September 6, 2001
<http://www.latimes.com/la-business.prospero> Talk about it
1960sep06',%20'_blank',%20'width=300,height=410,resizable=1'))> E-mail story
headlines%2Dtechnology> Dave Wilson:
Computer, Make Me a Pez Dispenser
The replicator is perhaps the coolest bit of technology in the "Star Trek"
universe. Just tell the computer what you want, be it animal, vegetable or
mineral. Then the replicator converts energy into matter, instantly
producing your heart's desire.
Replicators don't exist--yet--but something pretty close is in use at
factories around the world. Rapid prototyping machines can produce
remarkably complex and detailed objects based on computer descriptions. They
can't produce organic material, but they spit out stuff in plastic and
metal. Some industries have been using rapid prototyping for more than a
decade, but the pricey technology--machines run several hundred thousand
dollars--remains obscure. That's changing because of a little Web site,
ToyBuilders.com (http://www.toybuilders.com), that lets customers build
everything from personalized action figures to custom chess pieces.
Big deal? Yeah, it is. Very soon, for the first time in history, just about
anyone will be able to produce any object they can imagine.
Got a great idea for a new steering wheel for your car? Like to have a table
that fits in that weird breakfast nook and matches the rest of the
furniture? Want to make a unique set of frames for your sunglasses? Some day
soon, that's all going to be as close as your computer.
The Industrial Revolution standardized products, giving consumers access to
a cheap but limited range of goods dictated by the economic laws that made
mass production the most practical way of doing business. The technological
revolution makes it possible to create goods tailored to a market of one.
Rapid prototyping is the beginning and for years has given the automobile
and aircraft industries the ability to quickly and cheaply create incredibly
complex precision parts with no physical machining. Engineers use the method
to prove concepts will actually work before retooling an entire factory.
ToyBuilders offers that ability to the general public. The company doesn't
actually have any rapid prototyping machines sitting around. It contracts
out jobs to other firms such as Valencia-based 3D Systems Corp., whose rapid
prototyping machines dominate the market.
As the rapid prototyping process begins, a brilliant blue laser light dances
over the yellowish liquid resin in a vat. Any soup kissed by the laser
changes to a thin layer of solid material. That stuff remains in place,
touching the liquid's surface but resting on a metal plate just millimeters
After the laser completes a pass over the liquid, the metal plate drops
slightly lower into the vat, which is about 2 feet deep and 2 feet high. The
solid material goes along for the ride, dropping below the surface, exposing
more liquid at the top, and the process begins again. Complex objects are
created in the vat by stacking thousands of the thin layers produced by this
rapid prototyping machine.
Before the laser fires up, the object being created is drawn on a computer
using sophisticated modeling software.
ToyBuilders gives consumers easy access to the power of rapid prototyping.
Photographs of a person can be easily turned into an action figure or a head
for a Pez candy dispenser. Unique jewelry, model cars, even custom Monopoly
game pieces can be created using the process.
Karl R. Denton, a former engineer at Ford, got the idea for ToyBuilders last
year when his little girl was watching a cartoon on television and decided
she wanted a scepter like one on the show. She drew a crude sketch of what
she'd seen on a piece of paper. Denton created a three-dimensional
representation of the paper sketch using computer aided design, or CAD,
software on a computer. He fed the resulting data file into a rapid
prototyping machine, which promptly spat out exactly what his little girl
"I suddenly realized that there were lots of parents out there who'd love to
do exactly the same sort of thing but didn't have my resources," he said.
"So I put up ToyBuilders."
A model of a car can cost, depending on size, materials and the level of
detail, anywhere from about $200 to $2,400. Big sellers are non-articulated
action figures, which sell for about $350, and Pez heads, which top out at
Although ToyBuilders is the first of its breed, it's likely to see
competitors spring up soon. And consumers will soon find that they can
customize nearly anything in their homes, said 3D Systems executive Mervyn
Today, companies use rapid prototyping machines to make personal things such
as hearing aids and even those invisible braces for teeth. As the technology
matures, more companies trust it for the actual manufacture of items, not
just prototyping. "The goal is to eliminate tooling altogether for
industry," Rudgley said. "And once we're there, consumers will find they got
the ability to customize nearly every part of their lives using this kind of
Although Denton set up ToyBuilders to serve the needs of consumers, he said
he's been shocked at the number of executives who need products made for
their companies and come to his site. "They literally hear about rapid
prototyping from their children, who found our Web site," he said.
That's just how obscure this amazing technology is. But that could be
changing soon. Denton and Rudgley both said they expect that within a few
years, stores such as Kinko's will give consumers access not only to
high-quality photocopiers and printers but also rapid prototypers as well.
"That's the day everything changes," Denton said. "That's going to change
the way people see the world."
Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist.
* Dave Wilson answers reader questions in Tech Q&A. T4
Karl R. Denton
RP and Casting Operations
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