Your Future Will Be Fabricated

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I’ve got two 3D printers… one works great and the other is super-finicky, requiring me to fine-tune over a dozen different variables (some physical such as re-adjusting the z-axis by hand using a screwdriver and others digital such as tweaking the temperature every single time). It doesn’t matter — printing with a 3D printer is fun. Seeing something you’ve designed or pulled down from a site like Thingiverse.com printed out in plastic in front of you just doesn’t seem to get old. (Well, that’s not true — some of these items can take an hour or two or three to print out, so 3D printing enjoyment is directly proportional to your patience level.)

I’m always interested in seeing what other folks are doing with all the various 3DP technologies that are being released, and there’s a lot of it! It seems every day a new 3DP is being announced, and as the cost drops some of the more advanced 3DP tech is coming into range of the home hobbyist. While most 3DP hobbyist work right now is done using the more common melting of plastic, the other variations are not too far behind in terms of availability and affordability. Most hobbyists seems to agree that the sub-$100 3DP (plastic) is just around the corner and the more advanced printer technologies are soon to break the sub-$1000 price range. (Don’t believe me — consider the $2500 cost of the Form 1 that almost hit $3M in funding last year.)

I’m still quite surprised, however, at the number of folks who are still unfamiliar with the concept of 3D printing. I probably shouldn’t be, however. These are still items that require a certain level of comfort when it comes to tweaking and experimenting with hardware — 3DP software still hasn’t reached what I would call a no-brainer level of intuitiveness. Right now, when someone wants to print out a letter, they open the document, select Print, and just know it’ll be coming out of whatever printer they are using. Not so with 3DPs — often times you’ll have to start and stop a print job as you tweak the optimal temperature to make certain the plastic melts properly but cools fast enough (but not TOO fast) to keep it from morphing on the print surface. Same goes for printing ready-made items that you can download over the Internet — it’s still not 1-2-3 easy to find what you want and just know it’ll come out at the proper size. I guess what I’m trying to say is that 3DP still has a little ways to go before the general public reaches a sufficient level of comfort with it. I won’t go so far as to say “When my mom can print out a plastic spoon without needing to ask where to start, it’s ready”… but you get my meaning.

I’m always on the lookout for articles and websites that do a great job of explaining 3DP technology, but I often find they don’t go deep enough in any one direction. One will focus on what you can print while ignoring how it happens. Another focuses too much on the actual hardware and how it works and ignores the benefits of what you can do with a 3DP. That’s fine… because I’ve now got an all-in-one book to hand someone who really REALLY wants to get a handle on 3DP technology.

Fabricated is a new book from Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman that attempts to cover in as non-technical language as possible how 3D printers work, what they’re used for, and where the technology is going. It’s most definitely a go-to book for anyone with kids looking for a comprehensive look of 3DP technology and where’s it’s heading. I reached out to the authors with some questions I had after finishing the book, and I’d like to thank Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman for their responses.

GeekDad: What got you interested in 3DP technology?

Fabricated: We came to it via slightly different paths. Hod began using it for making robots, and then co-invented Fab@home, one of the world’s first consumer-level 3D printers in 2006, to expand the technology’s reach and capabilities. I got interested in 3D printing as a natural extension of my interest in innovative technology, and how new technologies weave their way into daily life.

GeekDad: You open the book with a fictional account of a typical “morning of the future — two decades hence,” complete with a food printing machine, a news report of how 3DP will save lives, and a neighbor’s home improvement project. Do you really see 3DP as the life-changing technology you portray in this short story?

Fabricated: Yes. Keep in mind that there’s no firm “deliver by” date on this short story that kicks off the book. Some of the things in that story are taking place today — for example home 3D printing. Others will take a few decades longer — for example a black market for counterfeit, 3D printed new body parts.

GeekDad: I was fascinated with the chapter on bio-printing — organs, limbs, and more. Are there any legal or ethical issues that we might be facing as this tech matures?

Fabricated: Yes. As the chapter on bioprinting depicts, right now researchers can bioprint simple tissues such as living cartilage and primitive “spray on” skin tissue. As stem cell research, design software and 3D printing technologies rapidly advance, we will see the bioprinting industry mature. When there’s finally a real market for 3D printed body parts — meaning there’s money to be made — then we’ll have to struggle with new legal and ethical issues.

GeekDad: The food printing technology seems like a no-brainer. Customized food (based on dietary needs or just simple tastes) sounds great, so how long do you think it will be before we are printing out our own cookie designs to send with our kids to school?

Fabricated: Hmm . . . Maybe a year or two? Food printing simple foods such as cookies or chocolate candies is technologically simple. There are 3D printers now that can do the job. The reason you can’t buy a cookie food printer at your local consumer electronics store yet is because no one has yet figured out a viable business model for simple 3D food printing.

GeekDad: What needs to be done NOW to get this technology into schools? The book talks about the financial barriers, but parents are often quite okay spending money if it means giving their children a head start. What would you suggest to parents who want to get this technology into the hands of their children?

Fabricated: The book points out that the U.S. public school system is woefully under-funded when it comes to buying new technologies for children. The book also points out that at least in the U.S. public school system, there are two other significant barriers: changing school curriculum to include a design and engineering component, and getting K-12 teachers ready to teach technology.

For parents for whom money is not a barrier or who send their kids to private school, the outlook is different. Private schools have bigger technology budgets and are exempt from the onerous pressure of regular standardized testing that stresses public school resources. In addition, many communities offer after-school design and “make” programs; some local public libraries are re-forming themselves as public maker spaces. Many communities have local tech shops — usually called hackerspaces or makerspaces — where parents and children can use a range of manufacturing tools — including 3D printers.

GeekDad: You don’t dance around the topics of copyright and other legal issues related to 3DP. We just went through (or are still dealing with) the trouble of music and video in today’s connected world — do you see 3DP as being a bigger can of worms or have we learned enough to not make the same mistakes when it comes to printing out IP?

Fabricated: IP issues aren’t resolved at all when it comes to dealing with digital music, video and other media. We’re simply living in an uneasy ceasefire between consumers and companies. It’s difficult to predict what lies ahead as 3D printing technology, design software and scanning tools improve. Our hope is that policymakers can do their homework and not give in to irrational FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt).

GeekDad:  Given all of your research for the book, are you comforted by what 3DP is bringing to our lives or are we opening a Pandora’s box of issues? Do you have any concerns about this developing technology that might make you think twice about allowing uncontrolled development of 3DP tech?

Fabricated: The answer is . . . Yes. Seriously, we are both excited and a bit worried about what might lie ahead. The sub-title of the book is the promise and peril of a machine that can make (almost) anything. It’s not up to us, however, or anyone for that matter to “allow uncontrolled development of 3DP tech.” People and companies will invent what they will. Like any other game-changing technology, 3D printing will be used for both good by most people, and for not-so-good by a few others. Again, this is where intelligent policy and regulation comes into play.

Authors Bios

Co-authors Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman are leading experts on 3D printing, frequently speaking and advising on this technology to industry, academia, and government. Lipson’s lab at Cornell University has pioneered interdisciplinary research in 3D printing, product design, artificial intelligence, and smart materials. Kurman is a technology analyst and business strategy consultant who writes about game-changing technologies in lucid, engaging language.


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