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SXSW Interactive: 3-D Printing - Power to the People

3-D printing is the big draw at SXSW this year and it's getting plenty of love. And no wonder – Obama highlighted it in his State of the Union.

When the garden gnome took the stage, people gasped. And applauded. The possibilities that the garden gnome evoked made the makers and the techies drool.

The garden gnome itself was ordinary. It was small, no more than eight inches. It sat patiently in the jaws of a machine while Bre Pettis, founder of Makerbot, explained. This machine was the big reveal at the opening remarks of SXSW – a digitizer that could scan the shape of any small object in 3-D and digitize it for easy printing. What made people gasp is that this digitizer will be available to buy for your own home.

3-D printing is the big draw at SXSW this year. With opening remarks by Pettis and a handful of other signature talks addressing the topic, the topic is getting a lot of love from South by. And no wonder – Obama highlighted it in his State of the Union.

According to Pettis, the top seven architecture firms in the world as well as NASA are using his Makerbot technology to quickly prototype 3-D models. For those well-versed in CAD (Computer Aided Design, the visual language to build 3-D models), Makerbot is equivalent to a sketchpad.

What the digitizer provides is a way to move past the barrier of learning CAD. There are a lot of programs that make it fairly simple, but there is a learning curve to grasping the unfamiliar landscape of three-dimensional models. Not only are the price point and the size of a scale that you can have it in your home, the barrier of entry is dramatically lowered when you don’t need to learn an entirely new mode of thinking and designing.

In another talk, Ping Fu, the author of Bend Not Break, got a break from the controversy surrounding her memoir to talk about the innovations in 3-D printing coming from her company Geomagic. She showed 3-D designing using Leap Motion, a Kinect-like device that allows users to use gestures to control their computer, and had two guys demoing the Cube, a mobile 3-D printer that had the plastic sheen of the original multi-colored iMacs. It left me with the question, when exactly would I be taking a 3-D printer on the road with me, and for what purpose? In case I forgot my toothbrush?

Peter Weijmarshausen, the founder of Shapeways also spoke to a senior editor of Wired about his contribution to 3-D printing, an online marketplace that allows users to upload, share, and print their 3-D designs out of all kinds of material, from schlocky plastic to shades of ceramic to antique bronze. You don’t even need to design your own from scratch – you can shop other people’s designs for iPhone cases, jewelry, to ornate twenty-sided die.

With the means of production now available for purchase in your own home, and the reduction in barriers to designing and producing just about anything, the possibilities can seem boundless. Even the barriers of ethics are being challenged. Defense Distributed, a collective for the 3-D printing of guns, also gets the stage coming up this week.

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