3D printing comes to Chicago

Visitors at The 3D Printer Experience in River North can have their body scanned while a tiny machine assembles a small plastic replica of their head in a half an hour. They also can design jewelry on a computer program wear it after a few quick minutes. Then there’s a display area where they can see a fully functioning violin, medieval-style chainmail glove or a slipper that looks like it once belonged on Cinderella’s foot--all made with the same kind of automated technology. It’s a lot like being beamed up to a “Star Trek”-like world of the science fiction future, right?

“Well, It’s like that, but not quite that amazing yet,” said Mike Moceri, co-owner of The 3D Printer Experience, which opened April 22. “We’re still sci-fi, but we’re not that level yet.”

In the meantime, Moceri believes 3D printing, which turns digital renderings on a computer into physical objects, may finally be ready for the mainstream. After years of being hyped at South by Southwest or in the pages of Wired Magazine, but mostly confined behind the closed doors of manufacturing giants like Boeing, the technology has progressively gotten cheaper and easier to use. The 3D Printer Experience, at 316 N. Clark St., represents the first attempt at a retail space in the Midwest that markets it to the masses.

Moceri calls his company a “microbrew of manufacturing,” rather than a store--a place designed to learn about, play with and experience 3D printing.

“We’re trying to lower the barrier of entry to making things for yourself both hardware and software,” he said. “You can’t give anyone a complex machine and not give them an easy way to use it, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

That means customers don’t necessarily have to purchase the Up! Mini 3D printers available for sale for $1,000. There are several learning stations where they can examine some of the objects that have been 3D printed, make their own plastic pendant or custom iPhone case, or get scanned by a Microsoft Kinect sensor and print out a bust of themselves (costs for each vary). It’s an idea that stemmed from a conversation co-owner Julie Friedman Steele said she had with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak about marketing 3D printing.

“The most important recommendation he had was that people shouldn’t feel dumb about it. They should have an experience and be able to touch it and work with it,” Friedman Steele said. “The idea is make the experience less scary and more fun.”

The gem of the 3D Printer Experience collection is a Formiga P 110 from German company EOS. At a pricey $250,000, the phone-booth sized industrial machine is the first of its kind available for public use in the world, Moceri said. It allows customers the option to print bigger and more elaborate items than the Up! or the MakerBot Replicator—the most common consumer 3D printer.

The EOS printer is what attracted Tiago Justino to the store recently with his laptop in tow. The Institute of Design student wanted to make a physical prototype of a 3D drawing of a tablet he designed for a class project.

“It’s pretty amazing because normally I would just make a foam model of it. It’s usually too expensive to do something like this,” said Justino, 34, of River North. “This allows me know what it’s like to feel and hold my tablet and present something in class that people can really see. It’s close to the real thing.”

Moceri said he’s had a lot of practical use out of his 3D printer.

After he assembled his first machine at home, he got a six-pack of beer to celebrate with his roommates but realized he didn’t have a bottle opener because they’d just moved into a new apartment.

“So basically, I went online, downloaded a bottle opener and made it with a 3D printer and could open the beer,” he said. “It’s little things like that are truly incredible. If you find something you need, you can just make it.”

But Scott Roberts, a professor of art and animation at DePaul, is skeptical that 3D printing is ready for mass adoption. Some of DePaul’s classes have been experimenting with a MakerBot purchased earlier this year, and Roberts said it’s been difficult to use and repair.

“It’s got a lot of potential, and I think they’ll be huge in about seven years, but right now it seems mostly for hobbyists and early adopters,” Roberts said. “Right now it’s kind of like the internet in 1995. Everyone could see the potential but it still needed to get mass adoption and the infrastructure working to make it happen. Right now, the short-term future for 3D printing is a lot less exciting than it will be.”

Robert Mariduena, an industrial designer who uses a 3D printer to create prototypes, thinks the technology is still in a “play around, experimentation phase.”

“Once it leapfrogs into a place where we’re making final products using these printers instead of just models, it’s going to be great,” he said. “Imagine instead of going to the Apple Store, you download a file on your computer and print out a part.”

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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