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Special Report: Endless Possibilities of 3D Printing

3D printing... the cutting edge science to generate virtually anything.
Imagine... Instead of going online to order your next cell phone case, you simply find one you like, download the plans and print it out. Sounds like science fiction, but that is what's happening in the manufacturing world. Products are no longer strictly being shipped out of factories. The cutting edge technology of 3D printers allow folks to create what they need, whenever they want, out of plastic and metal from the comfort of their home or office.

Educators and entrepreneurs here in the Valley are training with this technology and are creating designs and printing them out today.

We've all printed documents on paper using a standard printer, but now it's time to enter another dimension with state of the art 3D printers. The $60,000 machine is housed at Blue Dolphin Design and Engineering in Madera. Mark Jackson, owner of Blue Dolphin said, "It's important for people to understand this process is out there and it's available."

Jackson has one of the only 3D printers in the Valley that the public can use. "It's just a really good tool for people who are either trying to start or further their business by developing a new product," said Jackson.

People from all walks of life come to Jackson with their innovative ideas. "We've done work for Sears, we've done work for the Air Force. We try to bring it into reality. It comes from being just a thought, to something," said Jackson.

Here's how it works... Liquid plastic is loaded into the machine, which functions like an ink jet printer, except the 3D device prints on a flat bed that lowers and lowers, creating layer upon layer of material. After several minutes, sometimes even hours, it generates a prototype or a mold the customer can hold. "There's always a need to hold it in your hand or to use it to see if it performs and does what you expect," said Jackson.

Blue Dolphin equips their client with the object as well as the knowledge of how much it will cost to produce. "Those are very important things when it comes to writing a business plan," said Jackson.

At CART in Clovis, students as young as 16-years-old are already learning about 3D printing. On display in the class are a pair of miniature shoes, figurines, and more.

CART instructor, Brian Emerson said, "There is a wow factor to it and there's going to be a wow factor for a while, but a lot of it is practical. We've printed scientific equipment." 

Emerson teaches a product development and robotics course. His 11th and 12th grade students create designs on computers, then send those renderings to 3D printers. Spools of plastic wrap and wrap to eventually print projects.

Martin Jones is heading to UC Merced, where he will major in bio-engineering. "I feel in school that we're very bound to learn this, but here I believe it's more open-minded. Anything is possible here and all you're restricted by is your imagination," said Jones.

"To plant those seeds is very rewarding for me," said Emerson.

Emerson actually works closely with blue dolphin design. He periodically invites Mark Jackson into his classroom to help better prepare students for the real world. "So when they show up on their doorstep looking for a job, they don't have to train them in that stuff because they're learning it here and so they're more than happy to help us and invest that time here because it helps them in the future," said Emerson.

The idea of doing this kind of work at home is gaining momentum too. Last month, staples began selling a 3D printer called the cube for just under $1,300. Free software is available on internet sites like "thingiverse". You can download plans for printing such things as cell phone cases, a flower vase, and jewelry.

With this technology comes some controversy, printing things like guns that actually fire.

Two months ago, the U.S. Department of State ordered the creator of "the liberator" to remove online blueprints of the 3D printable handgun.

New York lawmaker, Linda Rosenthal, has since introduced a bill that would ban the manufacturing, sale, and use of 3D-printed firearms and ammunition magazines. "Somebody who manufactures their own gun does not have to register it and nobody knows it exists," said Rosenthal.

So for security and public safety reasons, Rosenthal is taking a proactive approach. "In many cases, technology leads the law. In this case, I thought it would be wise that the New York State legislature lead on this issue rather than wait for some tragic accident to happen," said Rosenthal.

Jacob Belemjian of the Firing Line in Clovis doesn't think many people will get a 3D printer, make the pieces and assemble them into a gun to commit a crime. "That's just too much work. Criminals don't typically go through that kind of stuff. They want to do it as easily as possible," said Belemjian.

"It's kind of scary, but it's also part of the positive aspects of how good this technology is," said Jackson. Jackson hopes society can focus on how these printers will soon revolutionize industries by producing car parts, surgical implants, even food for astronauts. "To stifle that innovation would be a mistake," said Jackson.

Blue Dolphin says prices vary based upon the time and material used in the job, so it could cost you anywhere from $30 to thousands of dollars.

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