3-D Printing and the Making of Tomorrow

With the technology on the cusp of the mainstream, innovators fight to realize its promise, legislators try to protect us from its potential excesses and society braces for a dose of disruption

3-D Printed by Advanced Imaging Solutions

3-D Printed by Advanced Imaging Solutions

To truly understand the world of 3-D printing, you’ll have to expand your current definition of the verb “to make.” For instance: Two years ago, local 3-D printing guru Andrew Morrow and his then-9-year-old son, Simon, decided to make a robot. They didn’t buy a kit for the project, or even build the thing out of spare parts. They actually made it. From scratch. On a 3-D printer.

“We went to Tinkercad.com,” Morrow says. “We dragged a square [to the design pad on the computer screen]; we dragged in a few cylinders to make four legs; we made a little square and then cut a cylinder shape out of it. After we printed it, we put a motor with an offset load in it, put a battery on it, and it vibrated its way across the floor.”

Morrow describes how he and his son then improved on the design, testing it and reprinting parts based on what they learned. When they had exhausted the capabilities of Tinkercad, they used SketchUp, a more sophisticated software for computer-aided design, or CAD.

“We got another version of the same bot, and it printed better, ran longer and worked better,” he says. “And we still hadn’t spent any money on software or gotten any training.” That’s what making means in 2014. The names associated with the Make-It-Yourself, or MIY, movement—Maker Faire, Maker Shed, Hackerspace—resound with self-empowerment. Robotics … not just for MIT grad students anymore!

But with great power comes great responsibility. And perhaps no niche in the maker world illustrates the need for clear thinking and restraint better than 3-D printing.

In 2014, key patents covering a type of 3-D printing that’s not currently available to consumers will expire, cracking open a heretofore controlled field of innovation. Insiders predict this will cause a seismic shift in the technology, its costs and capabilities.

So it’s time for government, industry and the public to consider: What can we do with 3-D printing, what should we do, and—perhaps most importantly—what should we be allowed to do?

Don Hesskamp of Las Vegas’ Advanced Imaging Systems demonstrates an extrusion 3-D printing process.  Photo by Jon Estrada

Don Hesskamp of Las Vegas’ Advanced Imaging Systems demonstrates an extrusion 3-D printing process.
Photo by Jon Estrada

The $10,000 Genie

Three-dimensional printers are exactly what they sound like: electronic machines that turn digital images into tangible objects. Most 3-D printers look like some combination of robot and printer—early models have more exposed working parts and less casing. There are several different types of 3-D printing technology, but most consumer models today fall into the “extrusion,” or “fused deposition modeling,” category.

Translation: a plastic cord wound onto a spool, weed whacker-style, is melted and squirted out a nozzle. (Imagine a really fancy hot-glue gun.) The nozzle lays the plastic down in successive layers comprising thin slices of the 3-D model. Such a process is called “additive,” because it’s adding material layer by layer. Most 3-D printing technologies are additive processes.

If you have a few hundred bucks, you can have an out-of-the-box 3-D printer by this weekend. The Printrbot Simple, which Make magazine editors named the best value for 2014, comes assembled for $399, as a kit for $299. Amazon and Staples both began selling 3-D printers and supplies last year.

Commercial models are pricier. Local 3D Systems dealer Advanced Imaging Solutions (AIS) says its models range from the $2,995 CubeX, which would work for school classrooms and small businesses, to the ProJet, for professional production, starting at $75,000.

As you’ve undoubtedly heard or seen on the news lately, the applications of 3-D printing are seemingly infinite. A recent PBS documentary highlighted current work being done with food, such as chocolate; with concrete, to re-create the Great Barrier Reef; and with living cells to replace damaged vessels in the heart. But the hype can be deceiving.

“It’s like you’ve got a genie in a lamp that, every time you rub it, will give you $10,000. But in the newspapers and on TV, it’s $1 million every time you rub it. Don’t oversell it. It’s awesome enough as it is,” says Morrow, who teaches 3-D printing classes at Downtown hackerspace SYN Shop.

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

The common man’s use of 3-D printers is currently limited by several factors. Printing areas are basketball-size or smaller. Plastic is just about the only widely available material. And, for now, users must be able to create images using CAD software.

In addition, it’s slow. AIS shows a toiletry bottle printed on one of its professional-grade printers that used 6.63 cubic units of resin (it’s about 8 inches high and 3 inches wide). It took 3 hours and 15 minutes to print at a cost of $36.79, says Ryan Lamb, a document management specialist for the company.

Still, to an architect or product designer, the idea of creating a presentation model at that cost in that amount of time is a dream come true. The technology is also popular with craftsmen who create small, custom parts. Lamb says most of his existing clients are in aerospace, automotive, education, dentistry, health care and jewelry.

And the barriers to entry are coming down fast. Morrow and AIS technical engineer Don Hesskamp have both experimented with “exotic” print materials, such as wood and stone, and the day when users can upload PDFs to their printers, skipping the CAD lessons, is on its way. Joseph Flaherty of Wired.com told PBS that, in a few years, 3-D printers would be no more difficult to operate than camera phones.

