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The ABCs of 3-D printing and laser tools

Lab helps novices use cutting-edge technology to turn ideas into products

 Caleb Weiss of Watertown (center) using the laser cutter at Danger!Awesome, a 3-D printing and laser-cutting lab in Central Square that the general public can use.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Caleb Weiss of Watertown (center) using the laser cutter at Danger!Awesome, a 3-D printing and laser-cutting lab in Central Square that the general public can use.

On any given day, an unusual cross-section of artists and entrepreneurs might be found tooling away on the cutting and industrial printing machines at a Central Square lab in Cambridge: a maker of percussion instruments, a fashion designer, even the owner of an electronic cigarette retailer.

The lab is called Danger!Awesome, and it is helping
to introduce 3-D printing and laser-cutting technologies to people who don’t have the knowledge or access to factory- grade equipment to turn their big ideas into products.

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The lab also performs professional-grade jobs for corporate clients, including the nearby Google Inc. offices. But to get 3-D printing to become an everyday technology adopted by the masses, cofounder Ali Mohammad said Danger!Awesome’s main calling is to teach hobbyists and entrepreneurs the technology isn’t all that difficult to master.

“Even if you don’t think you can make something, we will hold your hand through the entire process,” Mohammad said.

Like other labs, Danger!Awesome has both 3-D printers and laser cutters.

Danger!Awesome can create figurines crafted in a 3-D printer.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Danger!Awesome can create figurines crafted in a 3-D printer.

The former create solid objects by slowing extruding layers of plastic or other materials, based on a pattern designed in a computer program.

The latter starts with a block of material and meticulously burns away everything except the desired shape.

“You get this satisfaction from creating things,” Mohammad said. “There is something deeply, primally satisfying about building something you can touch.”

The company is among a number of startups in the Boston area anticipating that people will pay for training and access to bleeding-edge fabrication technologies.

In Somerville, Astisan’s Asylum trains members to use a Stratasys uPrint. The Printing Bay in Waltham offers classes and access to a MakerGear M2.

And on Newbury Street in the Back Bay, the 3-D printer manufacturer MakerBot has opened a store where the public can watch demonstrations of 3-D printing, scan and print their own designs, and buy a machine for their own use.

In Burlington, Einstein’s Workshop offers science and engineering classes aimed at children — including courses in 3-D printing and laser cutting for kids as young as second-graders.

“When you give kids access to these machines, it’s amazing what projects they think of themselves,” said workshop founder Henry Houh, who took a laser-cutting class at Danger!Awesome.

Visual artist Lannie Hathaway got so hooked on the new technology that she now works at Danger!Awesome, where she continues to use the machines for her own engraving and illustration projects.

“Using the tools that are used for engineering to make my own work come to life was very exciting,” Hathaway said.

The 3-D groundswell is being embraced by academia, as well.

Northeastern University, for instance, opened a comprehensive 3-D printing, 3-D scanning, and laser-cutting lab as part of its library system last year, and is developing coursework around it.

And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology supports a global network of 3-D printing laboratories through the Fab Foundation,a nonprofit started by the school’s Center for Bits and Atoms.

Mohammad was a doctoral student at MIT in computational linguistics when he stumbled on the technology, sneaking into the labs with laser cutters late at night to try out the equipment.

He became friends with Nadeem Mazen, and in this age of big-dollar venture capitalists scouring campuses for tech prodigies, the pair hatched a decidedly novel way to start a business.

In 2010, Mohammad and Mazen approached the rock band OK Go, celebrated for its highly evolved music videos, with a seemingly outlandish proposition: They would create a stop-motion music video for the group, in which each still image would be created by a laser cutter.

The truly unusual part?

The “screen” or backdrop for each still image was a slice of toasted bread — several thousand in all — onto which the laser cutter burned the images.

The resulting video is a strangely enrapturing series of almost stick-like drawings of scenery and imagery morphing into each other, one piece of toast to the next, to the soundtrack to the band’s song “Last Leaf.”

Mohammad and Mazen persuaded the band to go with the zany idea after they showed a demo video, produced with MIT’s laser cutters.

“I can’t imagine what the professors would have done if they’d seen us sneaking into the lab with loaves of bread,” Mohammad said.

There was a catch: OK Go would provide laser cutters, totaling nearly $100,000, and the duo would keep the equipment after the video was finished.

It was those laser cutters that Mohammad and Mazen used to start Danger!Awesome in 2011.

Lannie Hathaway works on laser-cut materia at Danger!Awesome.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Lannie Hathaway works on laser-cut materia at Danger!Awesome.

Within three months, the business had broken even, and it has remained profitable since, Mohammad said. The lab does about 50 orders a week, more around the holidays.

This past winter, it used a Kickstarter campaign to raise nearly $43,000 to renovate a larger space around the corner from the current storefront on Prospect Street.

They plan to use the location to hold three new laser cutters, in addition to 3-D printers, and to host larger classes and possibly a summer camp.

The lab’s clients include:

 Bill Whitney, who uses the laser cutters to engrave custom badges for the drums made by his company, Calderwood Percussion.

 Dawn Mostow, a fashion designer who has made outfits for Katy Perry and Pink and cuts patterns for latex dresses.

 Jamie Richard, an operations engineer for Google who moonlights as the owner of an e-cigarette store in Watertown.

Richard was at Danger!Awesome recently to make a display stand for his store, and he watched transfixed as the cutter’s robotic arm made tiny adjustments to the laser as it slowly cut out a display stand from a panel of Baltic birch.

“Isn’t that fun,” Richard said. “Made in America.”

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