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posted: 7/7/2012 7:00 AM

The smartest dumb use yet for 3-D printing: Personalized bobbleheads

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  • Video: Cutom bobbleheads

By Will Oremus, Slate

There are a lot of dumb uses for 3-D printing, from plastic bikinis to plastic lampshades to plastic rat-shaped cookie cutters. But I just ran across my favorite dumb use for 3-D printing yet: personalized bobblehead dolls.

For around $90, will convert any headshot -- of you, your significant other, your cat, your boss, etc. -- into a bouncy-headed figurine via the magic of 3-D printing. I haven't tried it, so I can't vouch for the quality, but the pictures and videos on the website suggest HeadBobble's machines can turn out a pretty fair likeness.

As I explained previously in a story on 3-D printing, there are plenty of smart and worthwhile applications for additive manufacturing technologies, mostly in either rapid prototyping or customized high-end industrial products. And then there are the aforementioned dumb applications, which include most of the things you can make on a home desktop 3-D printer. But I'm going to call the bobbleheads a smart dumb application.

It's dumb in that no one on earth needs such a thing. But it's smart in that it's almost perfectly suited to the medium. 3-D printers work best in plasticlike materials, and their virtue is that they make it economically feasible to manufacture one-off novelties. Unless you're a celebrity, you're probably one of the few people in the world who would want a bobblehead of yourself. Voila -- now you can have it, for a semi-reasonable price.

I say "semi-reasonable" because there are other companies out there, such as, that offer custom bobbleheads without 3-D printing for comparable prices. Apparently they employ skilled bobblehead artisans who hand-sculpt them and paint them. That sounds like it would be far more expensive -- so why is HeadBobble competing solely on quality instead of price? This suggests that even the smartest dumb uses of 3-D printing are still not all that economical, at least for the time being. (Either that, or HeadBobble is rolling in some serious profit margins.)

In theory, custom bobbleheads are something you could produce on a home printer as well. But the cheaper models still print in monotone, so the results look amateurish. That's a problem I'm confident that technological advances will eventually address.

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