Posted on 26 February 2011.
Bre Pettis, C.E.O. of MakerBot Industries, Photo by Jonah Comstock/ Columbia Radio News
Imagine if your desktop printer could print not just photos and documents, but 3D objects, if you could print everything from a model of a brain tumor to help doctors prepare for surgery to a fully edible chocolate cake. All that is possible with 3D printers, a technology that, in the wake of its 25th anniversary, is becoming more and more accessible.
It sounds like something out of science fiction. Type some commands to a computer and print out a 3D plastic model of anything you like. You can replace lost board game pieces or broken machine parts, create toys for your kids, or abstract sculpture.
“Let’s see, we’ve got a little puzzle box, we’ve got Space Invader ice cube trays, we’ve got bunnies,” says Bre Pettis, C.E.O. of MakerBot Industries. Pettis is giving me a tour of the MakerBot Bot Cave, a downtown Brooklyn warehouse. MakerBots, the company’s signature products, are small, do-it-yourself 3D printers. They look a bit like an easy bake oven, and they retail for just under thirteen hundred dollars. Pettis shows me a MakerBot at work, “What you’re hearing is the music of the MakerBot. As it moves, the motors make different sounds depending on how fast it’s moving.”
The frame of the MakerBot is a wooden box. Inside, in the glow of a colored LED light, you can watch it working: A nozzle, like the inkjet in your desktop printer, spits out an instantly-hardening plastic resin as a platform moves mechanically underneath it and, layer by layer, an object takes shape.
Shelves of bots line the walls, along with a vending machine stocked with the little plastic models they make. Printed in bright colors and intricate shapes, the only thing the objects have in common is the ridged texture that gives away their genesis.
The process is called additive manufacturing and it’s not just about plastic trinkets. Cathy Lewis is marketing director for 3D Systems, the California company that invented the technology. She says the inventor, Charles Hull, originally conceived of the process as a powerful tool for engineers. “He envisioned being able to create prototypes more rapidly and help engineers and designers actually deliver products faster to the market and make them better,” says Lewis.
3D systems makes large units which retail for more like $10,000 and can print in a wide range of materials including metal, wax, and chocolate. They sell products to high end manufacturers such as the aerospace and health markets. For instance, they sold a printer to a research hospital in Washington, where premature infants were too small to use even the smallest oxygen tubes. “So” Lewis says, “they did a CT scan of an infant, they printed the nasal morphology of that specific infant, and they were able to test devices, breathing devices, that are going to be accretive to saving those young babies.”
New uses for 3D Printers are being developed every day: recently scientists have printed a working flute, developed a food printer, and researchers are looking to see whether there’s a way to print human organs – and put an end to donor shortages.
But even as researchers push the boundaries of what this technology can do, companies like 3D Systems are concerned about making sure anyone can do it. Lewis says the biggest barrier right now is that to use a 3D Printer, you need a design, and the average person isn’t familiar with 3D design software.
Back at the MakerBot Bot Cave, Pettis and his team have a solution: An open source database called Thingaverse. “So we have a site called Thingaverse.com and it’s THE UNIVERSE OF THINGS. That’s a place where people share their digital designs, so you can go check them out, download them, and then print them out without having to do any designs,” Pettis says.
A browse through Thing-a-verse demonstrates a huge range of printables from toys to tools, all free. One user has even used the MakerBot to print components he used to build another MakerBot. Pettis equates the 3D printing market with the personal computer market – years down the line, he says, we’ll have one in every household. When that happens, things are going to change. “I’d like to think it’s the beginning of the end of consumerism as we know it. Because right now you buy something and it’s very likely made overseas, put on a boat, then it’s put on a train, then it’s put on a truck and it sits on a store shelf waiting for you to come and buy it, but with a 3D printer you either design it or download it from Thingaverse.com and print it out. You have it,” says Pettis.
3D Printers are as hot as the plastic resin in a MakerBot, and they’re just going to get cheaper and easier to use. It may not be long before online shopping is just a matter of point, click, and print.