Newest Printers Show Skills In Making 3-D Objects

LOS ANGELES – Three-dimensional printers have existed for decades but have suffered from limitations in color and articulation in the high-end models, and from price and practicality issues on the low end. Now, two printers on display here at the SIGGRAPH computer graphics and interactive technology conference highlight how dramatically both extremes in 3-D printing have improved.

At the high end, the Z Corp.’s Z-650 prints full-color models complete with moving parts. Meanwhile, the MakerBot lowers the software complexity, size and cost of a 3-D printer to the point where almost any do-it-yourselfer can fabricate his or her own plastic objects.

The Z-650 uses a powder-based system to lay full color on top of its models at a resolution of 600x540 pixels. It works by building a model, layer by layer, out of a super-fine white powder.

The machine then colors each layer with the same inkjet mechanism used by HP color printers. Unlike in regular color printers, however, the ink also serves as the glue that binds the powder layers together.

“Everything that gets made these days goes through a prototype,” said John Penn, owner of JWP Design and a licensed retailer of Z Corp. products. “This is the fastest 3-D printer on the market, and it’s the only one that prints in color.”

Like almost every other 3-D printer on the market, the Z-650 is very much an industrial product: It costs $76,500, and is about the size of Volkswagen.

The MakerBot looks to change that. Sold as a kit that users assemble themselves, the MakerBot is only slightly larger than a regular 2-D printer. It is available for $950, or the same cost as many televisions. By contrast, the next cheapest 3-D printer sells for $16,000.

The MakerBot uses proprietary software only slightly more complicated than MS Paint. It prints 4-inch by 4-inch by 6-inch objects out of the same plastic that Legos are made of.

“We under-engineered the heck out of this to make it as easy to use as possible,” MakerBot co-founder Adam Mayer told TechNewsDaily.

Stuart Fox currently researches and develops physical and digital exhibit experiences at the Science Liberty Center. His news writing includes the likes of several Purch sites, including Live Science and Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries.