The Triumph of 3D Printing

Maker Faire Rome 2015 (MFR)

I just got back from Maker Faire Rome 2015 (MFR), where my friend Mr. Anjan Contractor and I spoke about how the Maker movement can help Engineers Without Borders.

What impressed me most at MFR was the tremendous and unabated progress of 3D printing, which appears likely to continue to grow geometrically for years.

We snuck in on Thursday night as the booths were being set up. The progress is taking place by many baby steps, in a stream of evolution that I think has ripened into a revolution. We saw 20 firms making 3D printers and services. There is some redundancy in low-end printers (below $800), but in general each firm is adding a small new capability. The fact that so much of the 3D printing movement is open source, in software and hardware, enables this. Designers share printable designs via sites like Thingiverse.

In the courtyard of MFR, there stood a space frame 30 meters high and 12 meters across. It’s purpose: 3D print in simple, locally found clay on a house-sized scale.

I immediately wanted to print a small version of the Colosseum for children who can’t travel to understand that 1900 years ago with no electricity and no internal combustion engines the Romans built a stadium that sat 60,000 people and is still standing. Since our kind host spoken limited English and we spoke no Italian at all, I couldn’t tell if he had thought of this already. But in fact these tremendous innovators may not have, because the truth is there is only so much time and energy in the world, even for brilliant Makers.

(A downloadable, printable model from Thingiverse: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:927907 — by Andyroohoo)

And that means, gentle reader, that we need your thoughts as well. We cannot all participate in every technological trend, but I assure you that you have not missed the 3D printing revolution. It is still in the hyperbolic growth part of its lifecycle. There are 30 years of fruitful development in this field awaiting our creativity.

A Relatively Expensive (~$2500) WASP Delta Printer.

When I first heard about 3D printing, I thought it was an interesting fad. Now that I have done it, I believe it will provide tremendous benefits to humanity.

3D printing frees the creator to give gifts more widely, just as photography democratized visual arts. As Edward Weston believed, photography should make art affordable for everyone — and it has. In so doing, it made painting less ubiquitous, but no less important.

3D printing will do the same for the sculptor. The sculptor and designer will be indistinguishable. Now, as John Ruskin and William Morris wanted, everything in your house can be beautiful and useful. We will be able to build lamps and tables which are not just stronger and cheaper, but far more beautiful, because they are freed from the cost of hand-manufacture. They will be made not “by hand”, but “by mind”.

Stronger, Faster, Cheaper

The most impressive thing I saw at MFR was OpenROV Trident, an inexpensive underwater exploration submarine. This gentleman gave a talk about it right before our talk.

You can’t see it, but inside it has a complicated 3D printed structure. They could not have gotten the prototype working so easily and so well without a 3D printer, I assert. Perhaps when they are producing unit quantities in the thousands they will injection-mold the inner structure, but the point remains that their prototyping needed 3D printing.

Of course 3D printers were used early to make architectural models:

This is the 3D printed outer facade of the building whose internal design is suggested behind it.

Humanizing Technology

What can be more intimate than a 3D printed brassiere?

Wait — don’t answer that.

Unless it is perhaps 3D printed dental models or 3D printed jaw showing the major blood vessels:

Are you short? Or tall? Or fat, or thin? Do you want to see your alma mater’s logo on everything? Now your chairs can be just right for you, because there is no reason they should not be tailored specifically to and for you. Today a wealthy man can have a bespoke suit. Tomorrow we can all have a bespoke furniture set, because it will cost nothing more to to customize it.

Eventually, there will be a machine that creates for you, cheaply and quickly, any beautiful object you may desire. Today, this can almost be done — in plastic. Tomorrow it will be done in bronze, or cut from marble, and whatever electronics you desire will be embedded within it at nominal cost.

Tomorrow when you read your child’s favorite book to them at bedtime, you will be able to hand them a sculpture of each of their favorite scenes. The princess and her dragon will be there, glittering in glory, perhaps even ready to take wing — because, why not? Printing a flying toy dragon with integrated motors will be commonplace.

When an earthquake or a fire destroys your home, how long do you think it will take for us to rebuild it? Thirty days? Thirty hours? Thirty minutes?

H.P. Lovecraft wrote in At The Mountains of Madness of a space-faring race that used sculpture and bas-relief in place of writing. We may eventually do the same. Trigonometry will now be explained with a manipulable object. You will see and feel the surface of the function. You will understand the four chambers of the heart better when we hand you one.

Our smartphones produce maps — why not models?

Another Thingiverse design you could print yourself: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:47622 — work of ibudmen.

3D Printing vs. Other Technologies

Tim O’Reilly once said that he thought computer controlled manufacturing is the real story, of which 3D printing is just a subset. He is right, of course. At TechShop Austin, the 2D laser cutters are more heavily used than the 3D printers. Laser cutters can be similarly humanizing and artful.

But of the CNC milling, laser cutting, and other related making technologies, none of them quite come as close to producing items of stand-alone value. None of them quite changed my way of thinking as much as my experience with 3D printing.

Getting Involved

If you have any interest in this sort of thing do yourself a favor and find a way to borrow or rent the use of a 3D printer and print out a few objects.

This is a great time to become interested in 3D printing. Maker spaces commonly allow professional 3D printers to be shared as part of membership and offer support and community. I have enjoyed TechShop Austin because of the excellent advice and support given by their staff. Alternatively, you can just buy one for your home if you are willing to do some assembly and learning on your own. Here is a small basic model:

A basic model cost less than $500.

If you buy your own, expect to spend a little time tweaking it before your are happy with your prints, and don’t expect to create museum-quality pieces without a lot of extra work.

Every child should be given a chance to hold in their hands things that they designed and made themselves. 3D printing does not replace, but rather augments sculpting, drawing or painting.

We need: artists to design new objects, craftspersons to tailor objects to the human form and to paint and finish objects, engineers to design parts that make machines better, stronger and cheaper.

But we also need a new sort of skill, called simply 3D Printing: we need people willing to just think of how to use this new capability and to invest the modest effort needed to get new things designed, printed, and enjoyed.

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