3-D Printing Saves the Universe

Make text smaller Make text larger

Only 300 years to go

By Carib Guerra

The process of 3-D printing is called additive manufacturing, and it's a pretty simple idea: A machine squirts some material in layers based on a 3-D computer model until the design becomes a real-life object. There are a few different methods and processes to choose from, but here I'm focusing on fused deposition modeling, aka fused filament fabrication to avoid patent battles, which uses spools of plastic filaments that are melted and layered to make solid objects.

3-D printing technology has existed for decades, mostly for companies focusing on one-shot industrial uses like proof-of-concept prototypes and small-run orders of items that wouldn't, or couldn't, be mass-produced. There are also companies like Freedom of Creation and Shapeways that allow consumers to upload designs to have custom products printed. Customers can also choose from a catalog of limited-run creations from contracted designers, most of which are accessories, jewelry and iPhone cases and intricately designed furniture.

Until now, these sites have remained on the periphery of Internet offerings. But with growing consumer relevance and falling prices of 3-D printing technology, there has been a major shift toward at-home desktop 3-D printing (D3D).

Why do you need a 3-D printer? Really, you don't. Everything that can be printed can also be bought at the store. But stores are essentially as much a symptom of inability as convenience. Before 3-D printing, that justification could have been inverted-everything that can be bought at the store can also be printed. Add to that logic that D3D happens at home and at a fraction of the price and you've got a winning argument.

Anyone who is down to build a 3-D printer from a kit or buy one at a pre-built premium uses open source communities to share new developments. Users can easily download 3-D model files, and newer interfaces include 3-D scanner hookups and even use Microsoft Kinect as an input, making 3-D modeling super easy.

The last obstacle facing D3D was the easiest for enthusiasts to ignore but the single largest deterrent for the consumer market: basic aesthetics. Even the best-looking D3Ds were clunky jerks an obvious departure from almost any home decoration scheme. In a technological and design-minded leap that may leave these DIY printer models looking like an old Apple IIGS competing in a beauty pageant against an iPad, 3-D Systems, along with Janne Kyttanen, founder of Freedom of Creation, has unveiled The Cube desktop 3D printer.

The Cube shoots this problem right in the eye of the beholder. It's compact and attractive; inviting, even toy-like. You see it sitting there and all you want to know is: "How do I play with this thing?"

At a price point ($1,299) within the range of models offered by Makerbot and Printrbot (from $500 to $2,400), The Cube is a creature on the consumer landscape with no immediate competition. This is the 3-D printer that will be on your desktop.

Along with The Cube comes the Cubify.com community, where users are encouraged to "Market your creations. Upload designs or apps and earn money." While this business model may seem like a sellout punch to the pride gut of established open source communities, by giving members a user-driven marketplace where clever/useful designs stand to make cash, Cubify seems at least initially guaranteed to quickly build a user base.

No exact release date has yet been set for The Cube, but with the potential inherent in bringing manufacturing to the masses, I'm very excited to see where this will take the Future of Stuff.

Personally, my early interest in 3-D printing stemmed from an intense love of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Replicators onboard the USS Enterprise made everything from Captain Picard's Earl Grey tea to medicines used by Dr. Beverly Crusher and allowed the post-scarcity utopia of Gene Roddenberry's universe. While the printers available now are a far walk from the miracle machines of the 24th century, we've still got 300 years to get this stuff right. Engage.

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters