The machine, no larger than a coffee maker and encased in black like Darth Vader's helmet, hums at a whisper.
Swinging open the shell's door reveals a slim metal nozzle moving smoothly over a platform, putting down melted black filament in thin layers that form a set of simple chess pieces.
The plastic figures might not look like much, but to Zach Kaplan, the 3-D printing technology creating them represents the early promise of digital manufacturing, powered by desktop machines, user-friendly design software and creative people tinkering away in basements and garages.
As CEO of Chicago-based Inventables, an online retailer of materials for product designers and artists, Kaplan is finding new customers among small businesses and budget-strapped hardware startups. He and other proponents of digital fabrication say the technology's increasing accessibility is emboldening a new generation of participants in the manufacturing sector, reinvigorating the industry as the creation of a single item or a small batch of products becomes as affordable as mass production.
The 3-D printer making the chess set at Inventables costs $899 on the company's website, and one spool of filament, enough to make 360 pieces, is $39. The accompanying design software can be run on a basic computer connected to the printer with a USB cord.
"Inventables used to only be able to service the most well-funded R&D groups," said Kaplan, who launched his business in 2002 to cater to big corporations. "Now we're servicing R&D labs in garages all over the world."
Unlike previous generations of 3-D printers, milling machines and laser cutters, many of today's models fit on a desktop and are designed for micromanufacturing. That means a custom job or small run, from one to 1,000 units, can be as inexpensive as outsourcing production but without the fear of giving up quality control to an overseas manufacturer. Inventables has a U.S. customer, for example, that uses a digital milling machine for a skateboard business, cutting three longboards from a $30 sheet of Baltic birch in 40 minutes.
The technology's flexibility and forgiving economics are particularly attractive to hardware startups that are using digital manufacturing for rapid prototyping and small-scale production of their goods. They say making a prototype with a 3-D printer can save thousands of dollars over handing off the work to a design company.
"It's awesome," said Alan Hurt, founder of Light Up Africa, a local startup whose device attaches to a moving object, such as a bicycle, and captures enough kinetic energy to charge a cellphone. "I never knew it was possible to make products at little or no cost."
Hurt borrowed a 3-D printer from Inventables to make prototypes of his product while participating in Impact Engine, a Chicago-based accelerator program for startups with a social or environmental mission. The digital fabrication technology he used was a major improvement over his earliest efforts, which involved fashioning a lunchbox-size case from plastic clipboards that he bought at Wal-Mart and cut apart.
The ability to quickly and inexpensively make quality prototypes also allows startups to experiment without running up a huge bill.
"There's something about being able to hold and physically interact with a design that feels more real and allows you to get feedback more directly than looking at a 3-D image on a screen," said Eduardo Torrealba, co-founder and CEO of Oso Technologies, a company started by engineering graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Oso makes sensors that measure soil moisture content and send alerts to a computer or mobile phone when plants need to be watered.
The startup went through nearly 10 versions of its Plant Link sensor prototype using the 3-D printer at UI's mechanical engineering laboratory. In February, Oso raised nearly $97,000 on crowd-funding website Kickstarter.
The startup will use 3-D printing to create a small run of Plant Link sets for Kickstarter donors who want to get their hands on the products sooner. But Oso will mass-produce the majority of its sensors through an Illinois manufacturer. The proceeds from the Kickstarter campaign will pay for the injection mold needed for that process.
"We haven't totally thrown away the idea of doing production in Asia at some point," Torrealba said. "But for the short term we want to stay local and keep production in the United States, if it's possible economically. People respond to that."
Like Oso, other startups are using digital fabrication technology for prototypes and turning to traditional manufacturers for mass production. That's the case with Chicago-based venture firm and incubator Sandbox Industries, which is introducing a wireless home security system called Scout.
Sandbox used 3-D printing equipment at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to make prototypes of its sensors, saving thousands of dollars over hiring a company to fashion a clay or foam mold. Lindsay Cohen, a vice president at Sandbox, said that while today's 3-D printing technology is inadequate for large-scale production, she expects that to change.
"Where we are with 3-D printing today is probably where the big card-reading computers were in the '70s," Cohen said.
Digital manufacturing is part of a broader "maker" culture that unites hobbyists and professionals by their love of tinkering with stuff. George Page, founder of Chicago startup Portapure, which makes a water filter for use in developing countries or disaster-struck areas, used 3-D printing to make prototypes of the smaller parts that fit into his device.
"I've always been really handy," said Page, a former water filtration engineer for the city of Chicago who also completed the Impact Engine accelerator program. "For me, prototyping is using components, plastics, resins and other materials to shape an idea."
The hobbyist end of the maker spectrum includes local "hackerspaces" such as Pumping Station: One in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood. Members there include "carpenters and game developers and microbrewers and old retired college professors and seamstresses," said spokesman Adam Dzak, whose day job is in information technology.
Pumping Station: One provides equipment, including 3-D printers, for dues-paying members to work on projects. And while the club is focused on personal rather than commercial pursuits, it benefits from the same technological advances and creative impulses driving hardware startups.
Educational institutions are also involved. Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry opened a "Fab Lab" in 2007 to provide hands-on experience with digital manufacturing technology.
"There's been a perfect storm of general public awareness of 'making' … the increased accessibility to some of the technology and a lot of spaces coming out of the woodwork," said Rabiah Mayas, the museum's director of science and integrated strategies. "We're seeing young people discover new interests in engineering."