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Though it's been around for three decades, 3-D printing has finally started to take off for manufacturing and even for regular consumers. It's being used for making airplane parts on demand and letting kids make their own toys. One designer is pushing the limits of 3-D printing by using it to make an acoustic guitar.
As a teenager, Scott Summit had a dream: He wanted to be a rock star. And, like his rock heroes, he wanted to design his own guitar — "one that had a sound that was designed by me," Summit says. "I just didn't like the idea of off-the-shelf guitar. I wanted my own guitar."
Summit's dream to be a rock star? That's over. But he finally made his own guitar.
It's gray and smooth like painted ceramic. It's got leafy engraving on the front. But what makes it really different is that it isn't wood. Summit printed it out of "very fine nylon powder." He says that when you do that, "you can create any shape you can dream up."
Summit keeps a printer in his office. It's a miniature version of the one that made the guitar. The printer has a laser arm that squirts a thick red liquid onto a flat surface.
"So it's just as though you are squirting out toothpaste from a toothpaste tube, doing it in very fine layers, and they're all solidifying as you go," Summit says. "You do it layer by layer, and eventually you get a physical, solid thing with a complex shape."
The printer that created the guitar cost $800,000. Mostly, those big printers are used to make parts for cars and airplanes. But Summit says 3-D printing an acoustic guitar seemed like a cool challenge.
"Because it has all this complexity inside and all these mechanical attributes in it that contribute to the acoustics, we just don't know what's going to happen when you do that," he says. "So in this case, the idea was to see, 'Could we actually do an acoustic guitar, and could it actually make a sound?' Not necessarily sound good, but could we make sound at all?"
In Summit's office, professional guitarist Shelly Doty gives it a spin for the first time. As she plays, Summit smiles; it does sound like an acoustic guitar. Doty says she enjoys playing it.
"It's not like anything I've ever played before," she says.
"As far as I know, this is the first of its type, and I didn't know it would play as well until 10 minutes ago. It's like, 'Wait, the reason it sounds bad isn't the guitar — it's me,' " Summit says, laughing.
Summit's office contains lamps with lattice work, chain mail, children's toys, prosthetic limbs — all made with 3-D printers. He's an industrial designer and director of technology for Bespoke Innovations, a San Francisco-based division of 3D Systems. He says he relishes the idea that if you can turn a meltable substance into powder — steel, silver, nylon, chrome — you can 3-D print with it.
"When you take the control of the design of something — in this case, a guitar — and you democratize that, you just give it out to the world and you say, 'Here you go, here are the tools, have fun, do what you want with it,' " Summit says. "That's what really excites me, is democratizing design."
In other words: If you can think it, you can print it.