For now, though, machines require either some technical acumen or the patience to carefully follow instructions.

“Our clients love them, but there’s always some type of technical challenge,” says AIS President Gary Harouff. For him, this is a plus, because the company sells itself in part based on its ability to provide technical support along with equipment.

For people such as Morrow, the hurdles are part of 3-D printing’s appeal. A founding tenet of the maker movement is community: Members gather to learn new things together and troubleshoot one another’s problems. It’s an attractive proposition, judging by the numbers on SYN Shop’s Meetup.com profile: 590 makers have gathered 170 times since the meetup group started in 2012.

But even if you aren’t an engineer, can’t afford technical support (or a printer for that matter) and aren’t MIY-minded, you can still have a 3-D printed object on your desk. At online markets, such as Shapeways and Ponoko, anyone with a credit card can order prints of designs they upload, and shop for wares printed by others.

Harouff predicts it won’t be long until walk-in print-for-pay services are available the way Kinko’s used to do photocopying. Just in case, AIS is holding 5,000 square feet of space for such a store next to its existing 27,000-square-foot imaging facility in North Las Vegas.

The day of the $1 million genie, when anybody can make anything, may not be far off.

What Would Sony Do?

The pandora’s box aspect of the proposition that anyone can make anything isn’t hard to see. The ability to do something such as create living human tissue raises all sorts of ethical and practical questions, the first of which is, How should we, as a society, proceed?

For starters, we’ll have to rethink manufacturing. People all along the supply chain, from fabricators to retailers, will have to transform themselves into maker-facilitators.

Don Hesskamp demonstrates a 3D Systems ZPrinter 450: “This is a powder-based printer: A layer of binder and color is put down. Then a new layer of gypsum-based powder is spread, and the process is repeated until all of the layers in the object are printed.” Photo by Jon Estrada

Don Hesskamp demonstrates a 3D Systems ZPrinter 450: “This is a powder-based printer: A layer of binder and color is put down. Then a new layer of gypsum-based powder is spread, and the process is repeated until all of the layers in the object are printed.”
Photo by Jon Estrada

AIS’s Lamb offers this projection: “By the year 2020, companies like Black & Decker will no longer be selling their parts at big-box stores. You’ll go to BlackAndDecker.com, pay a fee, download a file and either print it on your own printer or go to a third-party service and pick it up. You’re using the same material that they’re using at the factory; you’re just doing it as a one-off, versus a mass quantity.”

Some things will always be cheaper to produce in mass quantity than individually, says Julian Kilker, UNLV associate professor of emerging technologies. Other items, such as the actual power tool in the example above, may be cost-prohibitive to print, difficult to assemble or restricted by safety regulations.

Stores will have to evolve accordingly. Imagine Home Depot, for example, as the place where you both buy a Black & Decker circular saw and pick up any 3-D-printed replacement parts you need for it in the future.

This change is already underway, courtesy of services such as Shapeways, which has raised $45 million in venture capital funding in the past four years. The ability it gives individuals to design and print custom items affordably will wreak havoc on proprietary systems. Kilker uses the example, which he says he first heard at South by Southwest, of parents printing pieces to connect their children’s wooden train tracks with Legos.

Big money is flowing to 3-D printing—Harouff says the financial analysts he follows set the sector’s market cap at $1.5 billion a year ago, compared with more than $8 billion today—so the challenge to the status quo will be well-financed.

To avoid repeating past mistakes, manufacturers and brand owners should study the history of the music and publishing industries, most notably the disastrous case of music file-sharing company Napster, which several record companies sued for copyright infringement. Napster not only lost the fight in 2001—to the tune of a $26 million settlement and injunctions that prevented it from continuing its existing operations—but also went out of business as a result.

The thing is, people still steal music, and the record labels—perceived as corporate bullies that prevented music lovers from sharing interesting finds—lost in the court of public opinion. Monday-morning quarterbacks argued that the situation could have been avoided if the pioneers had been folded into the status quo.

One way to build a bridge from old-school to newfangled is through education. Harouff hopes we’ll soon see 3-D printers alongside circular saws, sewing machines and watercolor sets in woodshop, home economics and art classes. The less 3-D printing is seen as a rogue technology, the easier it will be for businesses and consumers to embrace. This would professionalize the craft and foster a sense of value for the products created.

Meanwhile, makers will have to fight for their right to innovate. New technologies are bound to corporatize—indeed, industry giant Stratasys bought MIY hero MakerBot for $405 million in June—but we shouldn’t let that stanch the exciting discoveries coming out of garages and hacker spaces. We need the type of innovation that bottom-line thinkers are less likely to come up with than enthusiasts such as Morrow. “There’s this sort of empowerment that comes from being able to take control of the technology and not let it fall into the hands of the big guys,” he says.

The to-do list of practical “shoulds”—reimagine the product supply chain; study up on past mistakes (so as not to repeat them); educate the masses on the new technology; and make sure the innovators have plenty of creative freedom—is imposing. But it’s nothing compared to the roll call of ethical “thou shalt nots.”

