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.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


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.

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17 thoughts on “A revolution in the making — printed out in 3D

  1. Chris Hartwell

    Love it. I’ve had some exposure to 3d printing due to my studies, and it’s still amazing the sort of details stereolithography can create (internal staircases on non-solid chess pieces – beautiful to see) as well as how far it’s advanced in the 8 years since I last was involved.

    Looking forward to the next in this series.

  2. wayne robinson

    I don’t even have an ordinary printer. I used to have one, but I eventually got rid of it, because I’d print a page or two, and then 6 months later, when I wanted to print something else (I rarely need to take hard copies of anything), the ink cartridges had dried out (or the ink had evaporated or something) and I had to replace them.

    There’s something wrong when the cost of replacement cartridges is greater than the price of a new printer.

    Nowadays, I just put a .pdf copy on a thumb drive and take it down to the local newsagent to print in their photocopier. 20 cents a page is a bargain.

  3. paddy

    Brilliant stuff Guy and well done Crikey. By far the most important story in today’s edition and you’ve put it first.

  4. zut alors

    A most interesting topic, I’m looking forward to the elaboration.

    At the moment it appears to be merely an alternative method of producing more [email protected] we don’t need.

  5. Scott Grant

    I must admit to being somewhat resistant to the enthusiastic hype that often accompanies new technologies. But I find that a concept from Gartner called “the Hype cycle” is a reminder that sometimes technologies do mature into something that is actually useful, and perhaps even widely used. Given time.

  6. Danno of Arabia

    @zut alors, some may argue that this technology could ensure we produce “less crap we don’t need”, as the demand, supply chain, manufacturing process, is all on-demand on an end user needs basis.

    Imagine for example that you accidentally bust the hinge on the toilet seat. Now you could go to Bunnings and buy a whole new toilet seat set manufactured in China, or else you could just knock up the 3D part from home providing you paid for the rights to use the 3D part definition from the designer.

    Now which is more wasteful?

  7. mook schanker

    It will be an incredible change to the way we procure goods, looking forward to it.

    Yes, a factory can pump out the equivalent part for a lot less, however the markups through the supply chain are enormous. I used to work at a metal turning shop, what we manufactured and sold for a $1 to the client was eventually sold at retail for $25 at Kmart – eek!

  8. TheFamousEccles

    Great stuff – a good mate of mine is a fitter/turner who currently works at a private school teaching kiddies the basics of metal/production/prototyping etc, and is involved with their “Pedal-Prix” vehicle that they compete with. They have aquired a small 3D printer and, to cut a long story short, they have manufactured may small pieces of their racer with this machine.

    Recently we were involved in a 6hr scooter race and one of the fire breathing steeds (eh?) we prepared for this event (you have to try this, it is too much fun) was fettled using parts produced with the 3D printer. As mentioned in GR’s article the texture of the finished product was rough, but with apropriate sanding and finishing each part fitted perfectly and performed flawlessly. And they were designed and produced by people who don’t possess software/hardware engineering backgrounds.

    I am waiting in eager anticipation for the next installment of this series, GR.

  9. Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay

    I went onto one of the 3D Printing sites mentioned in this article and spent a good 2 hours browsing. As someone who can use 3D CAD I’m inspired.
    I can’t see people owning individual printers but printshops where people go in and load up something from a USB are a real possibility.
    The real interesting phenomenon will be how individuals use these printers to be creative. I would also start divesting any shares I have in the plastic toy industry as these printers could really make producing children’s toys a much more democratic process. I’m thinking of Girls toys in particular which are pretty nauseating at the moment.

  10. Gavin Moodie

    Much of the manufacturing which has shifted to developing countries could move back again closer to the point of use.

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