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Mar 5, 2014

A revolution in the making -- printed out in 3D

Additive manufacturing, robotics, nanotubes ... the new industrial revolution is here. But will it all really transform lives? In a new Crikey series, we begin in the world of 3D printing.

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Round the broad display windows in Boston’s Back Bay, a small crowd has gathered. In the window, from the teeth of a machine, a dragon is emerging. Rainbow-coloured, in bright plastic, feet first, tail bucking behind, the figure is classic Dungeons and Dragons, framed by a black and silver machine, with the word “Makerbot” blazoned across the front.

Atop the dragon, a nozzle darts and whirrs, filling out the pointy tops of its ears. The nozzle head — actually several heads, tightly packed — drags with it coloured strands of plastic, or filaments, attached to a spool behind. The nozzles heat the plastic and layer it down, guided by software on an attached computer. The machine faithfully reproduces each scale, each bump, each talon in the mythical beast.

It has taken a couple of hours to print the thing out layer by layer, and a couple of kids have watched the whole thing. Across the store, half-a-dozen similar machines are going. The shop is full of whirring machines, turning out chess pieces, 3D portraits and Escheresque knick-knacks, a cornucopia of hobbyist delights, of great charm but uncertain usefulness.

This, so far as the world knows, is 3D printing, the new new thing, suddenly everywhere. The Makerbots are sleek, black, the size of a motel fridge, rectangular with an “atrium” in the middle. At the bottom, a platform, on which the molten plastic is deposited. At the top, a nozzle set on a cartesian X-Y axis of two rods, each attached to a motor. The rods move the nozzle to any position on the board.

It’s run in exactly the same manner as a laser printer — from a software program, a CAD (computer-aided design), the printer is told how to run. It is utterly precise, “printing out” an object layer by layer, from the ground up, feet first. The plastic is filament, a specially formulated polymer, sold in spools of one kilogram each.

Makerbots have been on the market since 2009, when a small Brooklyn-based company began marketing clunky little semi-assembled 3D printers, based on a publicly available design known as a “reprap”. They’re one of a dozen or so companies who started up about that time, selling similar designs. Many of them are still on the market — Solidoodle, PrimeME, Cubify — but it was Makerbot that took off, giving its machines a schmick finish and a bit of hipster style, befitting its origins. In 2010, it fused with another company, 3D Worldwide, and in 2013 it was bought out by the mega-industrial group Stratasys for $400 million.

By that time, its 3D printers were looking pretty cool. By the time the latest generation were brought out at the 2014 Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, they looked like U-2 spy planes, black and imposing. They were scaling up too — the basic Makerbot unit available, the Replicator 2, prints out objects of a maximum size of around 30x15x15 centimetres, and retails for US$2200. Soon to hit the market is the makerbot Mini at US$1375, and the top-of-the-line, the Makerbot Z18, can print out objects nearly half a metre high, and will retail at US$6500.

The company opened its first store in New York in 2012, and others in Boston and Greenwich, Connecticut in 2013. They’re loss-leaders of course — printers are not walking out the door, and they act at least in part as bureaux, printing out designs that people bring in on USBs to be rendered. The red T-shirted kids who run the store buzz around, communicating energy, talk to people like they were real customers, when they’re only rubberneckers. Some of the children, you can’t help but notice, look a little bored. The tables of the store are littered with print-outs — toys, knick-knacks, geegaws, dragons, headshots, dice, chainlinks.

It’s pretty alluring to watch an object slowly emerge from nothingness, crafted out of a uniform spool of plastic — especially as new makerbot models ensure multiple colours can be generated, making the range of objects practically unlimited in style and look. But there’s also a big “so what?” factor. Quite aside from the fact that what is generated are mostly toys, there’s also the quality of the product — the solidified layered polymer is rough to the touch, and the lines of the different layers — or “depositions” as they’re known — can be seen on the object. The store assistants aren’t the steampunk hipsters who came up with this technology in “makerspaces” years ago — they’re college kids who would otherwise be selling smartphones.

3D printing was the buzzword of 2013, the coming technology. But anyone who had read about it changing the world and then wandered into a Makerbot store may well wonder what all the fuss was about. Is this technology in fact another too-clever-by-half idea, the Segway of the teens, fuelled by hype and a science-fictive imagination of the future, something that will never transform the way we live? The short answer to that is no, the long answer, good god, no.

“Additive manufacturing”, to give it its proper title, has been around for nearly three decades, in one form or another. But for much of that time it was tightly bound up deep inside of industry — vastly expensive machines, one-offs, used for product prototyping. The technology itself — there are around half-a-dozen distinct ways of 3D printing — first emerged in the 1980s, the different techniques being invented within a few years of each other.

Thus, in 1983, materials engineer Chuck Hull was working on creating hard surfaces for tabletops with a coating of liquid polymer that would be solidified by the application of a beam of ultraviolet light. Hull realised that the process could be used to essentially “carve out” a solid from a body of liquid polymer, by applying the UV light in a programmed fashion. After several months experimentation, he’d created a process called “stereolithography” (or STL) and founded the first 3D printing company, 3D Systems.

At the University of Texas in Austin, an undergrad invented another process, as part of his coursework — “selective laser sintering” — in which lasers shoot into a bed of metal powder, fusing it into shapes required, for engine parts and tools. In North Carolina, Bill Masters, a kayak manufacturer and fibreglass engineer, invented the so-called “spitball” method (and claims the world’s first 3D printing patent).

