My 3-D Printed Self

Until two years ago, I’d never set foot in the Equipment, Technology & Supplies (ETS) pavilion at JCK Las Vegas. Now it’s one of my favorite places to hunt for stories.

Here’s a perfect example: I was sitting through a show seminar on 3-D printing on June 1 when I heard one of the panelists— Joshua St. John, director of user experience at 3D Systems Corp. in New York City—mention something about a company exhibiting at ETS that would be 3-D scanning people at its booth.

My ears pricked up. I didn’t hear the booth number or company name, so I stormed the ETS pavilion after the seminar was over and wandered confusedly through its aisles before I ran into Steve Adler of A3DM Technologies. He was also on the panel and knows more about this stuff than anybody, so he immediately knew what I was talking about and walked me over to the CadBlu booth to introduce me to the men who were about to demonstrate the technology.

CadBlu’s Lee Dockstader gave me a sneak peek. He posed for my camera holding an example of one of the potential uses of the people-scanning device: a pocket-size 3-D-printed USB stick of his head.

Lee Dockstader at the CadBlu booth at JCK Las Vegas, holding a 3-D-printed USB stick shaped like his own head.

I didn’t have time to puzzle over what I’d do with a USB stick of my own head (except laugh every time I used it), because Joshua turned up at the booth then and told me he was the one who would be doing the scanning. I had only a few minutes to spare (appointments at the Couture show were beckoning), but in that time, Joshua instructed me to stand still and, in all jest, keep “a shit-eating grin” on my face until he’d finished circumambulating me, all the while beaming a device at my head that was, byte by byte, capturing my 3-D image.

A crowd of people had gathered around me while I was being scanned, including a retailer from Santa Monica, Calif., who held my notebook and glasses while I stood still. A number of them stuck around to see what I looked like on the screen that Joshua held in his hands. When I saw it, I was delighted…and dismayed. In all honestly, I looked old. And green. And dreadlocked. It was not a flattering image by any means. But I was intrigued by the possibilities.

That’s my image on the screen, after being scanned by a device that connects to a 3-D printer. 

What are those possibilities? They’re as open-ended as the world of 3-D printing itself. Your average retail jeweler may not know much about the topic now, but in a few years, that will change. Eventually, the technology will allow retailers to print their own jewels in the comfort of their own stores—or at the very least print the parts they’ll need to do repairs and create models to show to customers.

The technology itself is remarkable. On my last day at the show, Steve Adler showed me a portion of a 3-D bracelet made of 18k gold. Fully articulated, the piece, Steve told me, required no assembly. It emerged from the printer looking intricate and feeling as soft as fabric. Astonishing does not do it justice.

 

A portion of a 3-D printed 18k gold bracelet that required no assembly whatsoever.

The jewelry supply chain—once a long and snaking pipeline connecting miners, refiners, manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and retailers—began to collapse over the past decade as the market found more efficient ways to distribute its goods. The pace of that collapse is quickening. And it’s a fascinating thing to behold.

Check out JCK’s upcoming July-August issue for a review of some of the crazy technology we saw at the Vegas show, and be sure to check back for our September issue, which is dedicated to the future of retail. You can count on 3-D printing being a part of it.