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UM Machine Prints in 3-D

Photo courtesy of Maria Keays/Flickr

When it comes to technology, Montana has a reputation for being behind the curve. (Remember when we finally got the iPhone? It was pandemonium rivaled only by the announcement that Elton John would perform in Missoula in 2007.)

After seeing this story in the Missoulian, however, I am convinced that Montana is rapidly outgrowing its label as a technologically deficient state.

The article explains the concept of three-dimensional “printing” — a process in which a computerized 3-D design can be instantly recreated as a tangible object through the use of a 3-D “printer.”

It sounds like science fiction, and, for me, conjures up images of a futuristic world in which people don’t shop for manufactured items like household appliances, clothes or shoes; instead, they simply pick a model and “print” whatever they need.

But after looking into this whole 3-D printing thing a little deeper, I’ve realized that the world — and yes, even Montana — might not be that far away from this vision of the future.

The media arts program at the University of Montana has already acquired a 3-D printer, which students use to “give life” to their digital designs. Its name — the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic — might sound like a make-believe invention from a cartoon, but it’s very real. According to the Missoulian article, one student even used the machine to craft a replacement button for his car’s emergency brake, which ended up saving him $140.

At a price of somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,200, it might be awhile before this technology makes the jump from “cutting-edge” to “common household.” But apparently, it’s becoming more and more widespread.

The website www.thingiverse.com provides a catalog of free designs for simple gadgets, candy molds and decorative accessories. In fact, fashion designers have already begun using the online database as a way to promote their work.

At New York’s Fashion Week, designer Asher Levine created a buzz when the models in his runway show donned sunglasses that can be “printed” from a design available on Thingiverse.

It could be the next big thing in the art world — and believe it or not, Montana is already ahead of the curve.

Brooke is a 2010 graduate of The University of Montana, where she ran track and cross country for the Grizzlies. She is currently working as a writer and editor in Missoula.

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