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3-D printers craft future, one plastic layer at a time

Saturday - 1/11/2014, 10:18am  ET

makerbot640.jpg
The MakerBot Replicator Mini is the entry-level 3-D p (MakerBot)

Steve Winter, Special to wtop.com

LAS VEGAS - At every Consumer Electronics Show, a different industry tends to steal the spotlight and emerge as one of the breakthrough stories of the year.

Without question CES 2014 is the Year of the 3-D printer.

While the overall concept of 3-D printing dates back roughly 25 years, only recently has the technology matured to becoming available for the everyday consumer, at a more affordable price.

New York-based MakerBot is widely acknowledged as the industry leader.

"The concept behind 3-D printing is really quite simple," says MakerBot CEO Jenny Lawton.

"You take a plastic filament and run it into an extruder, heat it up to the temperature where the plastic changes state from solid to liquid then it extrudes through a tiny hole and lays down each layer of a single file," says Lawton.

"The printer takes a file object and slices it up like you would a CAT scan and each layer is laid down, bit by bit, with each layer roughly the width of a sheet of paper."

When the process is finished - usually in around 30 minutes for small scale items - the product is done.

MakerBot and other companies exhibiting here are showing toys, including action figures, models, vehicles. yet experts say future application usage is virtually unlimited.

Plastic guns made with 3-D printers have led Congress to prohibit plastic firearms.

Manufacturers say there are many less controversial uses of the technology.

"In the special event industry, you can use 3-D printing to create highly- personalized and customized product giveaways and premium items for meeting and show attendees, keynote speakers, even members of the media," says Gary Shu, Senior Manager of Market Development for Tapiei-based XYZ Printing.

"Having come from a commercial photography background, I can see that when speeds ultimately improve, the capabilities of 3-D production will also increase," says Shu.

According the experts, the application capabilities are already expanding, branching out into the realms of architecture, construction, marketing and academia.

To this point, the Internet has been the Internet of information, says David Jaffe, Lynn University's Dean of the College of International Communication. "3-D printing brings us into a new era - the Internet of things."

Current 3-D printers can create small objects like keys, whistles, and boxes, says Jaffe.

"In the future, we'll be printing our clothing, shoes and even the food we eat. In the medical community, we'll be able to print body organs and skin," Jaffe says.

Here at CES, MakerBot is introducing three versions - entry-level, 'prosumer,' and industrial-sized - with a price as low as $1,375.

See how the 3-D printers work:

Video by Kenny Fried

Editors Note: Longtime CES attendees Steve Winter and Kenny Fried will be contributing reports this week. In their day jobs, they are public relations professionals with Sage Communications. During CES they will not be reporting on any of their clients' products or those of direct competitors.

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