Printing 3-D objects has been around for decades, but in recent years the technology has become more widely used by entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Beginning this week, a 3-D printer will be available to the public at a UPS Store in Menlo Park, allowing people to readily access the technology at a lower price than buying the machine themselves.
The devices are able to print complex objects from digital design files by producing layer upon layer of plastic from the bottom up, until the desired object is formed. The process resembles icing a cake, except with plastic.
Printing costs vary widely. An extremely simple object such as a smartphone case will cost $40 and take about two hours to fabricate, according to Daniel Remba of UPS. More complex designs, such as a replica of a human femur bone, will cost $300 and take about eight hours to print.
UPS Store aims to market the service to consumers, but sees more potential in small businesses and startups in the area. That's why the company chose Menlo Park for a part of the pilot, Remba said.
Producing relatively cheap physical first drafts of potential products — or parts of products — will help entrepreneurs create more accurate prototypes more quickly, said Bruce Bradshaw of Stratasys, the company that makes the printer.
"A part is worth a thousand pictures," he said.
For people who aren't familiar with CAD design — which can be complex — Remba said there is free software such as TinkerCAD available online. It would take someone with average computer literacy about an hour to learn the software, he said.
The new Stratasys uPrint SE Plus printer, which will be located at the store at 325 Sharon Park Drive, uses ABS plastic — which is common in a range of consumer goods — along with a proprietary soluble material that helps support complex parts of a design and ensure accuracy, said Bradshaw.
The machines, which cost about $20,000 each, can print six colors, and objects under 8 inches wide, 12 inches deep and 12 inches high, Bradshaw said.
Digital fabrication technology — such as 3-D printing — dates back to 1952, according to research penned by Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. But, the technology has only recently become cheap enough to implement on a relatively small scale — such as in the UPS store — with some 3-D printers now even marketed for home use.
While Gershenfeld acknowledges 3-D printing's immediate utility, he noted that in the future such technology will likely be overshadowed by more sophisticated digital fabrication techniques able to produce fully functional devices — like flying drones — right out of the printer.
"3-D printing is useful, but currently overhyped," Gershenfeld said in an email. "Both the present and promise of digital fabrication are much broader than that."