Sitting on a stool on a round platform in a storefront window at the foot of the Clark Street bridge, I locked my eyes on the plastic owl as commanded.
“T-minus three, two, one,” a shaved-head man in jeans and a black T-shirt said.
Then I started to rotate.
I had to stay motionless as the platformed slowly turned me, eyes locked ahead and up on where the owl would have been had it followed my circle. If I moved, I guess the scanner would have smeared me, turning me into a digital blur.
As Joe the printer tech joked about teleporting me in time and space (the round rotating platform with the cut-out plastic circle did have a Kirk-era “Star Trek” transporter aesthetic), I sat rapt as an Xbox, a simple Xbox, scanned me from the chest up.
“It’s a 3D camera for under a hundred dollars,” Joe would later tell me as he rotated a wire-frame version of me on a computer screen.
He blurred me and blotted me on that computer screen, tamping in any spot the computer was convinced I had a gaping hole in my head.
I was on my lunch break from my downtown magazine job. I had tried a place that sells fancy doughnuts for lunch. I had decided to watch the river as I ate. Then I saw a sign inviting passersby in to look at 3D printers.
I have never finished a doughnut so quickly.
The 3D Printer Experience was bright and gleamy, that clean iFuture where neat machines and plain black clothing come together. A woman I later learned was the founder welcomes in wanderers like me who want to see machines make things.
Half Mold-A-Rama machine from the zoo, half transmogrifier from Calvin’s cardboard box, 3D printers make, well, anything.
If you have a design (or a scan), this thing will make it for you, layer by layer, level by level. No mold needed. Scan a spoon, it will make you a spoon. Scan your sunglasses, it will make you another pair.
And it even makes Pauls.
After Joe fiddled and patched my wire-frame, he took me to the back wall to see the printer, a black box the size of an Easy Bake Oven but surrounded by the little dinosaurs and graduates it built.
At a long, wooden table in the center of the gleaming futuristic space, a group of young artisans tinkered at computers. They dressed alike, all in black T-shirts and jeans, like if Santa gave up on elves and hired a dozen Steves Jobs.
A tiny woman filed and carved what looked to me like a tiki totem face. A long-haired man rotated a wire frame of a boat on a computer screen. Another young man’s screen had a single 3D eyeball staring out.
The printers along this wall were the cheap ones, there for little projects requiring not much work. If my spinning little platform with the owl Xbox scanner looked like the “Star Trek” teleporter, a quarter-million-dollar machine in the back for industrial uses looked like the version from the Jeff Goldblum “Fly.” Through a clear plastic door, you could see machines spread particles of nylon so fine they looked like powdered sugar.
Joe opened the door of my tiny printer so I could watch me be built. A tiny ball fed by a tube pumping plastic traced an outline oval on the “oven’s” floor. It traced it again. A few more times. Then it filled this oval in with a grid. From my shoulders up, I was being born. This was the first of the 251 plastic layers that would make me.
The printing took about 45 minutes, which meant I had to go back to work to make back the money I spent on a 2.5-inch plastic sculpture of my head (with tax, just shy of $50). I returned a little early, in time to watch the data-stoked machine calligraph layer after layer of my puffy, messy, perpetually unkempt 3D hair.
Joe, the shaved-head man who made me look at the birdie while I was rotated and scanned, sidled up to pop open the Easy Bake Paul door.
He explained that it was heating up to 260 degrees Celsius. He explained that the little plastic scaffolding holding up my chin and the front-flop of my hair would just flake away. And, as the machine finished my hair and he popped me out of the printer, he explained that the little me was made out of the same plastic as a Lego brick.
“You would have to take a hammer to it,” he said.
In theory, the machines can make anything. Just think about that.
“I have a few ideas I would like to do, but you put this in a classroom full of children, the things they’ll come up with,” Joe said. “That’s why I’m so glad places like the Harold Washington Library are getting in on the maker movement.”
Yes, the Harold Washington Library has a 3D print lab too. So guess what Monday’s story is going to be about.
See you then.