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Print Shift

The next big thing in 3-D printer technology


When Jenifer Howard recently needed a new O-ring to replace the broken one in her hot tub, she headed to the kitchen and printed one out using her family’s 3-D printer. Not the way you would have handled it? You might change your mind once you check out the new Replicator Mini Compact 3D Printer, coming soon to the MakerBot store in Greenwich.

Howard is MakerBot’s spokeswoman. She calls the Mini one of the smallest, cheapest and simplest 3-D printers to use. “You don’t have to fiddle with it and you don’t have to know very much about running it,” she says. “It’s one-touch.”

Here’s how 3-D printing works. You send a design to the printer from your smartphone, iPad or computer and then the printer gets to work, putting layers of a material on top of and beside other layers. In the Replicator’s case, the printing material is a bioplastic made of corn. It’s coiled on a spool, like skinny cable wire, and feeds into the printer, which heats the plastic to make it malleable, then deposits it on top of itself, adjusted precisely to design specs. O-rings, prosthetic ears, jet-fuel nozzles and all kinds of things can be 3-D printed. Some of these items require industrial-strength machines, but not all of them.

That’s where the Mini comes in. It’s small enough to sit on a countertop at home, connects with Wi-Fi, and all you have to do is touch a button to commence printing. It’s kind of like the point-and-shoot version of a camera as it’s very user-friendly. And at $1,375 it’s priced for the consumer, Howard says. Besides that filament, which runs about $45 for a spool, there’s not much else to buy. Free digital-design specs fill the Internet. Go to thingiverse.com for more than 200,000 designs. 

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