April 2009

3D printers, desktop factories, early adopters

By Thomas Easton

Three-dimensional printers are moving rapidly toward the home market.

The Desktop Factory, priced just under $5,000, is on the verge of release, and Desktop Factory Chief Executive Cathy Lewis said the company's aim "is to one day make 3D printing as common in offices, factories, schools, and homes as laser printers are today.

"Just as desktop publishing exploded as prices dropped and laser printers became ubiquitous, so too will new uses for 3D printing emerge as devices become inexpensive and widely available."

One can view any 3D object as a stack of 2D slices. A 3D printer, or "fabber" (short for fabricator), prints the slices, one on top of another until it produces (or fabs) the whole object.

For "ink" or raw material, it uses powders liquid plastics or even pastes.

One of the goals is for 3D printing technology to cost effectively expand the ability of designers and engineers to see physical models of their concepts before committing to more expensive, handmade prototypes.

However, as it is with any new technology, the important question is just who the first home users-the early adopters-are going to be. The very earliest adopters seem likely to be those whose hobbies center on computers … in other words, geeks. Gamers who want to make figurines of their favorite characters.

Case-modders-a distinct subculture whose members turn computer cases into works of art involving cabinetry, paint, lights, and weird 3D protrusions (see, for instance, http://www.mofocases.com/).

A few artists like George Hart (http://georgehart.com/) are already involved, and hot on their heels will be many more.

As the word gets out, I expect crafters to be the next in line. Some people love to build miniature replicas of ships, trains, and houses (much more ornate than mere dollhouses) with furniture, fireplaces, crockery, and so on to match.

One fellow in Holland (see http://fab.spoors.nl/) is using 3D printing to make models of old railroad cars. Just think of what this could do for HO layouts.

Toymakers are in too, including makers of dollhouses and their accoutrements. Interior decorators, yes. Teachers: I have talked with some who tell me there is always a shortage of materials for demonstrating concepts; they think a 3D printer would be very handy for manufacturing on demand everything from math manipulatives to anatomy models.

Does that mean the art of using models to show concepts could go the way of the dinosaur? No, it just might enhance them. One of the quirks of computer history and the Internet is the pornography industry was the first to figure out how to make the big money out of e-commerce.

Books and gambling came later. It thus seems a safe bet that industry will soon find new uses to sell to owners of 3D printers to print out in the privacy of their own homes. Maybe the next step will need a 3D scanner.

Back in the 1960s, college student Cynthia Albritton fulfilled an art assignment to make a plaster cast of anything. Soon, the self-described groupie was building what eventually became an impressive array of rock star trophies.

If the plaster is replaced by a 3D scanner and printer, that will not change.

Some people say the 3D printer will be the ultimate tool for personal creativity.

You'd better believe it!


Thomas Easton (easton@thomas.edu) is professor of science at Thomas College in Maine. He has a Ph.D. in theoretical biology. Easton's work on scientific and futuristic issues has appeared in many magazines. This piece draws from his coming book, The 3D Printing Revolution: Social and Economic Impacts. Home page: http://www.sff.net/people/teaston College page: http://www2.thomas.edu/faculty/easton Blog: http://technoprobe.blogspot.com