Technology

Creative Destruction? Why That's Just Fab!

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On the Fast Company site, Jamais Cascio reviews the rapid progress being made in desktop manufacturing:

replicator

Take a design for a simple product–an engine part, for example, or a piece of silverware, and feed it into a computer. Press "print." Out pops (for a sufficiently wide definition of "pops") a physical duplicate, made out of materials plastic, ceramic, metal—even sugar. Press "print" again, and out comes another copy–or feed in a new design, for the next necessary object.

It may sound like a scene from a low-rent version of Star Trek, but it's real, and it's happening with increasing frequency. This process goes by a few names, but it's most commonly known as "3D Printing" (the older name, "rapid prototyping," no longer captures the range of uses, while the other alternative name, "fabbing," is a little too cyberpunk for the moment). While the process has been around since the mid-1980s, the cost of 3D printers has been dropping quickly, and now range to well under $10,000. If that still sounds like a lot of money, you're right–but don't forget, it was when laser printers dropped to this price range in the mid-1980s that the desktop publishing revolution kicked off.

Right now, most 3D printing is limited to single-material objects (as designer Sven Johnson noted on Twitter, we're now starting to see two-material 3D printers). Most systems use (often proprietary) plastics, but a few use metal "toner." The latter is turned solid by a variety of high-tech means, from sintering with lasers (for simple objects) to using high-energy electron beams to melt the metal into dense, high-strength parts.

On the near horizon, however, are systems that would allow for multiple material inputs, and those that allow the use of electroactive and electronic polymers. Although plastic electronics fall way behind traditional silicon processors when it comes to speed, they're moving into the "just good enough" category, raising the tantalizing possibility of being able to print out basic electronic products–sensors, RFID-type tags, even simple communication devices–by the middle of the next decade.

As the technology improves and prices fall, Cascio forsees a world in which "the kinds of personalized products now available to those with the right money and know-how may soon be available to everyday people." Needless to say, this could bring the same sort of disruption to manufacturing that we've already seen in the news and entertainment industries. But it also "offers the potential for the ultimate 'maker' culture, where commercial products are bought off of iTunes-like online stores and printed at home, while eager hardware hackers play with design tools and open-source hardware systems to make entirely new material goods."

Caveat: My knowledge of this subject is limited to what I've read in Cascio's article and in Neil Gershenfeld's equally enthusiastic book Fab. If you've got a more skeptical take on the tech's prospects, please share it in the comments.

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  1. Jay Leno has one to re-make parts that are currently only made of unobtainium:

    http://www.jaylenosgarage.com/video/video_player.shtml?vid=944641

  2. Janeway? Really?

  3. Damned kids. Always messing about with their techno whazitdoo, and yacking on the tubes. I’m still trying to work out how to play my albums on the iPod (any of you punks ever wanna sit still for ten minutes and really listen to some Andy Williams, you just might learn something). Now you expect me to figure out how to use some can’t-live-without-it widget every other day? Gagh!

    I use to be with it, but then they changed what it was. And now what I’m with, isn’t it anymore. And what’s it seems strange and peculiar to me.

  4. But don’t you see how many jobs this technology is going to kill?…

  5. If/when an actual Star Trek-style replicator is invented and mass produced, the fall of capitalism will follow quickly thereafter. You will have RIAA-type organizations running around trying (and failing) to prevent people from replicating a Big Mac or a Ford Mustang at home.

    This isn’t a bad thing. If everything is available for free, money will cease to useful-or needed. The result, best case scenerio, will be a Star Trek-like political system, minus the starships and green aliens.

    Of course, it’s unlikely this will happen during our lifetimes.

  6. Soon there will be one in every squad car, set to “evidence”.

    Sorry, I accidentally brought my anger to the “Neat-o!” thread.

  7. if you find this technology interesting check out reprap.org

  8. Episiarch | July 21, 2009, 11:36am | #
    Janeway? Really?

    Why not? Best Starfleet captain ever.

  9. My wife got me a Figure Print of my WoW main character. I was impressed by the look and quality.

  10. I’m ready to buy one of these devices and see if I can’t print my own real doll….

  11. My lifelong dream of making knock-off My Little Ponies entirely out of lead is finally nearing fruition.

  12. Geotpf: except you can’t fab the new Guster album or a flight to Manila or a day at six flags.
    Someone will be wise enough to gather waste and repackage it as Maker Matter, or release “sewing patterns” fo electronic parts etc.

  13. I wonder if there’s a sort of Kinko’s for 3D printing.

  14. Oh, Captain Janeway. Lace: The Final Brassiere.

  15. Why not? Best Starfleet captain ever.

    Warren, you should go to the doctor. Right away.

