By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun
11:20 AM EDT, October 20, 2013
Nolen Strals is holding his head in his hand.
It is gold and palm-sized, made of finely ribbed plastic. But there, unmistakably, are Strals' thoughtful brow, the pinch of his nose, smoothly sloped forehead.
The bust was not crafted by a sculptor or mass-produced in a factory in China, but issued from a 3-D printer at Atomic Books. The Hampden bookstore recently became among the first places in the area where customers can walk in and get objects printed — sort of a photocopy shop for the 21st century.
"It kind of feels like I'm living in the future, like I'm in a Sylvester Stallone movie," says Strals, cofounder of the Post Typography design studio and a member of the late post-punk band Double Dagger.
A few days before, at a party celebrating the opening of Atomic Books' bar, Strals had posed on a rotating wooden platform while a camera photographed his head from various angles. Then the printer — a seemingly simple device about the size of an apple crate — reproduced the contours of Strals' head in a series of thin layers of molten plastic.
The bookstore is offering the 3-D printing service the second Sunday of each month. The busts, which customers can pick up a couple of days later, range from $20 to $40.
The 3-D printing station is the brainchild of Anderson "Andy" Ta and Russ Reese, who have, in Ta's words, "like, 19 projects on our plates" using the technology. As the pair chat with customers at the bookstore, one of their printers hums over a set of prosthetic fingers destined for African amputees. Ta is helping scientists design vascular tissue that can be printed by the devices. Reese is creating new parts for a model helicopter that flies itself.
And both men are working on a project to print parts to make new 3-D printers, since the devices — cue the "Doctor Who" theme song — can reproduce themselves.
While techies have been tinkering with 3-D printers at trade shows and hackerspaces for the past few years, the devices are just beginning to enter the mainstream. With prices ranging from $1,300 to $2,700 for most printers, it seems unlikely they'll become common household appliances anytime soon. Printing stations, like the one at Atomic Books, allow those with a casual interest to experiment.
Similar kiosks have popped up in recent months at shops in London and Tokyo. And the MakerBot store, which opened in New York last year, sells printers as well as the objects they create.
Jessica Mills and Emily Rimes, 18-year-old freshmen from Goucher College, ogle the machines as they stop in Atomic Books to pick up books. Although neither had seen a 3-D printer in action before, both are well-versed in the technology's potential from class discussions and YouTube videos.
"They can make bacon," says Mills. "And they can make guns."
A scroll through Shapeways, an online store devoted to 3-D printed creations, gives a sense of the printers' potential. A tiny sad Keanu Reeves to perch on your desk. A toy car powered by the air whooshing out of a balloon. Egg cups shaped like bird's nests and basketball hoops.
And while the Mobius strip of bacon sold on the site is not edible, the printers can be loaded with pureed food to produce edible items. The New York Times recently detailed a dinner, from pizza to pasta, made by a 3-D printer.
Pretty much anything that can be made from a molten material — from ceramics to silver — can be produced by the printers. Some 3-D printers make items from powders that harden when sprayed with a liquid or chemicals that react with lasers. Shapeways is one of several sites that allows customers to upload a design and have the object — in the material of their choice — sent to their homes.
Fans of the devices envision a future in which everyday items can quickly be conjured. Crack your coffee cup? Print a new one. Snag your stockings? Just press a button for a new pair.
"You live your whole life thinking you can only have what's in a store," says Reese, 32, a software engineering manager. "Now you can make anything you can imagine. There's no stopping you."
At Atomic Books, the printer nozzles, which look like drill bits, shoot fine lines of a biodegradable, corn-based plastic, which smells vaguely of burnt sugar. The 3-D printers whine like an ink-jet printer, with some faint electronic beeps mixed in, as if R2D2 were warbling in the distance.
The nozzles work over the outline of the object, moving back and forth like a traditional printer, but also up and down. Each layer of plastic is about a millimeter thick, which means it takes about an hour for the printer to create a 2-inch bust.
Don't confuse the machines' virtuosity with technical perfection. The batch of prosthetic fingers, which Ta is making as part of an initiative to aid amputees in Africa, becomes warped. Ta wipes away curls of hardened plastic from the printer with a sigh.
An object that dries too slowly can cave, he explains. A breeze or jolt can leave a project misshapen.
Of course, the potential for errors — and the ability to correct them with mechanical enhancements and software tweaks — also makes the printers a tinkerer's dream. Both Ta and Reese spend hours programming and adjusting the printers to improve results.
Reese, who has seven 3-D printers in his Glen Burnie home, including some he has built himself, has always been fascinated with building things and experimenting with technology.
"My whole childhood was Legos," he says.
Ta took a different route to 3-D printing. After graduating from University of Maryland, College Park in 2010 with a degree in finance and economics, he briefly worked in finance before losing his job as a result of the tough economy. A few months later, he was thumbing through an issue of Popular Science in his parents' Gaithersburg barbershop when he came across an ad for an affordable 3-D printer. He ordered it on a whim and quickly became fascinated by the technology.
Now Ta, 25, runs the Digital Fabrication studio at Maryland Institute College of Art, where he guides students through the use of 3-D printers, 3-D scanners and laser cutters, among other technologies.
Ta, who lives in Hampden, hatched the idea of bringing the printers into the bookstore.
"I was thinking, 'How do we get this out there in Baltimore?'" says Ta. "It's a novel, fun way to get exposed to it."
Ta would like to see 3-D printing, and similar technologies, lead a manufacturing renaissance in Baltimore. He slaps "Made in Baltimore" stickers on his creations, hoping to spark conversations about the city's creative power. He points out that the banks of the nearby Jones Falls were once lined with mills.
Rachel Whang, co-owner of Atomic Books, thought the shop's customers would be interested in experimenting with the technology, especially watching the creation of a plastic bust.
"Seeing you printed in front of you — it's like the first time you saw a flatbed scanner or a Xerox machine," said Whang.
Customers are already compiling lists of items they would like to print.
Noel Conrad, owner of Novelty Haus, a store about a block north from Atomic Books on Falls Road, brainstorms items he would like to print while waiting to be scanned for his bust.
Conrad, 31, wants to make joints for the small toys that he sculpts. But he has more ambitious plans for the future.
"I'd like to get some organs printed out for when mine start failing," he says.
If you go
The 3-D printing studio will be open the second Sunday of each month at Atomic Books, 3620 Falls Road. Busts range from $20 to $75, depending on the size. For more information, email Andy Ta, email@example.com.
A previous version of this story provided an incorrect price range for the busts and erroneously referred to Andy Ta's role at Atomic Books.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun