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Personal fabricators and 3-D printers will spur innovation

Just as personal computers have dramatically changed everyday life, 3-D printers will profoundly affect how products are made, designed and consumed, say Cornell professor Hod Lipson and analyst Melba Kurman in a new report.

3-D printers are just one example of a growing family of technologies known as "personal fabricators," which create physical items on demand from digital blueprints. Personal fabrication technologies will allow people to make everything from toothbrushes and food to complex pieces of machinery at the touch of a button -- with minimal investment in infrastructure.

Lipson, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and computer science, and Kurman, of Triple Helix Innovation, make the case for strong government support of such digital fabrication technologies as the authors of a report commissioned by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Personal fabbers have been developing over the past three decades for industrial applications, the report says. They are now reaching a "tipping point" where they will become reliable, versatile and affordable enough for the average consumer -- just like the rise of personal computers.

"Thoughtful and visionary government investment is needed to ensure that the U.S. remains competitive in an era of personal fabrication and realizes the potential benefits of personal manufacturing technologies," the report says.

The authors recommend actions ranging from putting a digital fabrication lab in every school and offering teacher education in fabrication technology, to allocating federal support for pilot programs for introducing digital manufacturing to small businesses, and revisiting intellectual property legislation to support the growth of markets catalyzed by these technologies.

The report outlines the possibility of at-home fabrication of thousands of objects. Many challenges stand in the way, however, the report says, from consumer safety and quality control to hardware-related challenges and intellectual property concerns. Education is also a major factor, and the report stresses the need to help K-12 schools adopt personal fabrication technologies by bringing the printers and related investments into public schools.

The report is available for download at

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