LA-Times Article

From: Karl R. Denton (
Date: Tue Sep 25 2001 - 04:10:40 EEST

I never know what my Williams International email address actually sends
so here is a follow up to the announcement of the Common PEZ Interface

a%2Dheadlines%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, (, 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 below.

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 wanted.

"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 about $200.

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 Rudgley.

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 technology."

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

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

"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
P.O. Box 621
Walled Lake, MI 48390

For more information about the rp-ml, see

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