Published on October 15th, 2013 | by Chris Campbell


3-D Printing Incites a Lightning Storm of Imagination

Biotechnology firms are using 3-D printing to build organs – ears, livers, kidneys, and more. Living cells are deposited onto a sugar matrix, and layer-by-layer a vascular system comes to life via inkjet techniques.

The Cornell Creatives Machine Lab invented a 3-D printer with edible ink, producing vegan burger patties with liquid layers of ketchup and mustard. NASA is considering having their astronauts print their meals, tools, and eventually, off-earth habitats.

“We can make health food more fun, interesting, and appealing with this technology. What kid wouldn’t eat a space shuttle, even one made of peas?” Cornell Professors joked.

The following is a 3-D printed crumpet from the flickr photostream of RichRap.

“I predict even our best science fiction will seem dull when compared to the reality we create all working together,” said Joshua Pearce, Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Michigan Tech University.

The possibilities of 3-D printing are unfathomable, so long as it hurtles the opposition.

Pearce, dismayed that 3-D printing has been catching bad press because people are using them to print plastic guns, organized a contest, 3-D Printers For Peace.

“What we hoped to do with the contest is to turn the dialogue back to the positive, and talk about applications of the technology that could be truly uplifting for humanity,” said Pearce.

Image by Langleyo. 

The contest’s results were marvelous. Entries tackled dozens of problems plaguing humanity such as scarcity of food and water in the developing world, sustainable economic development, and ways to provide free, clean energy. Immunization beads took first place.

“One area that I am sure 3-D printing will begin to dominate is in the fabrication of scientific equipment. Many high-end custom scientific tools are already designed and waiting to eviscerate the costs of doing science for everyone – from citizen scientists to our most prestigious laboratories,” said Pearce.

“This is really exciting to me as I am sure all of science and technology will be accelerated when we can share designs for tools and make them ourselves with our printers for 1-10% of the cost of commercial instruments,” stated Pearce.

This image, and all following images, by Andrew Plumb.

So, with such massive potential for good why is there opposition?

“The advent of real distributed manufacturing, where you literally make things in your own home rather than buy them, is potentially extremely disruptive to the existing social structure,” explained Pearce.

Individuals and corporations thriving off the existing conditions will see reductions in profit and control if end-users adopt 3-D printing in their homes.

“It is thus not surprising to see a clear bias in some of the media to focus on negative aspects of the technology. Printing illegal plastic guns was getting so much press that elected representatives were discussing laws against 3-D printing, and background checks on owners,” said Pearce.

However, these impediments are minor, as it appears 3-D printing’s training wheels are coming off in a flurry.

“Recently, some of the core patents ran out, unleashing a tidal wave of innovation as the technology went open-source. 3-D printer costs plummeted from tens of thousands of dollars to a few hundred, and now there are printers you can run at home that can make everything from medical equipment to children’s toys,” said Pearce.

Pearce is confident 3-D printing will become mainstream simply because of the economics.

“The open-source designs are growing exponentially and every new design that goes up makes owning a 3D printer that much more valuable. We have shown that a typical US family can print 20 common products for $18 and displace between $300 and $2000 dollars of merchandise,” explained Pearce.

“That amount of printing can be done in a weekend and literally pays for the printer in savings. You do not need a crystal ball to see where this is going to go. Plus it is better for the environment,” said Pearce.

It is better for the environment because when we cease to buy products from corporations fewer semi trucks have to hustle down highways 24/7, fewer barges saddled with shipping containers full of plastic thingamajigs come from China, etc.

So how has 3-D printing gained momentum?

“After Adrian Boywer took the shackles off of the technology by open-sourcing the RepRap project, a self-replicating 3-D printer, the innovation churn has been staggering. To put this in perspective – the state of the art RepRap we used in the summer is now obsolete. We have a new one that takes one-third the time to assemble and cuts 20% of the cost. It will be an antique by Christmas,” said Pearce.

The most astonishing ability of the RepRap is that it can fabricate a large fraction of its own components, and is thus on the path of becoming a self-replicating unit. So once you spend the few hundred bucks on a printer, what do you do then?

The next step becomes easy – you mine incredible resources such as Thingiverse for ideas. Thingiverse is a website dedicated to the sharing of open -source design files. As of today, over 160,000 designs are available free to the public. It all just becomes about following instructions.

3-D printing has been around for decades. Yet, this incredibly fertile boom in technological advancement is because of the disintegration of intellectual property laws.

“Following open-source software, which is basically everywhere, open-source hardware of all kinds is on the rise. Innovation is so much faster and stronger than we are used to with the old intellectual property rules,” stated Pearce.

“There is going to be friction and it looks like it is going to get ugly. Frankly, we have known for some time now that intellectual property laws have been holding technology back,” said Pearce.

“Now it is just plain silly. Why should you have the right to bar me from doing something in my garage for 20 years because you paid a lawyer to convince the USPTO (U.S. Patent & Trade Office) that an idea was not obvious?” stated Pearce.

But, as usual, the younger generations that are racing toward the new with an unstoppable force.

“Younger people in particular see this kind of thinking as inane. They are just going to print what they want and share the files. I am sure there will be lawsuits, but in the end the superior method of technological development will win,” said Pearce.

“Those that cling to antiquated thoughts of lording intellectual monopolies over everyone else will be swept away into the dustbin of history. And, only those that continue to innovate will be left standing. These will be companies and individuals that develop under the open-source paradigm,” said Pearce.



3-D Printing Incites a Lightning Storm of Imagination

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About the Author

I live on an island floating in the Puget Sound, a stone's throw from downtown Seattle. I am keenly interested in nature, mysticism, the cosmos, futurism, existentialism, nihilism, kitsch, satire, and miscellaneous whimsy.

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