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Desktop Factory Brings 3D Printing to Consumers

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted August 1, 2007

As the markets up at Wall and Broad Streets continue to pacify the bears with an ongoing downtrend, to the nation’s entrepreneurs it’s really nothing but a sideshow.

Deaf to the chatter about market doom and gloom, they simply go on about their work as the talking heads on CNBC like Cramer, Kernan and Maria take it into overdrive. And while, of course, markets really do matter in grand scheme of things, to the creative classes they are only a faint background noise.

Their success, after all, has very little to do with the daily, weekly, or monthly gyrations of the markets and everything to do with the power their ideas. So undisturbed by it all they do what they have always done–continue to push their dreams down the unknown road.

One of those high-profile dreamers is Bill Gross.

He’s the chairman of Idealab, a technology and business incubator that gained fame throughout the Internet era as it delivered a mix of hits (Overture Services) and misses ( in the dot-com age.

That makes Gross something of a serial entrepreneur. Leaving the Internet largely behind, Idealab and its founder continue to foster several new groundbreaking companies.

The company’s mission is unchanged. It is to create pioneering companies based on ideas that not only challenge the status quo but change the way people, think, live and work.

Among them is a company called Desktop Factory.

The Pasadena-based venture has developed a potentially disruptive 3-D printer that could make the rapid prototyping machines that businesses have used for nearly ten years now available to consumers. Its projected cost: $1,000.

That’s a far cry from the early days when prototyping machines cost businesses well over $100,000 each. It even beats current versions that sell for $15,000.

With CAD software, the machine will allow consumers either to create their own 3-D designs or download them to print their models as simply and as easily as they now do with documents.

The Desktop Factory 3D builds the models starting with the bottom, using a nylon-based mixture that is subsequently hardened by the machine. It can build 3D models up to 5" x 5" x 5" x 5", constructed of layers that are 0.01" thick.

The machine works by melting the nylon powder with nothing more than a halogen light. From there the process is not unlike that of laser printer, as it builds the solid objects layer by layer.

It’s not quite the "replicator" from Star Trek, but it’s close.

Eventually, Idealab hopes, people will be able download all sorts of designs to "print" for themselves at home, ranging anywhere from plastic replacement parts to custom designed toys. The possibilities are endless.

"You could go to, download Barbie, scan your Mom’s head, slap the head on Barbie and print it out," suggested Joe Shenberger, the director of sales for Desktop Factory. "You could have a true custom one-off toy."

But Desktop Factory is not alone. 3D Systems plans to introduce a $9,000 version this year that it thinks it can deliver for only $2,000 within five years. Meanwhile, Fab@Home is offering a machine that can be built from a kit costing around $3,000.

"In the future," says Hod Lipson, a Cornell Professor behind Fab@Home, "everyone will have a printer like this at home. You can imagine printing a toothbrush, a fork, a shoe. Who knows where it will go from here?"

Naturally, these companies believe that it will all end at the bank. Desktop Factory will be delivering an initial test run of its machines at a cost of $4,995.00 to the 200 customers who have agreed to by them this summer.

"When laser printers cost more than $5,000, nobody knew they needed desktop publishing," said A. Michael Berman, chief technology officer for the Art Center College of Design. "The market for 3-D printing isn’t as big as for laser printers, but I do believe that it is huge."

That makes it a trend worth watching.

After all, anything new that allows a great number of people to be free to think and create is powerful and irresistible market force–just like the entrepreneurs that bring it to us in the first place.


On Friday, I’ll take a fresh a look at the broader markets.

Wishing you happiness, health, and wealth,

Steve Christ, Editor