When a student in the University of Montana's Media Arts program needed a replacement button for his car's emergency brake earlier this semester, he did what anyone from the early age of automobiles probably would have done: He fashioned a new one.
But instead of whittling it out of wood or hammering it from tin, the student turned to a distinctly modern technology. He created a three-dimensional model of the button on his computer, and then printed it - not just a picture, mind you, but the part itself - in ABS plastic.
It is a trick so new that even many of the students in UM's cutting-edge, technology-meets-art program had never heard of it before late last semester, when UM purchased its first-ever 3-D printer, a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic.
Now, those same students are discovering a whole new realm of interface between the digital and physical world, as they transform everything from chubby animated bunnies to fine-toothed gears into tangible objects - simply by hitting "print."
"People come into the office and they think it's a popcorn maker," said Ben Malouf, a third-year graduate student in the Media Arts program. "They're pretty amazed when they find out it's doing something that they didn't even know is possible."
Indeed, with its die-cut wooden frame around a tangle of bare wires, rudimentary rails, simple pulleys and small, flat printing platform, the Thing-O-Matic looks more like a high-school science project than a high-tech gizmo.
But looks can be deceiving. Employing a tiny, heated extruder and sensitive motors, the printer can create objects of virtually any shape, in multiple colors and types of plastic, with an astonishing level of detail.
It does so by layering thin streams of molten plastic on top of one another, letting them dry, then adding more layers. The results are objects that, on close inspection, appear to be made of thin wafers of plastic stacked upon one another.
"There are people printing things with 3-D printers that can't be manufactured any other way," said Malouf, who has taken on the unofficial duty of testing and tweaking the printer and who is now teaching the first crop of UM students how to use the machine.
"It really has the potential to change our world," he added.
The printer already has changed the way that instructors in the Media Arts program are looking at their work.
Greg Twigg, an associate professor who teaches classes in media technology and design, said that the new printer has allowed students to venture well beyond established notions of how computer-aided design and art interfaces with the real world.
"We're really looking at this in terms of how we can use it to continue and expand the creation of our art," said Twigg. "This is the first step toward letting our students create art forms digitally that can be manifested physically."
"Two-dimensional digital art has had an outlet for a long time on paper," added Malouf, "but things in 3-D have been stuck until now on the computer."
That isn't to say that it is trivial to get those objects off the computer.
On Thursday morning, Malouf set the printer to the task of creating six miniature, white beer bottles and a carton to carry them. All told, it took more than six hours to print the set of objects, which measured no more than the printer's maximum object height of 4 1/2 inches tall.
Three-dimensional printers have been around since the 1980s, but due to the high costs and in-depth knowledge necessary to purchase and maintain them, they haven't really been accessible to schools and consumers until just recently.
But, said Malouf, both the costs and technical complexity of 3-D printers are rapidly coming into line with familiar home technologies. The new printer purchased by UM cost only $1,200. That's less than what most digital video cameras cost a decade ago.
But the learning curve was definitely steeper.
"When it showed up, it was a box of parts and a link to the website where we were able to get instructions on how to put it together," said Malouf. "Building it was totally an invaluable learning experience, from the standpoint that we know exactly how it works from a mechanical standpoint. But it definitely wasn't easy."
Even that is changing, though. Already, the Thing-O-Matic is being phased out by its manufacturer, replaced by a dual-extruder, larger-format printer dubbed the Replicator. Its price, fully assembled: $1,999.
Such machines have potential not just in the halls of academia, but in everyday households, said Malouf. That UM student who printed his own emergency brake button? He saved a cool $140 off the manufacturer's replacement part cost.
Many other 3-D printer users are finding similar applications - and uploading their models to an online database of printable projects at Thingiverse.com.
"As the technology improves, better printers will get just as cheap as this one was, and you'll be able to print multiple colors, bigger objects, moving parts," he said.
"A lot of economists see a future where you'd never consider throwing something away just because a little piece breaks. You'll just print a new part."