Joshua Pearce takes unusual satisfaction in strolling through Walmart. The shelves laden with toys, household items, tools and clothing inspire in him a certain smugness, a pride in American entrepreneurship. But it’s not because Pearce admires the chain as an empire built by a self-made man. Pearce swells with pride at Walmart because the store is full of mass-manufactured objects that he could make himself.
“I take great pleasure — and my wife teases me about it — walking though Walmart and saying, ‘I could print that, I could print that, I could print that,’ ” Pearce says.
Pearce is at the forefront of what may be the next manufacturing revolution. Using a technique known as 3-D printing, regular people can now make goods typically produced in huge quantities in factories overseas. Need a mug? A tape dispenser? A chess piece? A pair of shoes? It’s as simple as pressing the print key.
3-D printing builds objects by piling up successive layers of material, hence its more technical moniker, “additive manufacturing.” You start by designing your product on a computer screen with drafting software. That design then goes through a program that slices it up, translating it into a stack of two-dimensional layers. The printer constructs the object by depositing the first layer of material — such as molten plastic that hardens — and then another and another, gradually creating the desired shape. As the printer head moves back and forth, your 3-D vision becomes reality.