  16. Jeff P-But at some point, the designs of most things will be created because people like designing things. Open-source software proves this. That is, many/most jobs will become overgrown hobbies.

    Travel and a few other services will be rather messy for awhile, although eventually you have “communism that works”. Communism fell, in large part, due to shortages of consumer goods. (Plus, you can have communism without the totalitarianism, especially if there’s the internet and all physical goods are free.)

    But this is all mainly a thought experiment, since it’s unlikely for 3D printers to turn into actual inexpensive Star Trek-style replicators any time soon. It will be cheaper and less expensive for some factory in China to mass produce most consumer goods the traditional way for the foreseeable future.

  17. Cheaper and less expensive. I meant to say easier and less expensive and not be all at the department of redundancy department.

  18. Advanced enough, this could completely destroy electronics companies, as people would just trade improvements online or, if the technology were too expensive, some guy in a shop down the street would make them to order.

  19. Geotpf,

    Sorry, you will still have scarcity in the amount of “feed” base materials, energy, and space.
    Some people will only want to buld iPods, others will want to build skyscrapers. How will the space, energy, and feed issues be resolved? It ain’t technocratic/Star-Trek planning that’s for sure…

    Add Jeff P’s comment to mine, and I still see capitalism still having a role to play in allocating limited resources to unlimited wants.

  20. “Advanced enough, this could completely destroy electronics companies, as people would just trade improvements online or, if the technology were too expensive, some guy in a shop down the street would make them to order.”

    And the intelligent ones would figure out how to sell the design.

  21. This isn’t a bad thing. If everything is available for free, money will cease to useful-or needed. The result, best case scenerio, will be a Star Trek-like political system, minus the starships and green aliens.

    Read Iain M. Banks Culture stories.

    My naysaying comments now follow.

    Design is hard. It’s one thing to make a pretty 3-D model and print it out. It’s another thing entirely to build a functioning device. How many prototypes do you have to build before you get it right? At what point do you say screw it, and go buy one?

    The difference between good enough for me as a single use item, good enough for multiple uses, and something someone else will use is vast. People have come to expect a certain level of fit, finish and functionality out of pretty much everything these days. You have to get past this as well.

    Most people do not want the hassle. There’s a reason Ikea sells 40 scrillion cheap bookcases every year. They’re good enough compared to the hassle of making one yourself. A bookcase is about the simplest piece of furniture there is. If people aren’t going to invest the minimal time and energy to build a book case, what makes you think they’re gonna bother doing this?

    There’s always going to be a place for mass-produced, because the price per item is going to be less than it is to fab a one-off. Economies of scale and all that rot.

    Having said all this, more power to the fab community. I just don’t see Neil Gershenfield’s overly optimistic predictions coming true anytime soon.

    Full disclosure: I’m a design engineer, so making stuff is what I do for a living and for fun.

  22. “I wonder if there’s a sort of Kinko’s for 3D printing”

    http://www.quickparts.com

    much of this technology has been aimed at improved resolution in the past few years. It’s fairly common to be able to get resolution down to .0006″, as good as or better than many CNC machines. However, the price is still fairly high, the parts often need some finishing work, and are not as durable as molded or cast parts.

    That said, the whole concept has fascinated me for as long as I’ve worked with it. I agree it’s only a matter of time until this is commonplace stuff.

  23. Geotpf;

    I agree about 90%, free enterprise capitalism is by far the most effective solution to the problem of allocating scarce resources – when resources stop being scarce, then (for those goods) allocation is no longer a problem, everyone gets/takes as much as they want, no problem.

    However….. you’re sort of omitting the myriad resources replicators can’t produce and the important ones like services & as Jeff P noted, a day at 6 flags.

    Additionally – Star Trek repeatedly made it clear that replicated goods weren’t as good as the real thing and people used money to trade for those (see: Captain Sisko’s father’s restaurant in DS9)

    Anyway, you wouldn’t have “communism” as a result, since that implies lack of ownership and i’m pretty sure theft is still frowned upon in the ST universe.

  24. If/when an actual Star Trek-style replicator is invented and mass produced, the fall of capitalism will follow quickly thereafter.

    Quite the opposite. It would lead to far greater material wealth, which people would use to satisfy more and more elaborate desires, which would require talented people to make mutually beneficial trades.

    Intellectual talent and pussy aren’t going to become suddenly free because you have a widget maker.

    Now, if you can churn out fembots on these machines, that would break the current monopoly on pussy …

  25. Lamar,

    I wonder if there’s a sort of Kinko’s for 3D printing.

    Currently they are called factories.

