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Pimp My Molar! Print My Book! Two 20-Year Technology "Overnight Successes," Finally Available

A few days ago, between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., I spent a wonderful hour. I had my tooth #29 (second bicuspid) drilled, halved and capped, then got stuck in traffic for an hour listening to the radio.

It sounds utterly mundane, but I experienced, instead, an exhilarating sense of déjà vu. Within that hour, I re-discovered two beautiful technologies that had been percolating for the past 20 years—first much hyped, then struggling. and finally, after much mayhem, arriving at a store (or dentist's office) near you! The first was 3-D reproduction of body parts. The second was the print-on-demand digital press.

Let me back up. As I finished my design studies two decades ago, computer imaging was just becoming real. I was working as an intern at Scitex when "3-D Printing" was being invented in the dusty garage we called "the design studio" by a company subsidiary called Cubital.

Across town, Objet, another sibling company, was developing a rival technology—essentially a 3-D inkjet printer. The two inventions were linked with one concept—the manufacturing, "on demand," of things never before imagined. 3-D printing is now a common reality in every aspect of product development. We use SLA (stereolithography), SLS (selective laser sintering), and other Rapid-prototyping technologies nearly on a daily basis. Yet 20 years ago, the technology was also envisioned for something entirely different: manufacturing body parts.

Simply put, the idea was, if you can scan the body (CT), 3-D printing could deliver a replacement part identical to a broken bone or a piece of skull. At the time, I was so taken by this technology story that I scared the hell one of my teachers. As an artistic exercise, she asked us to develop a "packaging for a body part." When I actually developed a "manufacturable" foot, 3-D, blister-pack and all, she went ballistic.

3-D Scan at Dentist This week, my dentist manufactured, on my demand, a replacement body part. Tooth #29 was due for a partial cap. To begin, the assistant took an image. The dentist then drilled and halved the tooth, and took a second image. The two images were overlapped on the computer and a 3-D image was created on said tooth. Within seconds the doctor delineated the outline of the crown, added bit of smoothness, and trimmed a bit here and there. He tossed it around in cyberspace, made a final check and voila! One tooth, ready for print!

I insisted on walking to the other room to watch my tooth being fabricated. One last check, and some glazing, and in less than an hour and I am out with a new crown. No need for two-weeks of temporary fillings, refits and pains.

I had thought this technology was still too science fiction-y for regular folks' use. I knew it existed in esoteric use, since last year Objet released a printer we had designed and showed me how a conjoined-twins' organs were fabricated so that a team of doctors could practice the 12-hour separation procedure step-by-step. I did not know the future was so near at hand.

Driving back from the dentist, marveling at this, I was listening to the radio when I heard a story about how print-on-demand technology had arrived this month at a store in London. Coincidentally, 20 years ago I had finished school with a project about "Digital Press"' that was being created by a nearby start-up called Indigo—now a division of HP.

Espresso Book Machine

Now Blackwell, an academic bookshop, has installed and operates one of the very first Espresso Book Machines. They have about 500,000 titles available for printing, and you can pick your book, pay and watch it being printed on the spot. A variety of university libraries here in the States are also Espresso customers.

Espresso Book Machine Titles that have long gone off shelves are now available to all. That's the Kindle concept in reverse: People love the object called a book, but bookstores just can't afford stocking all that inventory of unused paper. So, if you have a digital file of a book—say, if you're unpublished author—all you need to do is print, bind and you're a true author! Same idea goes for really exotic books: just get the manuscript. Blackwell claims it will have one million titles within the next six months. Meanwhile, in London there apparently is a long line of people standing and watching the magic happen. And at last weekend's Book Expo in New York, customers lined up for free copies as they came off the press.

Imagine that: You just need to wait 20 years and the hype finally becomes reality.

Read more of Gadi Amit's The New Deal blog

Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.