(New Scientist Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Absolutely fabricated: the sceptic's guide to 3D printing
3D printing is a revolutionary technology, but don't buy the hype, says MacGregor Campbell, it will make its impact in unexpected ways
Making a cup of tea is not supposed to hurt. One morning, as I filled my kettle, the lid's plastic knob broke off in my hand, leaving a hole beneath. It meant steam would scald my fingers every time I poured. Hardly a tragedy, you may say, but it was a daily irritation.
In the past, I would have been forced to ditch my beloved and otherwise fully functioning kettle, or put up with the daily scald. But I have the good fortune to live in a world in which there is a third option: 3D printing. Making a replacement plastic handle should be a cinch, right
After all, 3D printers are now cheap enough to buy for the home, and even if you can't afford one yet, it's possible to buy all manner of objects online, printed to order. Proponents claim that the technology will revolutionise how we shop, and even how we come to see the objects we use everyday. We'll soon be downloading and printing physical possessions as easily as we download music, they say, and customising objects to meet all our individual needs. Yet many of the claims seem more like science fiction, and this year, the hype has been peaking. What does the future actually hold for this technology, and in what ways might it change how you and I live our lives
My curiosity about personal 3D printing was stoked by an everyday experience. I'd seen all the stories about printed planes, electronics, food and even human kidneys, but found them difficult to relate to my own life. It was the frustration of a kettle malfunction that brought the technology's potential into focus. If I, an average person with limited technical skill, could design the most simple of objects and get it printed, then I figured there must be something to it.
Indeed, the idea of turning to 3D printers for making bespoke items has already tempted thousands of other people. The rise in printer ownership for individual use is rapid (see "Rise of the Fabricators", p48), and the market is expected to grow even more with the introduction of new easier-to-use personal printers from manufacturers like New York-based Makerbot, and Form Labs of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
These printers - currently costing in the region of $2000 - create objects with an inkjet-like nozzle that squirts droplets of molten plastic or liquid resin in horizontal layers. These then cool, harden or are cured by exposure to ultraviolet light. A baseplate gradually drops the model away from the nozzle to allow new layers to be deposited on top of the previous ones, building the object, slice-by-slice. The plastic materials cost $50 to $100 per kilogram, and, like string, come on a spool. As a guide, 1 kilogram can make 392 chess pieces, according to a demonstration by a team at Makerbot.
I don't own a printer myself, but it's easy enough to get objects mailed by a company that does, such as New York-based Shapeways. If you upload a design to the company's website, it will print your object and ship it to you. Something simple like a kettle handle costs $10. It's also now pretty straightforward to search for objects you might want to print in online databases such as Thingiverse, where enthusiasts share computer-aided-design (CAD) files. Here you'll find customised coffee mugs, tripod mounts, headphone components, replacement parts for 3D printers, and an endless variety of models and toys. But nothing that will fix my poor kettle.
With no off-the-shelf design available, my only option was to create the part from scratch. For this, I turned to what appeared to be the simplest 3D design software, a web-browser-based program called TinkerCad. I started by choosing from a number of virtual basic shapes - sphere, cube, cone - that you can combine like lego, and then remould if required.
Setting out to construct this simple object quickly felt a world away from the 3D-printing nirvana we've been promised. The common denominator for most of the current generation of home-printable designs is that they are solid plastic doohickeys of one sort or another. Contrast these humble objects with the bold predictions that we will eventually abandon traditional shopping, and instead design and personalise all our possessions, from phones to clothes.
Designs for life
It seems near-inevitable that the idea of personal 3D printing will fall from grace over the next few years. The history of technology suggests that to gain a true place in our lives, it will first have to face off against practical, economic, legal and societal forces. "The way technology spreads is that something about the end-state of it becomes visible very early on," says Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and author based in Berkeley, California. "And then there are decades of 'gotchas'."
The numerous gotchas for personal 3D printing are becoming clearer. It's currently slow, with complicated models taking hours to fully finish. Then there are the twin enemies of gravity and friction. Complex models often require extra material to support various parts so that they do not collapse during printing. And there's always a risk that the object will become unstuck from the base plate, or that layers will split apart during printing, possibly requiring the print job to be restarted from scratch.
Many of these challenges will probably be worked out as hardware improves, but more lurk ahead. For starters, it's difficult to print an object in more than one or two materials, says Robert Wood, of the Harvard Microrobotics Laboratory, who is attempting to print robots. So printing out a personalised phone - an example often held up as the future we are headed for - would not be impossible, but it is far from ready for prime time. Wood and colleagues have developed hybrid printers that combine 3D printing with automated etching for circuits and ultra-precise micro-machining to make sure components work as intended. But even the most complete designs still require microchips and batteries to be placed in by hand. Wood says that while there is hope that such components may be printable in the future, it's a long way off.
Even if you had such a multitalented printer, capable of printing whatever you wanted, you'd have to keep a variety of materials on hand, says Terry Wohlers, an independent analyst of the 3D printing industry based in Fort Collins, Colorado. "If something in your kitchen or your car breaks," he says, "what are the chances that your 3D printer is going to have the right material "
That is not to say that objects will always be made of the same stuff as today. Lanier is intrigued by the possibility of a solution containing graphene, for example, that could in principle be used to print casings, circuits, processors, antennas, displays - much of what you'd need for that printable phone. But while experiments with printable graphene have been carried out with some success, such a scenario is science fiction for now.