    Frank_A,

    Beat me to it. First thing that came to my mind was feeder materials, or raw materials. Not gonna be free.

    mantooth,

    Jay Leno has one to re-make parts that are currently only made of unobtainium:

    First time I saw unobtainium used in a while! I like the old unobtainium.org website better than what I saw last. The one that just said “Go away you can’t have any!”

    I really love this topic. For the “world” of my book series I dump the 3D printer idea into the general idea of tools becoming cheaper, allowing most anybody to make whatever they are interested in making. That is just the backdrop. I don’t get into much of that detail in the actual books, just a little bit.

  26. prolefeed,

    If/when an actual Star Trek-style replicator is invented and mass produced, the fall of capitalism will follow quickly thereafter.

    Quite the opposite. It would lead to far greater material wealth, which people would use to satisfy more and more elaborate desires, which would require talented people to make mutually beneficial trades.

    Same thoughts I had.

  27. You gotta admit though, it would make living in dirty hippie communes less work though – I mean… Consider: There are now “Freegans” who, as a point of philosophical integrity, eat nothing but trash! Replicators would allow those people to continue living like bums indefinitely and possibly not even die of malnourishment or really disgusting disease. We might be over-run with non-productive people.

    Ironically, I’m sure that – even with 100% of their basic needs covered for “free” or nearly free – they would still bitch about inequality.

  28. sorry for the redundancy… previewing is smart.

  29. This tech is the future. It also happens to be an “STC” from Warhammer 40k. A “Standard Template Construct” which is essentially a large 3D Printer with saved blueprints for every material good one could need. It really is only a matter of time, as it only requires incremental improvements of existing technology.

    What is really interesting is what effect this will have on society. We could become the ultimate ‘creator’ society; We could also become slothful luddites who no longer need technical knowledge, as is the case in Warhammer 40k.

  30. Sweet, I can keep my blender running long after the original parts fail.

  31. But Cthorm, ignorance is a virtue!

    Do not worry, friend, so far from the light of the Throne, it is easy to get lost in the darkness.

  32. We’ve got what is referred to as a “rapid prototyping” machine at my workplace that the mechanical designers use. They give it a 3D drawing and it builds the part. I haven’t personally used it, as I do 2D electrical design work (where “prototyping” involves wiring something up in a lab). It is a lot quicker and cheaper to throw a small mechanical part together with this than it is to send it out to a shop to have it fabricated. You do that when you’re satisfied with the prototype.

  33. Call me when one of these thing-a-ma jigs can make an Audi V10 R8 and a noise free, low maintenance vagina transportation device.

  34. I don’t believe in desktop 3D printing/fabbing. Because, here’s the thing: why?

    When was the last time that you had a driving need for something that could realistically be “printed”? That means:

    1. Something small enough to be printed on your desktop. No cars or anything: best case, you could print 100 components and then assemble them yourself, presuming that you’re competent to do that, which you probably aren’t.

    2. Something simple enough to be printed on your desktop. For the forseeable future, we aren’t going to be able to “print” a custom computer hardware — so, you can’t print an iPod or a mobile phone, or any of the other little electronic gadgets that you buy. At best, you’ll be able to print a new plastic case to hold the guts and stuff.

    3. It means something that’s not primarily for display. It’s always going to be hardest to get something that’s beautiful as well as functional. Until the technology is mature, you aren’t going to get art pieces out of it.

    So, what does that leave? What in your life fits that bill? Honestly, there’s just not a lot. Tableware, maybe. Maybe a custom case for my cell phone (but I’ll still have to buy the actual phone part). Um… lawn furniture?

    Now, are you unhappy enough with your present options in regards to all of those that you want to shell out $10,000 for a desktop printer that, for right now, produces worse versions of those than you can get at the store?

    I think that the answer for the vast, overwhelming majority of people is “no.” And so, there won’t be this market that there was for desktop paper printing that provides a monetary reward which, in turn, drives innovation and improvement and drives the price down from $10,000.

    Everyone wants a Star Trek replicator. But the problem is that nobody wants Star Trek replicator generation 0, where the one we see on the TV show is generation 1000.

  35. Computer Integrated Prototyping (CIP)? It’s like a simplified version of Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM).

  36. This process goes by a few names, but it’s most commonly known as “3D Printing”

    I made one of this just yesterday afternoon. This is old hat. The bleeding edge is SLS’s and SLA’s, which I’ve also been doing for years.

    nd those that allow the use of electroactive and electronic polymers

    And shape memory polymers too, from what I hear.

    These technologies have already saved the world tons of money in prototyping. You can quickly and often — but not always — build a prototype of a complex device and do your first “prove in” on plastic parts. Materials you get out of these process are still a ways from being “ready to use” though.

    Material costs for SLS and SLA remain high, 3D printing is much cheaper. But SLS and SLA materials are improving all the time. I expect prices will drop as well.

