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From ballet shoes to human tissue, printing ideas into 3-D reality

February 12, 2014 at 6:29 PM EDT
With the push of a button – plus a lot of design work and hours of waiting – the emerging technology of 3-D printing can produce food, plastic phone accessories, even human tissue. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien explores how businesses and schools are creating everything from speakers to ballet shoes, as well as serious challenges and risks presented by ever-widening printing possibilities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is yet another technological transformation underfoot. And this one turns ideas into physical realities right before your eyes.

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien has the story.

MILES O’BRIEN: At Hod Lipson’s lab, they are on the leading edge of a method of printing that presses the process into a whole new dimension, the third dimension.

HOD LIPSON, Cornell University: This is a real revolution. It can really change things forever, how we even think about design.

MILES O’BRIEN: Lipson is an engineering professor at Cornell University. His lab is a toy box and a playground for a new generation of designers.

Undergrad Jenna Witzleben is designing and printing some ballet shoes.

JENNA WITZLEBEN, Cornell University: This is actually a scan of the shoe itself subtracted the — the scan of my foot.

MILES O’BRIEN: Grad student Robert MacCurdy is working on what they call bit blocks, small circuit boards.

ROBERT MACCURDY, Cornell University: This gives us kind of a quick way of incorporating electrical functionality into 3-D printing

MILES O’BRIEN: And Apoorva Kiran is priming the pump for projects that print in more than one material.

APOORVA KIRAN, Cornell University: This ink is strontium ferrite. It’s a kind of iron…

MILES O’BRIEN: 3-D printing was invented 30 years ago, but it’s now coming of age. The devices can print in all kinds of metals, produce food and even human tissue. And the technology is coming home, just as computers did in the early 1980s.

HOD LIPSON: We are a little bit after the transition from the mainframe to the desktop. We are at the early days of the home computers. We aren’t quite at the point where we have an IBM P.C.

MILES O’BRIEN: San Francisco artist Micah Scott is on the leading edge of this migration into widespread usage.

MICAH SCOTT, Artist: This 3-D printer was originally a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic, which was a kit that I think was released in like late 2010 or early 2011.

MILES O’BRIEN: A machine like this, which costs about $1,500, extrudes molten plastic in thin layers, like a precision hot glue gun. And like 2-D ink-jet printers, the real cost is in the pricey refills.

MICAH SCOTT: This is sort of an experimental shape that I am working on for an LED art project.

MILES O’BRIEN: I watched as Micah used some software to create a 3-D design, and then hit print. We waited, and then waited, and then waited some more. Printing this piece took 18 hours, from start to finish.

But Micah believes it is well worth the wait.

MICAH SCOTT: With 3-D printers, I have definitely been in that position where I’m kind of astounded to be holding this physical object that I had just designed hours ago.

MILES O’BRIEN: Micah used to be a Silicon Valley hardware and software designer. That experience comes in handy frequently. Without her left-brain skills, her quirky printer wouldn’t be able to deliver her right-brain creations.

MICAH SCOTT: I do sometimes wish so I could just push a button and have my print work without sort of agonizing over this thing for a couple of hours.

MAN: These are from a third-party Web site, people taking pictures of their pets.

MILES O’BRIEN: The problems and the promise of this emerging technology are key ingredients driving the rapid growth of a company called Shapeways.

PETER WEIJMARSHAUSEN, Shapeways: So, we have roughly 15 printers here right now and we’re expanding that number all the time.

MILES O’BRIEN: Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen co-founded the company in 2009. Based in New York, Shapeways turns customer designs into intricate reality, using big precise 3-D printers like this one.

PETER WEIJMARSHAUSEN: Mounted lights heats up the powder, so it almost melts.

MILES O’BRIEN: Which uses a laser to fuse powdered plastic into the desired shape layer by layer.

PETER WEIJMARSHAUSEN: These ones are about a half-million dollars, and then the big one is about a million dollars.

MILES O’BRIEN: That one over there, you mean?


MILES O’BRIEN: Armchair designers upload about 100,000 3-D print projects to Shapeways each month. Engineers here insure they can be feasibly printed, arrange various projects cheek to jowl to maximize efficiency, and then print, clean, polish, and ship the finished products, which cost anywhere from a few to a few thousand dollars, depending on how much material is used.

PETER WEIJMARSHAUSEN: At Shapeways, we give people the access to make whatever they want, and whatever they want, they do make. And what it is sometimes puzzles us, sometimes amazes us. It’s really cool to see.

MILES O’BRIEN: But Shapeways is not just for people who want a tricked-out custom iPhone cover. Customers with clever ideas can become sellers, offering their curios for sale on the Shapeways Web site.

There are now 12,000 shopkeepers in this virtual bazaar of the bizarre. The better ones are printing money.

PETER WEIJMARSHAUSEN: The barriers to bring a product to market are going to be almost zero. As a result, anyone with a great idea can launch a product.

MILES O’BRIEN: Even if they are in eighth grade. These students at the Buford Middle School in Charlottesville, Va., are building speakers using 3-D printers and laser cutters.

For Lamia West, it is an entry to a whole new world.

LAMIA WEST, Buford Middle School: This is like what I want to do to see what I want to do with my future, if I want to be engineer or do I want to go into something else?

MILES O’BRIEN: That is music to her teacher’s ears.

STEPHANIE GRADY, Buford Middle School: I’m going to take this out. And right now, it is on three.

MILES O’BRIEN: Stephanie Grady is an engineer-turned-educator and an alumna of this school.

STEPHANIE GRADY: But if we don’t teach our students now and encourage them to take these classes in college, there’s going to be a lot of missed opportunities.

MILES O’BRIEN: But educators warn these machines cannot print silver bullets to fire up interest in technology and engineering in classrooms. For one thing, teachers need a lot of training and support to make the magic happen.

At Buford, they have the perfect help desk nearby: faculty at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Glen Bull is a professor there.

GLEN BULL, University of Virginia: Keep in mind that no teacher today has really been prepared or trained to use these technologies in the curriculum. Putting this equipment in schools and having it change how kids learn requires a whole infrastructure to support it. That can’t be done overnight.

MILES O’BRIEN: And what about real bullets?  3-D printers make it possible for people to build unregistered and undetectable weapons at home. ATF agents tested the idea. Using a design found on the Internet, they printed a gun using two types of materials. One worked. The other exploded. This is what worries Hod Lipson.

HOD LIPSON: I don’t think they’re concerned in terms sort of criminal activity or terrorist activity, which is what seems to be driving a lot of discussion. The plastic guns are of a concern to me because they bring about the issue of safety and quality assurance.

MILES O’BRIEN: Lipson is more worried about pushing the technology over the next big hurdle: refining machines that can print multiple materials at once.

Believe it or not, this crude speaker is a big step. The entire thing, magnet, conductor, membrane and all, was completely 3-D printed, no prefabricated parts, no assembly required.

HOD LIPSON: I think this is just the beginning. There are — once, you know, we can master that, we can start making more sophisticated things. And I really think that within a few years, being able to print a complete integrated electronic system or even a robot will be within reach.

MILES O’BRIEN: But Lipson believes that robot will be designed by a robot. Get a load of this idea designed by software. Lipson calls it artificial creativity. With machines doing the designing, I guess we all need to stay on our toes.

I had to leave before Jenna’s ballet shoe inserts came off the printer, but she sent these pictures, and she clearly is on her toes for whatever is next in this revolution.