You’ve probably heard about 3D printing by now. There are close to ten TED talks on the subject, a myriad of CNN articles, and a feature by The Economist. Chances are someone in your city is even manufacturing and selling 3D printers for everyday folks like you and I.
It was a February 2013 TED talk by Alstair Parvin that first got me more interested in the devices. In his presentation he used the phrase “the democratization of production” and I got a little bit giddy. Now, let’s go on a little journey to figure out the what, the why, and the worth of what’s being called “the maker movement”
I try to avoid 7-sylable words. They’re usually jargon and this case is no exception. But it is where 3D printing started, and it happened almost thirty years ago.
Chuck Hall is the guy who’s credited for making and patenting the first 3D printer, but his technique (stereolithography) was a little different than the desktop 3D printers you see in homes today. Chuck’s method used lasers and vats of liquid ultraviolet curable photopolymer “resin”. Yes, more jargon. But we can break it down.
Liquid (that’s easy) ultraviolet curable (when exposed to ultraviolet radiation it immediately turns solid) photopolymer (a polymer that changes properties when exposed to light) resin (uhh… goopy).
Chuck took a vat of this resin and an ultraviolet laser. He then used that laser to draw the shape he wanted to “print” on a platform that sat just under the surface of the liquid. After solidifying the first layer he would lower the platform and draw subsequent layers. After doing it by hand he automated the process into what became the first 3D printer.
Chuck then went on to start the company 3D Systems, one of the biggest players in the 3D Printer market.
Stereolithography techniques are still used in 3D printing. Because it uses a laser, it can be a more precise method, and can produce smaller, more detailed pieces.
Fused Deposition Modeling
Ugg, these classifications, right? It’s a long name for what started out as a way to build a toy frog.
A chap named S. Scott Crump was faced with what I assume was a common 1989 dilemma: you’re daughter wants a toy frog and there’s no damn way you’re going to buy her one.
S. Scott decided to take matters into his own hands. Armed with a glue gun, some polyethylene, and some candles, Papa Crump set about making a toy frog of his very own. Layer-by-layer he used the glue gun to melt the mixture of candle wax and polyethylene and layer-by-layer he manufactured his daughter a toy frog. After doing it once, he figured it would be a lot easier to just automate the whole process.
Mr. Crump went on to patent that automated system and build a company on top of it. That company is now known as Stratasys, another of the biggest players in the 3D printing game.
It should be noted that Mr. Crump decided to trademark the term Fused Deposition Modeling. So instead of worrying about infringing, some folks interested in the technology asked themselves: “would Fused Deposition Modeling not be Fused Deposition Modeling by any other name?” They decided it still would and started calling it Fused Filament Fabrication instead.
The other stuff
These aren’t the only methods of 3D printing, but they are a couple of the main ones. Instead of getting bogged down in all the particulars, we can just remember:
3D printing is a process of additive manufacturing in which 3 dimensional objects are built from a digital model.
Some people have done this with tissue, some with cookies. Who are we to judge which pursuits are more noble?
The future of production
But this is about “the democratization of production”. Let’s revisit.
You see, it’s one thing to talk about the technology behind a 3D Printer, but what’s more fascinating is the potential of what’s becoming known as maker culture. Think about what happens when you take the factory (the place of manufacturing) and put it on your desktop, at your office, or in your remote village. What changes become possible when control over production is wrenched from the hands of a few corporate giants and redistributed among the masses?
Alstair Parvin is a designer and architect by trade, and I find his vision nothing short of inspiring. In that 2013 TED Talk I mentioned above, he elaborates:
“What these technologies are doing are radically lowering the thresholds of time, cost, and skill. They’re challenging the idea that if you want something to be affordable it’s got to be one size fits all. And they’re distributing, massively, really complex manufacturing capabilities. We’re moving into this future where the factory is everywhere, and increasingly that means the design team is everyone. That really is an industrial revolution. … The major ideological conflicts we inherited are all based around this question of who should control the means of production. And these products are coming back with a solution: ‘Actually, maybe no one.’”
He goes on to describe the decentralization of manufacturing as the task of our new century.
“If design’s great project in the 20th century was the democratization of consumption–that was Henry Ford, Levittown, Coca-Cola, and Ikea–I think design’s great project in the 21st Century will be the democratization of production.”
When I think of the possibilities, it gets exciting. For example, think of that 1955 BMW motorcycle you’ve been dying to rebuild but haven’t been able to find parts for. No problem. Download the specs, or build them yourself using 3D software, and print it.
You know the part that failed in your dishwasher and killed the engine? The one that the repairperson said would take 3 months to order and cost $500? Download. Print. Repair
You know that liver that you’ve drank to death? And the doctor who says you’re so far down the transplant list you should probably start sorting your affairs? Well, that’s probably a ways off… so maybe don’t drink quite so much.
But the possibilities. That’s what excites me.
I’d say I look forward to the day that our imaginations limit us more than our technology, but I don’t expect human creativity will ever willing be that patient.
If you want to learn a little more, CNN has a simple, effective annimation that gives a good primer on 3D printing
I read a whole bunch of websites to help me write this blog post. You can see them here:
The photo at the top was used from: Creative Tool’s Flikr account (http://www.flickr.com/photos/creative_tools/) under Creative Commons.