Take A Laser, Some Powder And Presto! A 3 D Model

Today, getting products to market faster is crucial to success. That's why "desktop manufacturing" systems are galvanizing many companies. In just hours, such equipment can convert a computerized design into a real-life model that managers can touch and hold, cutting weeks from the time it usually takes to craft a model.

3-D Systems Inc. in Valencia, Calif., pioneered the technology in 1988. Its machine slices an electronic design into a stack of superthin layers. Then, a laser rebuilds the overall shape, slice by slice, in a vat of liquid plastic that hardens where the laser scans. More recently, a half-dozen other approaches have been developed by suppliers such as Cubital in Warren, Mich., DTM in Austin, Tex., and Light Sculpting in Milwaukee.

The latest technique is under development at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A team headed by Emanuel Sachs, a professor of mechanical engineering, has built a prototype system that essentially prints the successive layers by combining elements of xerography and ink-jet printing. Instead of liquid plastic, the MIT system starts with a powder similar to the toner in copiers. Each slice gets "printed" by tiny glue jets that squirt a binder on the powder areas that should be fused. What's unique about this method is that the powder is a ceramic, so the process can also produce molds for casting a finished part in metal or plastics.

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