Finally, in the late 1980s, Minnesota engineer Scott Crump invented the process that has become the consumer front-end of 3D printing — “fused deposition modelling” (FDM). The inspiration was trying to make a toy frog for his daughter, using a glue gun and some resin; the 3D printers he created are simply an automated version of that, with a continuous feed of filament, and what’s called a “Cartesian” system — i.e. the nozzle through which the filament feeds is moved by perpendicular rods, and up and down, creating an X-Y-Z axis. The software program running the machine takes the object — which may have been designed in the computer, downloaded as a design or, increasingly, photographed and uploaded to the computer — and slices it into a series of thin layers. The resulting file tells the printer nozzle where to go, and when to start and stop emitting filament.

Off the back of the FDM invention, Crump founded Stratasys, which rapidly became the largest supplier of 3D printers to industry. He also patented and copyrighted as much of it as he could — including the phrase FDM. The business remained a business supplier, and no one really thought much about 3D printing as a production system in its own right; still less as a consumer object, beyond a narrow, specialised market. Simultaneously, metal sintering was beginning to spread throughout industry and the notion of “additive manufacturing” came to the fore.Where most manufacture has hitherto been “subtractive” — taking a big lump of metal and carving a part out of it, then welding it to other parts — additive manufacturing builds the part from scratch, using metal powders or other materials, thus vastly reducing the cost.

This mini-revolution in design has had its effects on our lives, but they’ve been largely hidden. The tsunami of consumer goods that flowed in from the ’90s onwards, their ceaseless remodelling, the gradual redesign of cars from the boxy to the curved and organic — all these and a hundred other effects were part of a production process in which design turnaround had been sped up significantly. But the technologies themselves remained a “black box” for consumers — and not unintentionally.

Stratasys and other manufacturers had a lucrative business — their top line printers sold for up to a $2 million in current figures. The customary paradoxical effect of proprietary capitalism kicked in — allowing innovation and investment at one level, it rapidly choked off further development at another.

That was not to say there had been no innovation. In Europe, it was quickly realised that 3D printing offered a range of medical uses — and Belgium especially became a centre for pioneering the development of modular and bespoke medical equipment, and eventually prosthetics from joints to heart valves, tailored to the individual patient. Groups in the Netherlands began exploring ways in which the general public could have access to 3D printing — culminating in the creation of the giant online bureau Shapeways, one of a number of 3D design “marketplaces” where people can both order specific 3D printed objects, commission bespoke objects, or upload their own designs, and get a fee whenever someone orders one of them, which are then turned out in one of the company’s several 3D printer factories.

“From the moment reprap hit the net … the whole 3D printing environment began to change.”

The largest, recently opened in Manhattan, has 50 large printers, and aims to print out up to 5 million objects a year — everything from one-off jewellery and ornaments to precision tools and machine parts in material like titanium, polymer and sandstone. But even this model keeps the printer from the public, simply reproducing the producer-consumer split — something that many of the people making billions from the 3D printed object market would be happy to see continue indefinitely.

That all began to change in 2005 when Adrian Bowyer, a mech engineering lecturer at the University of Bath, began publishing a blog and a series of documents detailing the creation of a 3D printer that could print out copies of itself. The “reprap” machine — short for “replicating rapid prototyper” — is a spider-like machine, formed out of a half-dozen metal poles, and a series of plastic snap-on parts, with none of the smooth coverings and branded surfaces of large commercial printers. It uses a similar process to FDM to lay down filament via a nozzle onto a board. What makes it distinctive is that the working parts — the plastic forms that snap it together, the gears that drive it — are all easily printed out by the machine itself.

With one reprap, you print out the key working parts of another, and assemble it with a simple off-the-shelf electronic motor. From the moment reprap hit the net — Bowyer made it a completely open source project — the whole 3D printing environment began to change. Across Europe and the US, the “hackerspaces” that had sprung up through the 1980s and ’90s — places where computer hackers could go to meet up, exchange ideas, etc — had been transitioning to “makerspaces”, as basic skills such as soldering and hardware design had been expanded to welding and other skills.

Repraps were made for this environment, and they spread rapidly — which is their very principle — successive redesign feeding back into the core project. Reprap is the Commodore 64 and the Linux of 3D printing. And inevitably, like those innovations, it has become an open-source platform for a lot of closed-source activity. Thus it was that three hacker/makers from the Brooklyn makerspace NYC Resistor came up with their own 3D printer, leading off from the reprap project — and called it Makerbot.

Which leads us back to the dragons in the window in Boston. But that is only one part of a much bigger story. It’s a story of a revolution that is happening, whether people particularly want it to or not, not merely in 3D printing and base manufacturing processes, but in robotics, new materials, energy sources, production localisation and much more. It is a revolution that will transform the landscape of our lives slower than its champions would hope for — but faster than anyone else would imagine.

Though it is part and parcel of the online revolution, it is also separate from it, and over the years and decades to come it will transform our daily life and the structures through which we live — to the degree that powerful forces allow it to. It presents the possibility of a genuine liberation — and also of a dystopian future of total control.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring the ways in which this revolution is coming about, in workshops and makerspaces, labs and basements, the people driving it, the changes that are already underway — and the hopes, fears and possibilities that are being brought to bear.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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