of sugar that would be nearly impossible to make by conventional means.

Oh, and the printer can print in chocolate, too!

3D Systems Inc., a South Carolina company, expects to sell the full-color printer for about $100,000 in the latter half of this year, and a monochrome version for half that price.

Last year, there were only a handful of 3-D printing companies at the gadget show. This year, there were 30, and the organizers had to turn others away because there wasn’t space available to fit them in. The 3-D printing area of the show floor drew dense crowds who gawked at the printers and their creations, which ranged from toys to teacups to iPhone cases.

Melissa Spencer, a jewelry designer from Los Angeles, was at the show to look for a printer. 3-D printers have been used in jewelry-making for a long time, but high prices and poor resolution have limited their use. With prices down and quality up, it is now possible for an independent designer to buy a printer.

The printers focus ultraviolet light into plastic resin, setting it. That takes time. One printer maker cited seven hours for a batch of five rings. The pieces are then used to create molds for molten silver, gold or platinum.

Spencer is now toying with the idea of abandoning the reuse of molds and instead using the power of a 3-D printer to make every piece a unique design customized for the client. It helps that she can show the plastic prototypes to customers before casting.

With 3-D printing, “we’re moving to a world of mass customization,” said Shawn Dubravac, an analyst for the Consumer Electronics Association, which puts on the show. What started with custom-printed T-shirts can now happen in all kinds of industries, he added. It is still a small field, though. He expects that just under 100,000 3-D printers will be sold in 2014.

One jewelry company was at CES to demonstrate how it has taken the capabilities of the 3-D printer and made them the core of its business.

American Pearl, a family-owned company founded in 1950, in November revamped its website to allow shoppers to order custom jewelry. From about 1,000 basic designs, the buyers can change metals and stones and order engravings, and they can see the results rendered in 3-D on their computer screens. The company prints the orders in 3-D in its factory in New York.

The approach lets the company keep prices low while satisfying customers’ demands for unique pieces.

The mass customization capability is useful in unexpected fields.

Bre Pettis, the CEO of New York-based printer manufacturer MakerBot, is proud that a customer, a South African carpenter who had lost four fingers in an accident, figured out how to use a printer to make a mechanical hand for himself. He distributed the blueprints to other MakerBot users, who can tweak them to fit.

“Normally, prosthetics cost tens of thousands of dollars, but with the MakerBot, they cost $5 in materials,” Pettis said.

MakerBot unveiled new models at the show, including its biggest one yet, which is the size of a minifridge, costs $6,499 and can print objects the size of a human head. It also launched a smaller version, the Replicator Mini, which can create cupcake-size objects. It will cost $1,375 when launched this spring.

MakerBot will be undersold, however, by XYZprinting Inc. of Taiwan, which plans to sell its Da Vinci printer starting in March in the U.S. for $499. That price is bound to attract a lot of people.

The MakerBot and Da Vinci printers take rolls of plastic wire and melt them, piece by piece, depositing tiny dots to create objects. The resulting pieces can be light and strong, but their surfaces show a characteristic banded texture and the resolution is limited; the overall impression is crude. The light-curing models used by jewelers and engineers produce smooth objects with fine detail, but they have been out of reach of consumers and tinkerers until now.

The show provided hope on that front, however. XFab, an Italian company that has made professional 3-D printers for a decade, demonstrated a $5,000 laser-powered model at the show, and said it is looking at launching a smaller, $2,500 model later this year. That is roughly the price of the standard MakerBot, which has been the vanguard of the consumer 3-D printing movement so far.

Elsewhere at the show, there was a “technology fashion” show that featured 3-D-printed shoes and a bag with appliques created on a consumer-level, computer-controlled cloth cutter, the Brother ScanNCut.