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December 25, 2008

What I Did Not Get For Christmas 2008 (But Maybe for Christmas 2013 if I'm Good) : A 3-D Printer

I did not get a 3-D printer for Christmas. It would fit on top of my desk, along with my monitor and my 2-D printer. (Yes, I've still got one of those old things!)

Inkjet printers can do a lot of things. Some restaurants are hacking their inkjets and replacing the inks with edible flavored dyes and printing on edible paper, giving their clientele edible menus that they can eat after they place their orders. Appetizers, sir? Oh no, please just eat your menu. No really, I mean it...

How does 3D printing work? Suppose you wanted to fabricate a sphere of 2-inch radius. The printer builds it in a thousand very thin layers. First the printer deposits a very thin layer of particle dust (plaster, corn starch, or resins) all across the printing area, say a five-inch square platform. Then the printer sprays ink onto the dust wherever the part is going to exist on that level. The dust that gets the ink solidifies, the dust that gets no ink remains powder and later blows away. Layer after layer build up. When it's done, a vacuum sucks out all the non-solidified dust, and then an Easy-Bake-Oven heats the output to solidify it as one peice. Let it cool off and presto, you've got a part. The products have the strength and properties of Lego blocks.

So these printers used to cost a million dollars, last year they cost $15K, and an outfit called Desktop Factory expects to sell them in 2009 for about $5K. This is just like personal computers all over again, in five years (Christmas 2013, hint, hint) they'll be priced at around $1000, and I'm going to want one.

What would you do with one? Make things! For instance, the tinkerers over at are achieving 20dpi and making some pretty intricate sugar confections. Check out their site, best logo ever in the top-left corner.

In general, these 3D printers are corporate tools. But Another group of midnight engineers are building an open-source 3D printer called RepRap. RepRap is a plastic 3D printer. Here's the pitch that makes it unique: Once you assemble it, you use it to make (print) another one. It's a self-REPlicating RAPid prototyper. RepRap is an open source project, and although there's a lot of sweat equity and time involved in building one, it's going to cost $500 instead of $5000.

Right now, high school students are doing things with computers, scanners, and printers that only major corporations with large staffs could do thirty twenty years ago. Think about it - in 1988, what would it take to make a slideshow presentation with photo art? And print it in color? And make revisions and reprint? Today these are so easily done, we might forget how magical it is - which is the sign of a mature technology. For instance, nobody asks how the fridge keeps the beer cold.

Little Billy lost his house key? Print a new one. Cousin Sally forgot her night brace? No problem. Christmas eve and the mike stand for your Guitar Hero playset came out of the box broken? Hey, Dad can fix that! Visiting cousin (and bad boy) Stosh wants a Ninja Death Star? Sure -- oops, maybe not!

Does this affect the loss of manufacturing to China? Probably not, because desktop 3-D is still going to be more expensive than the China price. Will this support innovation and entrepreneurship? I think so.

Lest I get too positive, let me mention that if (as I believe) the unintended consequences of events outweigh the intended consequences - what will happen when bad people get these? To be sure, smart, funded bad people can get things made now; the change will be that more idiots will be able to obtain previously unobtainable items (like, for instance, rapid-fire trigger assemblies). (edited)

Another thing I find interesting is the shift in control. Previously, only factories and machine shops (which generally means people with money) held the means of production. With a 3D printer, that measure of control is lost and means of production become distributed. I don't want to sound like Karl Marx, who argued that limited distribution of the means of production exploits labor and produces the class system, but there's intriguing implications in this. As a geek, I just want the capability, but there's more in this than techno. (edited)

And finally, to kick it up a notch: remember those Star Trek chow hall replicators? That's where this ends up. Instead of printing big clunky parts somebody's going to make a molecular ink-jet using carbon nanotubes for the inkjet spray nozzles, and then all sorts of things will change.


Forrest Higgs said...

Figure that in April there were five operational Reprap printers. We estimate that there are currently somewhere between one and two thousand Darwins out there either operational or under construction.

My own variation can mill sheet stock as well as print plastic. I've already written the software to allow it to mill its own printed circuit boards and I'm working on a printable stepper motor so that I can get the percentage of printed parts way up.

Depending on how you define "bad", bad people already have them. If you thought that outsourcing manufacturing was a "bad" thing, give us about another 2-3 years. Traditional supply chains for manufactured goods are going to come unstuck BIG TIME ... all over the world. We're going to become "bad" people to the Chinese as well as to Americans. Bring 'em on! :-D

Vannevar said...

Hi Forrest, thanks for mentioning the Darwins, I didn't know about them. Do you have a URL?

I didn't express it well, the thought behind my "bad people" theme was about (1) recognizing the risk of more people easily manufacturing "forbidden" objects and (2) I'm intrigued that the methods of production were once limited and may become widespread, and I think I may start sounding like Lenin if I pursue that...

I'd like to say (don't mean to be defensive) that I don't think change is bad, I just think there's winners and losers, and it's better to be a winner. I'd love to see more basic manufacturing in the US.

I agree that this changes everything in manufacturing. It's going to be just like when everybody has computers, and the open source movement began, except in manufacturing and innovation. Overall, it's going to be a very good thing.

Forrest Higgs said...

Hi Vannevar,

Darwin is the first general distribution Reprap machine design. What you see on the Reprap website are predominately Darwins. It looks like a cube made of Tinker Toys.

Insofar as "forbidden" objects are, I think that you need to get a bit more specific about what it "forbidden" that you could make with a Reprap machine that you couldn't make with an ordinary machine shop.

Are you talking about things that go boom, or are you talking about, say, Mickey Mouse action toys? The first category is covered by the second amendment and the second is forbidden because Disney and the other mainstream media companies like Disney, bought legislation extending copyright periods way, way beyond anything that is reasonably constitutional.

I don't think that widespread use of 3D fabbers is necessarily a good thing for "basic manufacturing in the US". They essentially make it possible to make complex things without having to beg banks and/or other capitalists to fund building a factory. Lenin indeed. I suspect that Karl and Vladimir are smiling in Hell at the prospect of the means of production winding up in ordinary hands rather than being under the sole control of capitalists. This isn't quite what they had in mind, but what the heck? :-)

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