Last year Karl Meyer, the founder of Gentle Giant Studios, a maker of toys and 3-D models for the film and television industry, got a call from Lucas Licensing Ltd. Could he quickly design a tiny model of Anakin Skywalker's Podracer, now that Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace was set to hit the screen? No problem, said Meyer.
He went to his Silicon Graphics workstation, inserted the CD-ROM of Star Wars animation data that Lucas Licensing had sent him, and, using Pro/Engineer (an industrial modeling program), created a digital model of the vehicle on his screen. Meyer then created an STL (building) file for the model and clicked on Print. After a few hours, a printer in Gentle Giant's offices spit out perfect miniature 3-D prototypes of the Podracer's two jet engines and cockpit.
Meyer's printer, the ThermoJet Solid Object Printer (from 3D Systems, in Valencia, Calif.; (888) 337-9786, $49,995 U.S. list), works much like a regular ink-jet printer, but instead of plain ink it uses a paraffin-based thermoplastic dispensed in layers to create solid objects.
Meyer claims that since he started using 3D Systems' printers more than two years ago, his 25-employee company, based in Burbank, Calif., has quadrupled its production capacity. "What we output is true to what was created on the computer," he says. "It's amazing!"