"Breaking through the 'domestic' barrier is dependent on a widening of the materials available for easy printing ...""We got onto 3D printing from the next project microgas-turbines," adds Scott. "But we couldn’t get the metal parts printed, the companies were too backed up. We could have bought one -- "for one-and-a-half million," Zachary interjects -- "and that’s what led to thinking if there’s a way to do affordable metal printing." 3D printing with metal -- more properly, "additive manufacturing" -- is well established. It has been for 20 years, ever since Carl Deckard, an undergrad at the University of Texas in Austin, developed the process of laser "sintering" in the mid-1980s. A laser, pointed into a bed of metal powder -- titanium is one of the most frequently used -- effectively interlocks the molecules of the powder together, creating a solid object. It's not melting or welding, which would leave the object with imperfect joins. Sintering -- and other, more advanced processes, which have succeeded it -- essentially creates an object with the same strength and regularity as a subtractive process (i.e. as if the finished object had been carved out a single piece). But the technology is industrial in scale and cost, and though it is coming out of patent this year there is no likelihood it will be anything but, anytime soon -- a baseline sintering machine costs a half-million dollars. And lasers aren't easy to maintain or handle. So there remains a separation between the personal and consumer/maker side of 3D printing -- which for the most part employs polymer (i.e. plastic) filament and for the moment constrains it to the manufacture of small and relatively trivial objects -- and metal production, which would open a whole new realm of possibility. With a metal printer, affordable by either a local bureau -- a material equivalent of a FedEx/Kinko’s style copy-centre -- or eventually, in the home, the capacity to produce thousands of parts or objects of increasing complexity for home use becomes possible. Though metal printing is not the only game in town -- there’s also a robust research push towards new metal-equivalent materials -- it remains the next big thing. The challenge for metal printing on that scale is that it has to be either a wire-feed system -- i.e. a form of pseudo-welding -- or use metal powders, which involves a complex multi-stage process in which a thin layer of powder is laid down, then fused, followed by another layer, etc. The potential superiority of molten metal is that it’s a single process, and more precise. But the main problem is the transfer of the metal, which would otherwise adhere to both pipe and distributing head. "Then I was thinking about the inline skates," says Zachary, "and I realised we could do it electromagnetically." And that, dear reader, is why you and I are not inventors. By using a magnetic field, the metal is held in suspension until deposited -- it never touches a surface. It’s a brilliant solution -- simple, elegant, and using the distinctive nature of the material itself to make it practicable.The Vaders are working in aluminium at the moment as a first, soft and malleable metal, but the process can eventually be transferred to other metals. "We’ll do copper next," says Scott, "which means you can print electronics and circuits. We’ll be able to lay that on polymer, so you can lay circuits." Since the process scales down, potentially to the micron level, the eventual possibility would be that you could print out electronics -- though that would be a way down the track. Yet it’s a feature of the 3D printing revolution that everyone starts to leap ahead. While domestic or small bureau metal printing is not imminent, what is close is perhaps even more exciting. The Gigabot set a record for funding on Kickstarter when it was announced, and it began shipping to an extensive list of pre-buyers in late 2013. It’s the largest consumer 3D printer to date, able to print objects of a maximum volume of 60x60x60 centimetres, but capable of working at a precision of 0.1 millimetres, and retailing between US$2000 (for a basic kit) and US$4000 (for a full system). With a 3D printer of that size one could start to print common household objects as a matter of course, either standardise or aestheticised -- although it will also be used for modelling and prototyping by designers, architects, etc. Breaking through the "domestic" barrier is dependent on a widening of the materials available for easy printing, since the polymer filament would be fine for a whole range of basic tools and utensils, but unattractive for anything in more immediate use. However, there’s a range of new materials on the way -- before metal arrives, synthetic ceramics and even wood will be available. Whether people will take this up en-masse remains to be seen -- but it is at least possible that such technology would become as much a standard as the home computer became from the '70s onwards, transitioning rapidly from a hobby kit, via the Apple II and then the PC, to being a standard piece of equipment. Even the more circumspect of the people involved in 3D printing, are becoming relatively more optimistic about the speed and uptake of the technology. The Vaders hope to have a first model of their printer -- an industrial-level machine retailing at between $200,000-400,000, still a major reduction on existing prices. With the taxi system still out -- "I can get you a cab in four hours," says the bored dispatcher -- they drive me back to the airport. "We’re hoping to have it on the market in April." Production costs will be funded from pre-orders, "which are coming in pretty much without us saying ... anything", says Scott with a quiet smile. "People just call us up." We pass through the scattered fringes of Buffalo, old redbrick factories. The city has got behind a lot of new startups, as part of a "Buffalo billion" program, a huge wodge of cash given by New York state to regenerate the city. The only trouble is, of course, that if such new technologies live up to their real transformative possibility, they won’t be taking us back to a period of industry and employment, but into a new period entirely, with its own opportunities -- and crises. Related stories:
Daft Vaders they aren’t, as 3D printing goes home
The 3D printing revolution is coming to your home -- or at least a site near you. On his journey across America, Crikey's writer-at-large visits a backyard Buffalo outfit leading the charge.