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From sci-fi to reality: 3-D printing arrives in Chicago


In addition to creating images of yourself and crafting usable objects, the folks at the 3D Printer Experience offer classes ($79) to teach the ropes of three-dimensional printing. Download 123D Catch from the Apple store to start capturing the world in 3-D, by stitching together digital photographs, before signing up for a session.

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Updated: July 5, 2013 6:02AM

Julie Friedman Steele gets a little choked up when describing the potentially world-altering impact of a technology she has helped to make available right here in Chicago: a decades-old manufacturing process called “3-D printing.”

Due to patent expirations and other factors, it has only recently become available to the general public.

“We want to try to create mass adoption of the technology,” says Friedman, 36, who in late April with collaborator Mike Moceri opened The 3D Printing Experience at 316 N. Clark. According to Friedman, it’s the only retail outlet of its kind in the country.

A Chicago native, Friedman formerly worked in the Los Angeles entertainment industry (TV, film) and is pals with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, a “great supporter and trusted adviser” in a social enterprise venture she runs called The MetaSpace. Another mentor and guide was the late Second City producer Joyce Sloane. Friedman says she’ll hire improv actors from the Old Town comedy college to greet and interact with 3D Experience visitors.

As part of the Chicago family that owns Friedman Properties Ltd. — one of the city’s most successful real estate development firms, with a River North-based empire that encompasses millions of prime square feet — Friedman has for years put her money and time toward endeavors aimed at improving society. The global spread of 3-D printing is one of them. Third World countries, perhaps most especially, stand to benefit from the ability to make wares cheaply: cooking and eating implements, and machine parts. Friedman calls this democratization of manufacturing “the third industrial revolution.”

“It’s a very emotional thing,” she says, stifling tears, “because you know how much you’re helping everybody.”

On the merely amusing end of the 3-D spectrum, you can print a swell replica of your head in a variety of sizes. It’s accomplished with cameras and computers and a revolving platform that looks like something more at home on the Starship Enterprise. The final product (with or without added Mohawk) emerges in roughly 25 to 30 minutes, courtesy of consumer-grade printers (sold at Friedman’s shop) that start at $999.

The utilitarian-looking contraptions, which Friedman admits are still not “ready for prime time,” form objects (made from petroleum- or corn-based plastic) layer-by-layer using a method called fused deposition modeling. Another higher resolution method, stereolithography, will be available soon, along with more eco-friendly printer supplies (toner, if you will).

The highest-grade 3-D laser machines, like the EOS behemoth at Experience, cost around $250,000, accommodate an array of raw materials from chain-mail to moon dust and can be used (though the one at Experience isn’t — yet) to produce such wonders as “bio-meat” and even human organs.

There’s one thing, however, the helpful folks at Experience will not make for you even though they could (minus the mechanical innards): a gun. That’s where Friedman and crew draw the line. Oh, and guys: this isn’t Cynthia Plaster Caster’s workshop, either.

Dan Roque, a guitar and ukulele instructor from Highland, Ind., drove to Chicago specifically to design an acoustic-electric guitar at Friedman’s shop. Coincidentally, another visitor had just made a ukulele. Roque thought he might get one of those, too. Both would be far cheaper than purchasing customized instruments crafted the traditional way — a few hundred dollars vs. a few thousand.

“I was talking with some buddies a while ago, and someone had mentioned something about 3-D printers,” he said. “So I started looking on the Internet and seeing that people were making guitars and violins. One guy made a flute.”

That’s nothing. Not long ago, some not-dumb people printed a liver. It survived for only five days outside the body, but still — a liver.

“The future is very exciting,” Friedman says, “because people are back in control of their own destinies and have the freedom to create.”

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