    Jesse, the article might be on the optimistic side, but I think not by too much. The performance you’ll get out of such “grown” electronic devices is going to be much less than what we get out of factories for probably a long time to come. For example I can see them making electronic and electrical components by “growing” wire traces into SLS parts, where the traces are electrically conductive polymers.

    But electrically conductive polymers just don’t give you the same range of possibilities that metals do. At least today. Give it time though, all this prototyping has already brought big changes to the world of design and it’s really just getting started.

    T has nailed it though.

    Design is hard. It’s one thing to make a pretty 3-D model and print it out. It’s another thing entirely to build a functioning device. How many prototypes do you have to build before you get it right? At what point do you say screw it, and go buy one?

    Making a working device with this approach is not as easy as it might sound. Most people for example have no idea how to tolerance parts so that a mechanism will actually work.

    OTOH, it’s a hell of lot easier, and more in-reach for the average person, than having to go get something machined out of aluminum for example.

  37. Call me when one of these thing-a-ma jigs can make an Audi V10 R8 and a noise free, low maintenance vagina transportation device.

    I’m gonna make the call: threadwinner!

  38. You’re right that currently it is cheaper to make it (whatever it is) in a factory in China and then ship it over here. However, the tech is about at the same point as computers were at in the early 70s – smaller than it used to be, but still big and bulky. Sooner or later someone will come out with the Apple II/IBM PC equivalent, and then things will start to get interesting.

    Of course, given how much of China’s economy is devoted to making stuff, when the world starts going to the Maker Factory store in the mall to get their stuff on site (custom or downloaded pattern), what will happen to their economy? They will not have the money or interest in propping up the US economy any longer. I could see not just luddites but our government expressing concern/hostility to this if it threatened to overturn the economic applecart.

  39. OTOH, it’s a hell of lot easier, and more in-reach for the average person, than having to go get something machined out of aluminum for example.

    True, and yet… when was the last time you said to yourself, “I’d really like to get something machined out of aluminum”? Or even, “if it were really cheap and really easy and I could have it right now, I’d like to get something machined out of aluminum”?

    If the answer is “never,” or “once, I guess, but it was a couple of years ago,” then why would you ever put down money for a desktop printer.

    Another thought experiment: suppose that somebody gave you, totally free of charge, the best desktop printer that currently exists in the world, and taught you how to use it (in a casual way — you don’t go out and get a mechanical engineering degree). What would you do with it?

  40. SLS is interesting alright, but for functioning parts we still use CNC milling for our prototypes/molds. ~ 1 micron tolerances, and useful materials. None of which matters when you get an air bubble trapped under your dissolved oxygen sensor spot …

    @Ebeneezer Scrooge:

    You are in aerospace engineering? Is fluorescent lifetime imaging of air pressure on surfaces a useful technology now?

  41. Good question, that’s not something I’ve ever worked on.

  42. MB Sullivan,

    Yes but, if the cost got low enough, there’s a lot of technicians out there who would suddenly become low end mechanical designers.

    And I suspect that at this same price point, a lot of people who don’t think about things that require machining (because the cost is just out of reach) would suddenly get interested.

    Turning technicians into designers would have an added benefit. I’m an ME and work in aerospace btw. There are things that technicians are not capable of designing. But there are a whole host of mechanism problems that I believe, technicians often do solve better than trained mechanical engineers. It’s just that technicians often can’t get their ideas “out there” because the cost to build prototypes is high and the trained MEs get center stage.

    We’d benefit much economically by allowing the technicians to make their contributions in a fast and economical manner.

    I agree, it still wouldn’t be a technology for everyone. Just like computers. But get the cost down and the quality up for SLS and SLA type parts, and the market would get way bigger than it is now.

  43. There are things that technicians are not capable of designing. But there are a whole host of mechanism problems that I believe, technicians often do solve better than trained mechanical engineers. It’s just that technicians often can’t get their ideas “out there” because the cost to build prototypes is high and the trained MEs get center stage.

    Two jobs ago, the company I worked for had a career path for drafters where they could end up as designers. A lot of cookbook math was involved, but the solutions they came up with were usually more elegant than new engineer solutions. I’m still convinced if the company could have gotten rid of all the degreed engineers, they would have.

  44. Yes but, if the cost got low enough, there’s a lot of technicians out there who would suddenly become low end mechanical designers.

    And I suspect that at this same price point, a lot of people who don’t think about things that require machining (because the cost is just out of reach) would suddenly get interested.

    Both of these things may be true. I’m not entirely convinced, but they certainly seem reasonable to believe.

