Printing the future

Julie Friedman Steele's River North shop is a model of creativity

  • 3D Printer Experience (316 N. Clark St.) photographed on Thursday, February 6, 2014. (Hilary Higgins/RedEye)
3D Printer Experience (316 N. Clark St.) photographed on Thursday, February… (Hilary Higgins )
March 06, 2014|By Morgan Olsen | For RedEye

In Julie Friedman Steele's mind, it's easy to tell her clients at The 3D Printer Experience apart.

"It's broken up into three groups," Friedman Steele, 36, said. "The people who already know what's going on and know what to do, and they come in and they're very quick. Then there's the group that doesn't know but they want to know. Then, there's the third group that doesn't want to know and just wants to have fun."

3-D printing isn't anything new -- it's been around since 1984. But the futuristic-sounding technology previously was available only to industries that could afford the pricey machines: medical, dental, jewelry, automotive and aerospace. It's only recently that people looking to print their own projects were able to walk through the doors of a shop like The 3D Printer Experience and make their design dreams come true.

Here's what you should know, especially if you're in Friedman Steele's second or third group: You don't have to go to the store with the goal of buying a printer to hook up at home like you would at OfficeMax. (But if that is your mission, the UP! Mini comes in at a little less than $1,000.)

For most, it's more about the experience. Customers are encouraged to play, touch and explore. Friedman Steele said her business model has left many stumped, but she's more concerned with helping customers farm their creativity -- even if they're not making a purchase.

Looking around the store, you'll find a bit of everything -- colorful jewelry, an ornate skull and neon iPhone cases -- all made by the 3-D printers that line the walls.

Friedman Steele's favorite piece, a triple gear designed by mathematician Henry Segerman, sits on a windowsill overlooking the Chicago River. The ball of twisted gears can be slammed on the ground and thrown against walls -- it won't crack.

You can even scan yourself in the store and create a plastic bust or figurine, which is what she did during a recent tour.

Waiting to be scanned, Friedman Steele flipped her elbows toward the ceiling and positioned her fingers in a raccoon-like mask around her eyes. She sat still as the platform beneath her rotated and the camera captured every detail of her head and shoulders. Hopping off her chair, she headed straight to the computers to smooth out all the small imperfections caused by human nature -- the inability to sit perfectly still.

There was one more small detail to be added: big, dramatic angel wings sweeping out of her shoulder blades. With a dozen clicks of the mouse, wings she received.

It was printing time.

Watching even the shop's smallest 3-D printer at work is mesmerizing. Flash-melted plastic is carefully pushed through a delicate head, layer by layer. The machine moves back and forth, perfecting the most intricate details of any project.

Friedman Steele's winged figurine took 45 minutes to print: a milky white bust sitting about 2 inches tall. For paying customers, the bust would ring in at $25. A full-body figurine goes for $125.

For as long as she can remember, Friedman Steele has been goofing around. In grade school, she once wrapped a huge box and presented it to her teacher as a gift. Inside, there were just two kernels of popcorn.

"At the time, I thought that was the greatest thing ever," she laughed.

After several calls home from her teachers, Friedman Steele realized she needed an outlet for her extra energy. Her teen years were spent studying with the likes of Second City, Steppenwolf, Northwestern Cherubs and Piven.

"I started noticing that our society wasn't having fun anymore," she said. "As you go through school, they kind of pull that creativity out of you. Theater and acting was one of the only places left for a child to come up with whatever they wanted to do."

Today, her stage is the Clark Street storefront, where she plays the lead role: owner. Bringing 3-D printing to the average Chicagoan is kind of like taking a ridiculously expensive Broadway show from New York and showing it in Millennium Park for free.

The idea came to her in the fall of 2011 while she was studying artificial intelligence online through The 100,000-Student Classroom. The virtual class was hosted at Stanford University by Peter Norvig, the director of research at Google, and Sebastian Thrun, who developed Google's self-driving car.

Friedman Steele was one of more than 100,000 people who tuned in online. That's when she first heard about 3-D printing.

"I thought, `This would be great if the public had access to this, because the creativity in the public is so much greater than just one company's creativity,' " Friedman Steele said.

Of course, when she started talking about making her 3-D printing ideas a reality, she got some crazy looks from friends and family.

"It was so foreign when I started," she said. "I was like, `Look, 3-D printing is going to be really big in a way that's going to change the world.' And they were like, `What are you talking about?'"

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