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Your idea, "printed" in 3-D

A new layering process renders prototypes that pop.

After engineers scan or digitally design a shape, 3-D printers can reproduce the object (or a even jumbo version, as pictured) by building up thin layers of powder or plastic.

Photo courtesy of Z Corporation; Illustration below by Lisa Haney

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In television’s “Star Trek,” the crew used “replicators” to instantly create anything from Earl Grey tea to engine parts. For modern science, that remains something of a frontier. But Z Corporation in Burlington, Mass., is working on a real-world variation that comes stunningly close.

The company stands among the early players in 3-D printing, in which engineers load up a schematic of what they want, feed in some plastic, and watch a machine print out a fully formed model – complete with moving parts.

At its heart, this style of “rapid prototyping” relies on a simple concept: building an object one cross section at a time, similar to laying down LEGO bricks to make a larger shape.

The field is still very young, says Scott Harmon, vice president of business development at Z Corporation. Several companies make these three-dimensional printers, the cheapest of which sells for about $10,000.

Despite a wide array of potential uses, interest and investment has been slow because “even designing a door hinge is pretty difficult,” says Mr. Harmon. What’s missing is the “killer app” – the thing that will give 3-D printing companies a reason to mass-produce. “You’d need to have some reason to want to make something you couldn’t get in a store.”

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