    But they put the cart before the horse. What would drive the technology to be cheaper? Mass adoption. What would drive mass adoption? Desktop printers being even remotely useful to the masses. There’s no entry point, here.

    It’s instructive to compare to paper printing. Even back when printers were slow, noisy, and ugly, there were obvious reasons why people bought them:

    1. People have lots of obvious uses for printed material (even more back then when electronic media were much less useful). Large segments of the population can think of tons of daily uses for printed material.

    2. There was an obvious reason to use printers instead of typewriters, because it was so much less onerous to edit and delete on a computer than a typewriter.

    That didn’t mean that 100% of all people saw a need for a printer in their early stages, of course, but 10% or 1% of people did, and they saw enough of a convenience that they’d pay for it. That’s what drove the technology to improve.

    I assert that, presently, 99.99% of the population would simply not use a desktop printer, even if you gave it to them for free. Certainly they wouldn’t use it daily or weekly. Maybe a couple of times a year.

    Now, I agree, people might find a use for them if they got a lot better than they are (though, honestly, I struggle a bit to think of what that use would be). But they aren’t going to get that much better if there’s no market for them right now.

    In other words, our current fancy-schmancy laser and inkjet printers that can print colors and graphics, and on photo-paper, and with professional-quality resolution would not exist if there hadn’t been demand for the old daisy-wheel, loud, slow, ugly printers of 1980. And there’s just no demand for the equivalent 3D printers today.

    Unless that demand is business demand — ie, continuing along their original path as rapid prototyping machines, not consumer-oriented “printers.” But I suspect that the needs of rapid prototyping are sufficiently different from the needs of consumer 3D printing that improvements in rapid prototyping devices won’t really address the demand for home devices.

  45. I have to add my name to the list of skeptics of this here. I honestly don’t really see the demand for this.

    I am trying to think of all of my purchases for the last, say, three years, and not a lot of them could be produced by this machine, even a multiple-material version of this machine.

    I just don’t buy that many “small objects”, I guess. Some replacement water glasses? A coffee mug? Some picture frames? Baby toys? Chain link garden fencing?

    Unless it could make clothes, or a flat-panel computer monitor, or breakfast sausages, I don’t what I would use it for.

  46. Michael B Sullivan and Fluffy,

    Maybe you’re right. But there’s lots of things I know I’d make if it got cheap enough.

    The size limit is slowly going away, btw. They get bigger all the time.

    I suspect a lot of people would never use these devices. But I still think that as size goes up, cost comes down, and the materials they can build with get better, a whole lot more people will be using them. Maybe just not Joe the Average Consumer.

  47. I suspect a lot of people would never use these devices. But I still think that as size goes up, cost comes down, and the materials they can build with get better, a whole lot more people will be using them. Maybe just not Joe the Average Consumer.

    I suspect the market is going to be similar to the one for the $500 desktop milling machines. They’re out there in garages and small workshops everywhere, but they’re invisible to the average consumer.

  48. “I have to add my name to the list of skeptics of this here. I honestly don’t really see the demand for this.”

    I used to work for Barry Rand when he was President and CEO of Xerox USA. He told me that when copiers first came out there was nearly zero demand. People just couldn’t imagine the need to copy anything. They found the idea laughable.

    True story.

  49. “I just don’t buy that many “small objects”, I guess. Some replacement water glasses? A coffee mug? Some picture frames? Baby toys? Chain link garden fencing?”

    What does it cost to buy prescription eye glasses for everyone in a family of four?

  50. For a look at what ubiquitous fabbing might look like under certain circumstances, read Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age.”

  51. What would drive mass adoption? Desktop printers being even remotely useful to the masses. There’s no entry point, here.

    “You would have a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I have no time for such nonsense.” Napoleon Bonaparte

  52. Sid: That’s an entirely unrelated objection. I’m not suggesting that desktop printing machines are technically unviable — clearly they are viable. I’m suggesting that there’s no demand for them.

    There was obvious demand for ships that could sail against the wind and currents — Napolean just didn’t believe that it was possible.

    And it’s not like this is crazy talk. Look at, say, flying cars. They’re basically possible. People have made working prototypes for decades. And we all think that they’re cool, conceptually. But there’s no adoption of them because they’re impractical in a million ways, and so the only people making them are soloist enthusiasts, and they just never get all that good.

    It’s the same with virtual reality. We’ve had the basic technology for VR for about 15 years, now. Nobody uses it because, basically, it’s not useful. We can imagine uses for the perfect VR in our minds, but the stuff that actually exists isn’t useful, and so nobody buys it, and so nobody improves it.

    Seriously, here’s the challenge for everyone:

    Somebody gives you (and only you) a desktop 3D printer. The top of the line as it currently exists in the world. What would you make with it? You, right now, not vague thoughts about some people somewhere.

