Input/Output

A New Dimension in 'Printing'

What's a 3D Printer? If you already know, then you are probably like my editor, who wrote to me: "I freaking love those printers. The first one that comes down below $1k, I'm buying. I don't care that I have no use for one." If you don't know already, then I bet your best guess is wrong--because you never would have guessed that, in their current crude state, they have a lot in common with an Easy Bake Snack Oven.

My son-in-law, Nic Spitler, a very talented and skilled furniture designer, is a senior at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, MI. Last fall, he showed me one of his class projects, a design for a printer. It was made out of a composite of nylon, glass, and aluminum, with no moving parts, and looked like a sculptor had chiseled and sanded it. I didn't pay much attention to the way it had been produced but thought that it was cool that he had designed it on a computer screen and that it had then been produced by a machine without any handling by human hands.

It turns out that his creation, which was about the size of the inkjet printer on my desk in my home office, was "printed" by a 3D printer. If I had known that was what they were called then, I would have been more interested. I wish I had. Now that I've done a little research, I think this is a product that's going to move into our lives faster than laser printers did. One current model fits on your desk and weights about 90 pounds. This brings us one step closer to living in stuff from science fiction that I have dreamed about for decades! At the moment they're mostly in design schools, moving into design firms, and even into high schools.

Want to make your own army of small soldiers to play with? (Remember those? To modern eyes they look like skateboarders. [Editor's note: More like skateboarding Ghurkas with field rifles. --D.N.]) Or want to make your own set of Legos? Did you loose a checker or a chess piece? For about $5,000, you can buy a 3D printer that will make them for you, according to your own computerized design. "'In the future, everyone will have a printer like this at home,' Cornell University Professor Hod Lipson was quoted as saying in this Neoseeker article. 'You can imagine printing a toothbrush, a fork, a shoe. Who knows where it will go from here?'" Another article, "Star Trek Style Replicator to Hit Market," has some ideas.

Sure, the basic materials that you have to feed into the "printer"--boy, it's hard for me to call these "printers!"--cost about $0.50 per cubic foot. Oops, I got a few years ahead of myself, it's actually $0.50 per cubic inch at present. But you know that not only is the cost going to go down, but someone's going to come up with these things that you can feed ordinary stuff you find around the house into. I want one that I can feed mailed credit card offers into. I can imagine that little envelope-sized slot in the side.

As for the $5,000 price tag, heck, I can remember paying $3,200 for a Radio Shack daisy wheel printer in 1984 or 1985. (I spent days figuring out how to trick it into printing out a bolded bullet using an early version of WordStar. Now I can buy a new inkjet printer that's faster and does a whole lot more for $60.

These 3D printers are going to be cheap, and they're going to be cheap very soon. Want a set of monogrammed forks and spoons for your wedding? Just drop some pellets of plastic (or last Sunday's New York Times) in the hopper, go on line and grab a fork and spoon design template, add in your monogram, press the button, and there you have them! When the wedding's over, drop them back into the hopper. Serious wow!

Can you tell I'm excited? I love visual imagery but I've never had any skills at all with pencil and paper, oils and canvas, or even knives and balsa wood. Personal computers, ink jet printers, and visually creative software have made me able to churn out some beautiful stuff in recent years. Now I will be able to make dinnerware, vases, small sculptures, and more.

But the real artists, the folks with real creativity and discipline, will still shine through. Maybe Nic's career will some day be to work at home producing designs for the 3D printers in people's homes. You'll be able to subscribe to "Designs by Nic" through iTunes and receive a daily or weekly download of templates to feed into your ... oh, heck, let's call them "replicators" or "fabricators," not "printers," okay? You'll be able to receive regular template downloads and print out the resulting objects for enjoyment for just as long as you want, then feed them back in for something new.

Prediction: These things are going to drive the intellectual property rights folks nuts. (My tiny little soapstone Inuit carving could be 3D scanned and replicated quite easily, for example.) And, within one model generation, the digital rights management people are going to find a way to screw up the functionality for us all. Sigh.

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