‘Not God’

We may as well start with guns, or to be more specific, Cody R. Wilson, the Austin-based founder of Defense Distributed, an open-source site for 3-D printable weapons. Having gone on for a couple of years already, the 3-D gun debate that Wilson started already seems tired. And yet, in some ways, it’s just begun.

AIS’s Harouff and 3-D guru Morrow argue, obliquely, that this isn’t their fight. Morrow says that being able to print a gun won’t affect existing laws that govern how it’s used. It’s illegal to rob or murder someone, whether it’s with a plastic or a metal gun. What will change, he says, is that “more people will be forced to make decisions to respect the responsibility we already have.”

Harouff says he doesn’t tell people what to do with the technology, and he certainly doesn’t advocate or participate in anything illegal. He figures that, soon enough, laws and law-enforcement mechanisms will evolve to cover the 3-D printing of contraband similar to those that prevent printing counterfeit currency on color copiers.

The 3-D-printed gun legislation train has already left the station. In January 2013, TechCrunch.com trumpeted, “Like it or not, 3-D printing will probably be legislated.” Indeed, in the first week of December, both houses of Congress voted to extend by 10 years the Undetectable Firearms Act, which bans the sale or possession of guns that can’t be detected by X-ray or metal detector.

Proposed language dealing specifically with 3-D printed guns didn’t make it into the bill because, opponents said, the expense and rarity of the technology rendered it unnecessary. AIS’s Hesskamp put it this way: You’d need a $4,000 machine to print an operable gun, and for that you could buy a trunk-load of metal weapons.

But such thinking doesn’t take into account someone who would make the up-front cost worthwhile, financially speaking, by mass-producing guns in his basement. And someone with limited resources who wants to keep a low profile—say, a member of a terrorist organization—would fit that bill. Legislators around the world will have to figure out how that scenario could be prevented.

Another 3-D thorn under the government’s saddle will be intellectual property law. Consider, for instance, your Disney-obsessed friend. Right now, he heads to Anaheim or Orlando once a year and comes home with a suitcase full of memorabilia. But imagine him with a 3-D printer at home. What will stop him from printing Mickey Mouse dishes and Goofy toothbrush holders to his heart’s content?

Michael Weinberg of digital advocacy group Public Knowledge told PBS that he believed artistic objects would be protected by copyright, while functional things might fall outside the scope of such protection. Patents may cover some of these. There isn’t much existing case law about everyday people making copies of copyrighted products, he adds. So, lawmakers will be starting from scratch.

Here, too, the music industry might provide useful models, such as iTunes, which took years to iron out a workable business model and user interface. Returning to the idea of the pay-for-print service, where someone can custom order a part he needs and go pick it up, Harouff wonders who will “own” the digital file. Can it only be used once? Or can the buyer print the part multiple times? How much would it cost?

Photo by Jon Estrada

Photo by Jon Estrada

Probably the thorniest issue to resolve, because it brings religion into the equation, is that of flesh and blood. The beneficial medical applications of 3-D printing abound: Harouff describes orthopedic surgeons using CT and MRI scans to create an exact replica of a patient’s hip or knee, pre-surgery, so that by the time they slice someone open, they’ve already practiced the procedure and custom-sized the necessary medical devices.

But there’s a creepy side, too. Lamb cites rumors of complete organs being grown from stem-cell tissue and transplanted in wealthy patients on an experimental basis. The idea isn’t too far-fetched, since there are confirmed cases of 3-D printed skin-replacements for burn patients. If we’re printing live human cells, it’s only a matter of time until we can print a human being. Ironically, early models of 3-D printers, such as the RepRap Mendel, were named after biologists.

“I’m not God; I don’t want that responsibility,” says AIS’s Lamb, considering the implications. “But 99 out of 100 people we talk to want it for a legitimate business operation, something that can benefit other people and would do good for humankind.”

That’s small comfort to anyone who falls victim to the remaining one out of 100.

Finally—at least for now—how might the environment pay for unbridled technological enthusiasm? To 3-D printing advocates, this question is settled: On-demand printing uses less material than mass production and reduces its carbon footprint, since all that has to be shipped are spools of plastic.

Morrow tells of how he printed the plastic valance clips for his window dressings. The outdated models were out of production, but rather than chucking the whole mechanism, he was able to hand-make replacements for the small parts.

“Now, things can be made locally,” Kilker says. “It reduces packaging. You don’t have the articles floating around the sea from when ships capsize. Materials still have to be shipped, but they could be produced regionally. Some of these resins could be categorized by type and chipped down into small pieces and reused. I see no reason not to have a recycling model for this. They could even mark the components so that they’re easily sorted.”

But it’s naïve to assume that people will recycle everything they create. (To see the limitations of recycling, Google “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”) And home 3-D printing could eliminate the last barriers to filling our homes with everything that catches our passing fancy. The online mecca of 3-D printing, Thingiverse, demonstrates the potential for crap to proliferate. For every useful item, there are several that have “destination: landfill” written all over them.

Still, the vexing ethical problems related to violence, hubris and environmental damage pale in comparison to the benefit society could reap from 3-D printing. Moreover, none of these problems is unsolvable. Consumers are currently in a position of relative power over the future of this technology. Of all the things we can make, the most important one will be our own fate.

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