  53. Now, it may or may not come to pass that we all have fabricators sitting in our homes, but I would be very surprised if we didn’t have big ones sitting in a store somewhere. Currently if you want a gizmo it has to be made in China (for instance), put in store display packaging, which then goes into a cardboard box which then goes on a palette which goes in a 40 foot steel container which gets taken by rail or by truck to a port where it is put onto a giant container ship (which burns diesel) and sailed across the ocean to another port where it is unloaded on to a train or truck and taken to a warehouse and then a store. It adds up. At some point, I suspect, it is going to be economically more viable to have feed materials and some standardized chips and wires sitting in the back of Target or wherever and when you want an iPod (for instance) you make your selections as to color, shape, capacity, etc. and the machines in the back crank one out in about half an hour.

    You would have huge savings in terms of fuel/transportation and storage costs.

  54. If they could get these things to make ammo, I could see some widespread adoption.

  55. Somebody gives you (and only you) a desktop 3D printer. The top of the line as it currently exists in the world. What would you make with it? You, right now, not vague thoughts about some people somewhere.

    Depends entirely on what material it cranks out. Right off the bat and material independent, scale models of some ideas I’ve had kicking around but that are too big to try otherwise. 3D modeling only gets you so far.

    Depending on material, I half-assed some custom terminal blocks out of PVC and brass lately. They work, but they’re rough looking. If I could get them to look a little more finished I’d be happy as a clam. I also need some enclosures for some other stuff I’m working on, and that should be doable with the right material. There’s also some fab work I have to finish on my wife’s DRD model to fit the RC chassis underneath that one of these would be fantastic for.

  56. Um, I don’t want to be manufacturing ammo on my desk using ultra-hot lasers…call me crazy…

  57. Somebody gives you (and only you) a desktop 3D printer. The top of the line as it currently exists in the world. What would you make with it? You, right now

    Composite layup forms (as in polymer matrix composites).

    Investment casting patterns.

    Vacuum forming patterns for plastic parts.

    Mechanism prototypes.

    Give me a few minutes and I’ll come up with something else.

    But I’d far, far prefer a good SLA machine to a 3D printer. The material you get out of a 3D printer is brittle, tolerates little of no tensile load, and doesn’t deal with liquid exposure well at all.

    Sadly, neither of them will make bullets for you today. But when these things evolve to the point of laser sintering metals we’ll almost be there.

  58. Depends entirely on what material it cranks out. Right off the bat and material independent, scale models of some ideas I’ve had kicking around but that are too big to try otherwise. 3D modeling only gets you so far.

    Well, somebody more familiar with the technology would have to tell you what’s available. I don’t spend a ton of time keeping up-to-date on industries that I think are doomed.

    But here’s the spec sheet for the Connex350, which is mentioned in the article, and can print two materials at once:

    http://www.objet.com/Docs/connex350_a4.pdf

    It appears to support transparent plastic, opaque plastic, polypropylene-like material, and rubber-like material.

    It prints at 600x600x1600 dpi, and can build parts of up to 13.4×13.4×7.9 inches in size (the machine itself is 55.9×44.1×44.5 inches in size and weighs half a ton).

  59. I don’t spend a ton of time keeping up-to-date on industries that I think are doomed.

    I can assure you this industry is not doomed. It may never reach the market penetration of something like paper towels, but rapid prototyping isn’t going away.

  60. I can assure you this industry is not doomed. It may never reach the market penetration of something like paper towels, but rapid prototyping isn’t going away.

    That’s fair. I think that the consumer side of it is doomed, but certainly you’re right that the business side is here to stay.

  61. Ebenezer and T:

    It’s already been acknowledged that engineers have a use for this technology. That wasn’t the question, really.

    How would a housewife use this technology?

    Maybe she could act like the Who at dinner every night and bust up all my tableware, and then throw the pieces into the machine and make new tableware every morning. But beyond that, what does she do?

    And isn’t there a materials limit based on the availability of the materials themselves, even if you can have a multiple material machine? In order to get to the point where the thing could spit out a working laptop computer, it would need to have all sorts of heavy metals available. You couldn’t even make yourself so much as one free legal light bulb [a few years from now] without having access to mercury as one of the “ingredients”.

  62. Turning these things into a house hold appliance is a long ways off.

    Turning them into something that people who like to tinker, can afford to have out in their garages, is not so far off at all.

    Mrs. Who may not see how to produce useful things with these machines, but her husband very well could in the not too distant future. The only thing stopping him right now is the cost.

    A month ago I dropped my cell phone and cracked the battery cover. First thought was “wow I could just model this thing up and go grow an SLS to replace it”. But minimum run cost for SLS is $100.