According to Wohlers, these combined hardware and materials issues means that only a relatively small proportion of all people will end up printing out objects themselves. A more likely scenario is the growth of online services like Shapeways, he says, or perhaps neighbourhood print shops. Indeed, Shapeways is already one step ahead of home printers by offering objects made from glass, ceramic and metals. And office supplier Staples will offer a 3D printing service in some stores from January.
The biggest challenge facing 3D printing, however, could have more to do with us humans than the nuts and bolts. "Today it's very easy for a regular person to sit down at a computer, start typing, hit print, and something will come out of the printer," says Pete Basiliere, an analyst at research firm Gartner in Milford, New Hampshire. "With 3D, the creation process is altogether different."
These difficulties became apparent to me as I attempted to line up the components of my own creation in TinkerCad. The broken kettle knob is a small sphere atop a hollow cylinder, which in turn sits on a curved flange. If that sounds tricky to visualise, you will appreciate how I felt when trying to make a virtual version of the object. These weren't merely aesthetic concerns, either. If I botched it, my object wouldn't be printable, and even if it worked, it might not fit the kettle. It took me several hours. I wouldn't be sure that I had solved my problem until the finished object arrived in the mail a week later.
"We actually need the tools to be better before it would be useful to the average person," says Ryan Schmidt, a software designer trying to do just that at Autodesk Research in Toronto, Canada. The problem with 3D design software is that, unlike editing photos or using a word processor, getting a sense of how your product is shaping up is difficult. You are forced to look at your 3D creation through a 2D display, and that requires metaphors - like camera views and stage position - that we don't often deal with in daily life.
Still, there are glimpses that more people will be able and willing to learn about 3D design, says Matt Ratto, a researcher at the University of Toronto. He points to popular video games, like Minecraft and Spore, which encourage players to make 3D virtual objects to use in the game. 3D scanners, such as the camera in Microsoft's Kinect, could make the design process somewhat easier, turning 3D printers into 3D copiers. And one of Autodesk's software tools can recognise objects inside photos and convert them into 3D files. Like the look of that candlestick or objet d'art you saw at the store Instead of buying it, just scan or snap it, then print one out later.
That raises the sticky question of what we will and won't be allowed to copy and print. Just as copyright law has shaped how we listen to music, legal forces will have a say in how we use 3D printers, says Michael Weinberg, a lawyer with Public Knowledge, a technology-law advocacy firm in Washington DC.
"You could absolutely print something out that would infringe on a copyright, or a trademark, or a design patent," he says. Therefore many established companies won't idly watch people copy their designs. They will act, just as record label lawsuits clipped the wings of the music-sharing service Napster.
Weinberg says that physical objects themselves are usually not subject to copyright, but they can be patented. The line between copyright - which is easy to claim - and a patent can get blurry, however. A digital 3D file, for example, being information, can be copyrighted, but the object it describes usually cannot. Laws exist to cover these scenarios, says Weinberg, but there haven't been enough cases to have general rules about what it is legal to make with a 3D printer.
The thought that I might be doing something illegal did cross my mind as I dispatched my design to Shapeways. Had I just infringed the intellectual property of the company that designed my kettle Weinberg says probably not, because right now it's not worth the bother or expense to take out a patent for the design of something as trivial as a kettle handle. But as 3D printing becomes more widespread, these sorts of legal issues are bound to hamper current freedoms.
So given all these constraints, will 3D printing still come to have a prominent place in our lives Perhaps eventually, but it would be unwise to make too many predictions about how. In any case, it is only after we've had years to live with a technology that we start to understand the new activities that it makes possible, says Weinberg. "In the 1980s, if you described email to somebody, they'd likely understand it, because there's a clear pre-computer analog - regular mail," says Weinberg. "But if you tried to describe Twitter to them, they'd think you were crazy." It only makes sense now that we are all used to the idea of networked computers.
What we can say, however, is that the question of whether personal 3D printing will be capable of producing "useful" objects is probably the wrong one. The kinds of things we make with them may not, in the end, be the best measure of this technology's impact. Instead, the most interesting changes may come from the new skills we learn and the mindset that 3D printing encourages.
Playing with 3D printing exposes that everything in our built environment is designed by somebody who makes choices for us about how we should or shouldn't use our possessions. They dictate when we should buy things and how quickly we should dispose of them. We're about to have more of a say in this process, if we so choose.
I began with something as mundane as fixing my own kettle, but now I can see how I could design and print all kinds of things. Maybe some bespoke toys for my 2-year-old daughter next She'll grow up in a world where she has as much control over the design of her toys as she does over the music she listens to or the videos she watches online - all of these activities were once available only to a minority. It will be her generation that truly discovers the capabilities of 3D printing. By then, the technology's biggest impact - the change it effects in our mindset and world-view - will have already hit.
As for my own foray into industrial design, opening the package containing my replacement knob is a bit nerve-wracking. Will it fit my kettle Will it take the heat
Minutes later, I put my feet up while grasping a cup with unburnt fingers. Satisfaction. n
MacGregor Campbell is a consultant for New Scientist based in Portland, Oregon
For now, personal 3D printers can manage one material, like green plastic, at a time
Hot stuff: designing and printing a lid for a plastic kettle is not as easy as it may seem
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