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Introduction

Just a few short years ago, 3d printers were considered a fringe technology. Something that hobbyists were excited about, absolutely, but a thing that was seen as not quite ready for prime time. That has very definitely changed.

MIT and 3D printing

To understand exactly where 3d printing will ultimately take us, it is important to look back in time a few years to understand the development arc of the technology to this point, and to do that, we begin with Neil Gershenfeld, MIT’s Director of Bits and Atoms (1). Gershenfeld teaches a class at MIT called “How to Make Almost Anything,” but good luck getting in. If you sign up today, you’ll find yourself on a three year waiting list. At the core of the class, however, is the idea that with the proper set of tools, occupying a space no bigger than your average garage, you can build and make nearly anything you can imagine. On MIT’s Fab Lab page (2), there’s a comprehensive list of everything you would need, and in fact, every tool that MIT itself is currently using. Bear in mind that this list represents the “top end” components, and as such, building an exact replica of MIT’s Fab Lab is far beyond the capabilities of the hobbyist. However, using the “master list” from MIT as a guide, it is easy to put together a list of tools that nearly anyone can buy and afford, to replicate the experience in your own home. Several people have already done this, so if you don’t want to trouble yourself with the research, you can simply grab someone else’s list and start there (3) (4) (5).

Current uses

If you’ve never been exposed to the world of 3d printing, then you may be wondering how far advanced the technology actually is. Sure, it all sounds very good in theory that you could assemble this collection of machines and use them to make stuff, but as far as practical applications, what have people in the real world been able to do with them so far? Have they been able to make anything useful, or has the technology been limited to making paperweights and other trifles? Prepare to be shocked. Here is a brief overview of what people are doing with the technology today. By the time you finish reading this article, this list will be out of date. The industry is growing that quickly!

Current Fab Lab/3d Printer Related Technologies • Custom designed, perfectly fitting shoes, designed just for your feet (6) • Custom designed, printed glasses, tailored to fit the exact contours of your face (7) • Someone has already printed a prototype of a bicycle (and took it for a short ride)! (8) • Uniquely designed furniture (9) • And of course, a staggering array of toys and other knickknacks (10) (11)

It is an impressive list, no matter how you slice it, but even the above, when taken together, barely scratches the surface of what is possible.

Build Your Own House

As an example, there’s a man right now who is working on a gigantic prototype 3d printer. His ultimate purpose? To put one in every Lowe’s and Home Depot across the nation, and allow you to rent them to “print” your own 3d house! (12). In a different twist on the “build a house with a 3d printer idea,” famed futurist Buckminster Fuller invented the Geodesic Dome. One of the many intriguing properties of the dome is that the bigger it gets, the stronger it gets, making it the design of choice for huts in places with severe weather (deserts and the arctic). This is important because long before the first 3d printer was even a though, Buckminster Fuller designed a “Dome Home” concept that was built using individual pieces no larger than twenty four inches each, and that could be assembled by a single individual in about a day, using nothing more than a socket wrench. A twenty-four inch strut is the kind of piece that could be printed using at-home equipment. Think about that for a moment. Some fifty years ago, a visionary thinker envisioned a home that got stronger the bigger you made it. A home that could be built by a single individual, using pieces no more than two feet long, individually, using only basic tools. Today, we have the technology to replicate an endless number of such pieces in a space no bigger than the average single car garage, using fairly basic machines that can be networked together and shipped anywhere in the world. You could even use them in places that didn’t have electricity, provided you also shipped them with a few solar panels to run the machines. This is absolutely transformational technology. In the right hands, and if given the right amount of focus, homelessness could be made a thing of the past. Something we read about in history books and wonder why it took us so long to solve for it.

Recycle Bot

Here, some will object, pointing to the fact that there’s still a “cost” involved, even if you use solar panels to run the machines, and somehow get all the equipment donated. You would still need to buy the “ink” to print the finished goods, right? Actually, no, not really. Some enterprising students have created a thing called “Recycle Bot,” (13) which attaches to a 3d printer, and uses plastic water bottles and the like, ground and melted, to create “ink” for the 3d printer it is attached to. Acquiring “ink,” then is as simple as picking up the trash, and now we see the beginnings of a convergence of several lines of thinking. Not only is it possible to build a suite of machines capable of allowing you to build most anything, not only is it possible to house those machines in a smallish space, no bigger than a garage, and run the machines even in places without electricity, provided you bring solar panels with you, but you can use these machines to solve for a pressing, long standing social problem, and you can do so by solving another (environmental) problem via recycling. What you are creating then, is a holistic system of technology that from end to end, makes the world a better place. It’s hard, if not outright impossible to argue with that, but here’s something even better.

Disaster Recovery

Imagine an area like Haiti, or Indonesia. An earthquake or tsunami hits, devastating infrastructure and leaving thousands homeless and without power. Now imagine a fully equipped fab lab, outfitted with solar panels and installed in the back on an 18-wheeled truck. It can go anywhere, and with a plow on the front end, could even muscle its way through debris fields to get to the most isolated, hardest hit disaster areas, and from that command post, you could begin printing infrastructure to help get them back on their feet again. You could even build a few different varieties of “Recycle Bots” capable of handling different materials and use the debris field as your raw materials to re-print their infrastructure. All of that, by the way, is possible using the state of the technology we have today. It will only get easier, faster, better, and more efficient as time goes by and capabilities increase further, and especially where aid for disaster relief is concerned, combining this Flat-Bed Fab-Lab concept with the “water creating billboard” (14), and you have all the basic components you need to get a disaster stricken area back on its feet again.

NASA

As dazzling as the above is, there is still more. For example, NASA wants to design a 3d printer capable of printing meals for its astronauts (15), and already, there are bakeries using 3d printers to make and ice cupcakes (using batter and frosting as “ink”)! Combining this idea with the “disaster relief” idea mentioned above would only serve to make the idea more robust than it already is.

Open Source

Best of all, there is a strong open source movement attached to the world of 3d printing. True, you can go online and find any number of companies selling products, both consumer and commercial grade, and you’ll find that you’ve got a lot to choose from on the open market, but if you’re more of a do-it-yourselfer, you can check out the open source designs on RepRap (16), choose from one of several different designs they offer (each comes complete with blueprints, parts lists, and construction instructions), and build a fully functional 3d printer for about a quarter of the cost of a commercial model. The ultimate goal of the RepRap project is to make a machine that is capable of self-replication, and they are extremely close to their goal. When you build your first RepRap printer, you can use it to print all the parts for your next one, except for the power supply. You’ve still got to buy and attach it separately. Everything else though, you can simply “print” yourself!

Good And Bad Technology

Having spent a great deal of time on the good, it must also be said that 3d printing has a potential dark side. Right now, today, you can go to a website and download plans to make nearly every type of firearm ever invented (17). People have already printed and successfully test fired at least two different types of guns. This new reality renders national and international attempts at gun control increasingly irrelevant. Fab-labs are increasingly cheap and easy to set up, and while that means good things in terms of local manufacturing, disaster relief, and the resolution of thorny social problems, it also means that anyone with an axe to grind can, over the course of a long weekend, have a miniature gun factory up and running, capable of cranking out completely untraceable firearms. As with any technology, 3d printers and the Fab-Labs that can be constructed around them are neither inherently good or evil, it is how they are ultimately used that makes all the difference. There are those who would use the technology to unite us and transform society by solving heretofore unsolvable social problems (18), and there are those who don’t care about that, and would use the tech for a darker purpose. One thing is absolutely certain at this point. The genie is out of its bottle, and there’s no putting it back in. The technology is now firmly entrenched in our society, and its impacts will only grow stronger over time.

References


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