Thursday, May 10, 2007

Replicators: The Next Generation

I received a lot of e-mail about my article on 3D printing in Monday's Times, including some interesting meditations on the possible good and bad uses for such machines. I've posted a few of these e-mails below. (There was also a fair bit of discussion on Digg and other blogs.)

Of course, there was discussion of what I left out, such as laser mills and other ways to fabricate objects. I got a nice note from the people behind RepRap, a 3d printer project at Bath University.

Several people pointed out that as with ink jet printers, the materials that go in to 3D printers may well cost far more than the printer itself over a lifetime. This is true, and desktop factory says it plans to use that razor/razor blade business model. It says the cost of material may be several dollars for a small object, not trivial but perhaps competitive for the Wal-Mart price for a napkin holder or whatever.

A few zoologically inclined pointed out that we wrote that "Mr. Gross even downloaded a model of an octopus to print out for a project on vertebrates in his daughter's eighth-grade biology class." Octopi, in fact, are invertebrates, as I'm sure Mr. Gross's daughter knows.

But by far the biggest comment was on my Star Trek reference.

I wrote: "It's not quite the transporter of "Star Trek," but it is a step closer."

This dates me, I'm sorry to say, to the 23rd century, when the original Enterprise travelled the universe. While I can throw around references to Tribbles and tricorders, my knowledge of the technology of Captain Picard, Data and the 24th century voyagers is rather sketchy.

So while I was thinking of a transporter materializing an object (yes I know sent from somewhere else). Little did I know that a major feature of later Star Trek was the Replicator , which from which Captain Picard orders his "Tea, Earl Grey, hot" out of thin air.

Eva was kind enough to point me to the Wikipedia article on Replicators, which helpfully explains the (faux) physics of all this, and the differences with transporters. If ever we needed a demonstration about what Wikipedia has over Britannica, it's the care in which readers have crafted the hundreds of Star Trek entries. (Reading the Chronicles of Narnia to my daughter, I found similarly extensive Narnian guides.)

Jason Warriner, an Oakland, California artist, pointed to the work he makes using 3D printers.


Below are a few comments from my e-mail bag.

In regards to your article on 3d printers, I found the possibilities to be immense. While you concentrated on the positives, consider some of the risks. The technology is still at its infancy. However, what is to say that years from now, people just won't print up a ceramic or plastic gun? Or even simpler, how about a disturbed teen in a hs printing up a knife? the potential for good from this technology is immense. However, to not consider all of the ramifications, would be foolish.


That's gonna be very trippy: - China loses its manufacturing advantage - Much easier and cheaper to meet everyone's living needs around the world (you can manufacture what they need on the spot, including equip, water, food) - evil people can make lots of bad stuff easily... Thanks for the interesting read!


Anything can now be made and that can be a problem. How about the slide of a gun or some other weapon parts? So there is a huge plus and a bit of a dark side to this emerging technology. In a few years, we will be able to do just about anything.


A couple years ago, when i went to the design expo in nyc i went with an interest in seeing how the 3d printing world was coming along. and i did a sort of intellectual exercise. i wondered, what would it be like if everybody had access to these machines. for one thing, there would get to be a really popular public domain trade in trinkets like toothbrushes, and chess pieces. a few years ago, somebody designed a 3d public domain chess set. one of the fascinating things about the set was that it contained things like a rook that had open windows, people inside, and a double helix spiral stairway, which is completely impossible to make with standard injection molding techniques. i first saw the rook at one booth in the show, where a company was showing off their laser sintering machine. the rook was made from brass. Of course i was taken by the fact that there was an object, which looked just like something conventionally manufactured, that was impossible to make that way since it could not be divided in half and put together, as injection molded things are made. They were also showing off another example of this idea with something called the 'brain gear,' which had a bunch of interconnected gears that would be impossible to actually put together without breaking some. before 3d printing such a thing was merely a thought exercise. i noticed a trend starting, when upon walking the show, i noticed these exact same objects in other booths, made from various different materials. furthermore, there were also some examples of times that people took a photo of something they thought was interesting, like a stained glass detail in a church, then they took those into 3d software, embellished, then 'printed out' metal amulets made from that design for a wedding party. One company had scanned in a ken doll, and was printing, in sections, a six foot high version, made from plastic. Here was, in microcosm, a taste of the future, where people have unlimited access to these machines (in this case the small community of employees working for the various printer companies). I could easily see a future where various 3d objects are conceived by random people, or pirated, or just shared by the masses. Then people download that and print it out, just like they do with little pieces of software and art today. This is, of course, part of the logical progression that goes from being able to create something and share it online. its why we don't really have to worry too much about chinese manufacturing. after all, not too far in the future, we'll just print out whatever it is we need in our house. then recycle used or broken things, back into the printer. and once we get to full blown nanotechnology, this whole process will finally bring us to a stage where no good is 'manufactured' in a plant, but merely home grown.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Download and print a Barbie

Every now and then, when I'm in Los Angeles, I stop by Idealab to see what Bill Gross is up to. About a year ago, in between talking about solar energy gizmos, he mentioned he was working on a 3D printer--a device that could actually make solid objects. He had bought one for his machine shop for $40,000. But he wanted to build one cheap enough for home use.
At the TED Conference earlier this year, Bill was showing a prototype and some of the objects it made. So I decided to look at this more closely. I spent a day with his company, Desktop Factory. I also also visited the Art Center College of Design, which has several 3D printers for use by its indistrial design students.
The article I wrote on this is in Monday's Times.