Have you ever had an idea and thought, “someone ought to make one of those, I’m sure they’d make a fortune”? Or had some object or other, maybe a kitchen appliance, that got dropped, and one silly little component broke, and you couldn’t get it repaired, or get a replacement, and wondered why no-one made one of those, and made it available at a reasonable price?
And have you ever worried, when you threw something out that you absolutely no longer had a need for, that maybe it could be recycled in some clever way, if only you knew how?
If you can say “yes”, or even “maybe” to any of these questions, then you may be in the market for a 3D printer.
My dad ran his own printing business when I was a boy. Back then, getting anything into print was the business of professionals like my father. He had some very big machines called Heidlebergs than took much skill and training to operate, and he had an employee, George, who was the machine-minder. My father was the compositor and designer. He picked up little pieces of lead with letters back to front on the top, and arranged them into a styck, and then assembled all the composed type into a chase, and passed that to George who would fit the chase into the Heidleberg, and set it to printing multiple copies of one page. People came in to my father’s works with their ideas sketched out on scruffy bits of paper: leaflets that they wanted for their business, or business cards, or letterheads, invoices, etc. Or maybe the copy for dance tickets for the annual “do” of the local football or rugby club, and my father would turn these ideas into something neat and professional.
He usually just printed in black: even two-colour work was quite complex, and multi-colour beyond most people’s budget.
Were my father still alive today, his business would fail instantly. Nowadays with a laptop PC and a £50 inkjet printer you can produce for yourself pretty much anything that my father used to be able to print. Even if you want hundreds of copies, you will probably produce the “artwork” on your laptop, and e-mail the “camera-ready copy” to your local print shop franchise. In the 30 years since my father retired the industry has totally changed, at least twice, and the technology that killed off my father’s way of working is itself now old hat, and friends of mine of my own age who were printers have closed down.
The same is about to happen to manufacturing.
In New Zealand there is already a franchised company called Pokono. They have totally free 3D software that you can download and use to design something that you want made. Each Pokono store has 3D printers, CNC laser cutters, and other computer controlled machines that make stuff. You e-mail your design to Pokono, they suggest materials and quote you a price, and a few days later you pop down to your local Pokono store and pick up your newly manufactured item … anything from an ashtray to a chair, from a door handle to a prototype of something that you want to make and sell. Pokono is already expanding to a locale near you: just Google them.
But what if you have no design skills? No worries: there is a huge database of things already designed. You can just call one up, and have it made just as it is, or you can change the materials or colours, or you can modify the design to suit yourself, including making it larger or smaller.
And the same is true of the Open Source, GPL, RepRap world. There is a website called the Thingiverse. It is a massive database of things that have been designed, and the designs uploaded to the Thingiverse. From there you can download those designs, modify them if you want to or need to, and print them on your 3D printer. Most of the designs are free; some you have to pay for, but we’re talking similar sums of money to that which you see on the App Store.
I have been used to working with PCs for decades now, and for most of that time I used Microsoft Office, and got used to paying hundreds of pounds for Windows, and more hundreds of pounds for Office, and more hundreds of pounds whenever Office had a new release.
Today I’m writing this book on an iPad, sitting beside a stream in a meadow. The iPad came with it’s operating system, and whenever there is an update I just click “yes” when it asks, and the operating system is upgraded for free. The iPad version of Office cost me, I believe, around £5 for Pages (Word), and the same for Numbers (Excel) and the presentation software. And again, whenever there is an update it updates itself automatically over the internet for free.
Whereas buying software for Windows is a considered purchase, most iPad or iPhone apps are so cheap, and the method of buying is so easy (just a click and it happens automatically) that we don’t even think about it.
The same will be true of the Thingiverse. Even if you do have to pay for a design, it’s probably so cheap that you scarcely even think about it.
So now when you think, “someone should make one of those”, you can be that someone, and the “one of those” can get made. You can put the design up on the Thingiverse, maybe for money, and other people who want one can make one, and if you charge for the design, you’ll get paid. And if friends see your widget, and want one, and don’t have their own 3D printer, why, you can print them a 3D printer and sell it to them, so they can make a widget for themselves, or you can just print them a widget and sell them that.
For you now own the means of production!
What else can you make with a 3D printer? Only your imagination limits you. They are 3D printing human organs for use in regenerative medicine. Regenerative medicine has huge advantages over organ donation, because it uses your own cells; there is no danger of rejection and having to take immunosuppresant drugs.
The architects, Foster and company are working with the University of Loughborough, who have a truly massive 3D printer, probably 30-40 feet high. It doesn’t print with plastic, it prints with concrete and cement, and it prints building parts, with all the services (plumbing pipes and electrical wiring) already built (printed) in, so they can just be assembled on site.
3D printing is part of yet another revolution, that of “additive manufacturing” as opposed to “subtractive manufacturing”. When you think about it, most manufacturing in the past consisted of taking a chunk of some material, be it stone or wood or metal, and cutting, drilling, milling and machining … cutting stuff away, or “subtracting” stuff. Sometimes the swarf (the stuff cut away) could be recycled. Mostly not. It didn’t much matter when the stuff was stone, or even wood in times gone by. But a lot of today’s materials are eye-wateringly expensive, so being able to make things just by adding what you need not only makes economic sense, but ecological sense, too.
One thing that they are working on in the RepRap program is to be able to make things starting with shredded plastic as the raw material, rather than plastic thread. The vision here is that you will be able to print in 3D using recycled plastic milk cartons, and recycle them yourself. Maybe your child wants some plastic shoes to wear on the beach. She wears them for a couple of months in the summer, and then throws them in the cupboard. Next summer she has grown, and the shoes are too small. No worries, shred them, put them back in the hopper, adjust the design up one size, and print her a new pair.
It’s a whole new world of economical and ecological opportunities, all for the less than the price you paid for your laptop! But you couldn’t use your laptop to make a new laptop. You can use your 3D printer to make a new 3D printer, for less than you paid for the original. Think how personal computers have spread, and then think of the additional power that “self replication” brings.
3D printers are an idea whose time has come, and this book will help you to climb aboard.