    It used to cost much, much more than this.

    Seriously, Mrs. Who’s husband will be fixing things for her, that he never before could have dreamed of fixing.

    Your world is full of plastic things. Plastic breaks. Imagine the day when it won’t matter because you can always grow a new one (in an hour thank you) if you drop it.

    I predict that this technology will become much more pervasive than you skeptics currently believe.

  63. Another example: the keyboards you buy today are made to lay flat on the desk top, rather than being inclined as they were in the old days. I hate that, I want one that’s inclined.

    Right now I prop it up with something (that always moves around). With cheap SLS machine, I could easily grow a little prop that was custom made to hold the keyboard. No more hassle and much nicer.

    Ever buy a plastic thing, maybe an iPod or a cell phone or a PDA, and somehow it just didn’t fit your hand right? Well your hand and mine are not the same size/shape.

    Imagine buying the guts to your cell phone, and growing the case around it to custom fit your hands.

    That is not infeasible and could become cost effective in a very few years from now.

    Ya’ll don’t do next generation product development, do you? I’ve done it for a living. I can see real possibilities.

    Though you’re right, you won’t be growing light bulbs or full-up cell phones anytime soon.

  64. Your world is full of plastic things. Plastic breaks. Imagine the day when it won’t matter because you can always grow a new one (in an hour thank you) if you drop it.

    Is it? Like what? When was the last time you broke a plastic thing that you wanted to replace? I’m racking my mind, and here are my two examples:

    I scratch the lenses of my sunglasses about once every year or so, and buy new ones once every three years or so, and it’d be cool to not have to do that, because shopping for sunglasses is a genuine pain in the ass. But I think it’ll be several years before these machines could replace my sunglasses lenses, and in any case it’s once every three years or so.

    I’ve broken a couple of little plastic doohickeys that attach to my keychain (a thumbdrive in one case, the plastic bit of my car key in another case), and that was annoying. Two cases of this happening in my adult life. I’m not sure that even the best 3D printer would be any more convenient than going out and getting a new key made ($3, 15 minutes), or would be worth trying to transition a thumbdrive into a new case.

    I guess that I break or lose ballpoint pens and mechanical pencils pretty regularly, but I doubt that waiting an hour for a new one is a good idea (even if they could make ballpoint pens or mechanical pencils, and my impression is that they can’t).

  65. Now we’re on the way to making star-trek transporter devices… the machine would sense everything about you, send the info to another machine, and the other machine would build you. Only problem is the nasty matter of disposing of the original.

  66. See: “The Prestige” for solutions Joe_D

  67. A month ago I dropped my cell phone and cracked the battery cover. First thought was “wow I could just model this thing up and go grow an SLS to replace it”.

    Sure, you could go model it, but Mrs. Who’s husband is not going to want to sit in front of the computer for a few hours beyond the 3D printer run time, developing the correct model, when he can go to the store to buy a new one and get away from Mrs. Who for an hour or so. Reverse-engineering a part like that would only be useful when you couple the printer with a 3-D laser dimensioner. Thingy.

    Hell, I have a BS in aerospace and a PhD in aeronautics, and I don’t feel like I’m really building something unless I’m hitting the duty cycle limit on the MIG welder.

  68. A month ago I dropped my cell phone and cracked the battery cover. First thought was “wow I could just model this thing up and go grow an SLS to replace it”.

    Sure, you could go model it, but Mrs. Who’s husband is not going to want to sit in front of the computer for a few hours beyond the 3D printer run time, developing the correct model, when he can go to the store to buy a new one and get away from Mrs. Who for an hour or so.

    He’s not going to the store if he can download the part model from the phone manufacturer for less and with less hassle.

    The thing to remember here is that while adoption will be sparse and specialized at first two things will happen:

    * a whole economic ecosystem will develop to prove services for these things
    * the device will get better and cheaper year after year

    So adoption will expand steadily, driving both processes forward.

  69. Put me on the side of people that see this tech as not being too useful right now. I can’t think of many things I buy right now that aren’t either large, cheap, or fairly material-dependent. Once you start being able to manufacture materials atom-by-atom, things might be dramatically different.

    Hmmm…

    Actually, having thought a little more, one place it would really come in handy is in letting people manage their own design — that is, home furnishings could be supplied as basic, functional, terminator endoskeletal forms; users could then create their own designs (or download them, or buy them, etc) that are completely unique to their living space and stylistic preferences, and specialized software would create the necessary parts to apply to the basic structure to get the best of form and function (presumably the manufacturer of the basic item would provide or sell a template that the software builds the shell around). The shells would just snap on, most likely.

    Like photo printing, I’m thinking that this is capital-intensive enough that it would initially happen in specialized shops and/or retail outlets rather than the home — you’d pick up your raw electronics at Best Buy, and then have them outfitted with your favorite theme for a small fee.

    If usage picked up, prices would drop sufficiently for enthusiasts and wealthy people to purchase home versions; with recyclable materials, they could update their furnishings every few months, or for special occasions, or whatever (instead of buying throwaway “Christmas” this or “Halloween” that).

    Basically, it would be breaking up the vertical integration of the engineering and aesthetic sides of industrial design, though ergonomics would probably still have a place on both sides. It would also cut down on the amounts of shelf space dedicated to models of items differentiated only by color (and the exasperation of finding that a retailer is stocked with everything but the one you want).

    Probably didn’t occur to me because I am male and would be fine with living in a concrete bunker; it’s actually probably tech that’s more useful to Mrs. Who.

    [I’ve also heard of some very specialized uses of 3d printing (candy printing, etc.) that may eventually aid a rebirth of cottage industry.]

  70. Actually, having thought a little more, one place it would really come in handy is in letting people manage their own design … users could then create their own designs (or download them, or buy them, etc) that are completely unique to their living space and stylistic preferences

    That’d be cool, but near-future 3D printing will print in plastic and metal. It might be good for sculptures or whatever — the kind of little design touches that you might put on a table or wall — but it won’t be producing the fabrics, leathers, or woods that you generally want for furniture or large furnishings like tables or bookcases.

    I suppose that we might move to that spaceage aesthetic that’s been visual code for “the future” for generations, but it hasn’t happened yet.

  71. There’s a very inexpensive version of these fab machines that “came out” a few years back called Fab @ Home. It’s nothing more than blueprints for how to build it yourself, but if you’re tech-savvy, you can do it for just a few hundred bucks.

    We had ome of the UMich guys who started Fab@Home give a talk a while back, and the demonstrations are pretty amazing. At that time, they were even finishing up a design that would work with epoxies.

  72. Technological innovation is always led by porn.

    Two words: sex toys.

    They just need to get these things working with silicone.

  73. The epoxy for the Fab@Home machine can be found here:
    http://www.kraftmark.biz/kraft.fabepoxy.html

  74. This is one of the more thoughtful discussions I’ve seen on this subject of additive fabrication, so near and dear to my heart. Rather than gas on about it here at length I’d like to invite you to explore the technology, markets and prospects in-depth at our web site, the Worldwide Guide to Rapid Prototyping. It’s located here: http://home.att.net/~castleisland/

    There’s a lot of interest in low-cost systems these days, so we’ve made a section that discusses every choice available below $20,000. Of particular interest are the new kit manuacturers like Makerbot and A1 Technologies. Poised for take-off. Look here: http://home.att.net/~castleisland/comp_lks.htm

    If you’d like to know more about the wide-ranging prospects for using additive fabrication in manufacturing applications, that starts here: http://home.att.net/~castleisland/rm_c.htm

    Who needs Kinkos? There are now more than 900 places to buy parts using additive technologies and new ones appear weekly. These service bureaus are listed starting here: http://home.att.net/~castleisland/sb_ci.htm

    Numerous technologies are capable of producing metal parts, although that can be expected to remain expensive. You can get metal parts from service bureaus, though. Comparison tables and tutorials are located here: http://home.att.net/~castleisland/tl_c.htm

    If you really want to get an idea of what people are thinking about doing with the technology, look at patents. They tell the future – and if not the future, at least the aspirations. We follow the IP very carefully and you can see highlights here: http://home.att.net/~castleisland/rec_pat.htm

    It’s not likely that your mom will need a system, and maybe you won’t either. It’s not likely that a consumer market will be the next phase, either – but the technology is creeping into everyone’s life in invisible ways. Medicine and dentistry are simply permeated with applications. Aerospace and transportation are very big growth areas. Additively fabricated electronics will provide a profound and fundamental change to that field – and it’s on the verge of going mainstream. Dedicated machines are now being produced for a number of fields, such as dentistry, the hearing aid industry.

    A Repicator, it won’t be that in our lifetimes – but this is technology that should be in every technical person’s bag of tricks.

    Ed

  75. “Rapid Protyping” is NOT the older name for “3D Printing.” 3D Printing is only ONE type of rapid prototyping. “Fabbing” is slang for “Fabrication” since many rapid protyping shops are called “Fab Labs”. You don’t even touch on the other methods of “fabbing.” When working with metals it’s with CADCAM CNC Routers, NOT 3D Printers. Even Wikipedia has it down. If you want to report the facts, it helps to do your research. There’s a whole other world to rapid prototyping: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapid_prototyping

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