Predicting the future is a tricky thing. Consider the (in)famous 1977 statement by Kenneth Olsen, an American engineer who co-founded the Digital Equipment Corporation almost 60 years ago: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” Fifteen years later, he flopped again: “People will get tired of managing personal computers and will want instead terminals.”
But then recall the fictional Mr. McGuire to Dustin Hoffman in the movie The Graduate: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word: Plastics! There’s a great future in plastics.”
He got it right on the button. If the conversation were to have been held today, Mr. McGuire would probably have told Benjamin Braddock: “Three-dimensional printing. There’s a great future in it!”
And indeed, this seems to be so, at least according to Dr. Hod Lipson, an Israeli emigrant and assistant professor of engineering who heads Cornell University’s creative Machines Lab in Ithaca, New York. A year ago, he published together with journalist and technology analyst Melba Kurman a much-talked- about volume titled Fabricated: The New World of Printing, issued by Wiley Publishing.
It has now been translated by Yediot Books into a NIS 118, 327-page soft-cover volume for the Israeli audience, which is likely to embrace its hi-tech, sky’s-the-limit message.
Titled Tlat Meimad: Hamahapeicha Hata’asiyatit Hahadasha, it includes not only plenty of text but also graphic icons that, when scanned by a smartphone, open up video films about 3D printed objects. Unfortunately, however, the Hebrew version has photos printed only in black and white, somewhat diminishing the readers’ appreciation of the various 3D-printed objects that can be produced.
On the cover of the Hebrew version is a cool, functioning guitar made of Swiss cheeselike plastic using the technique of “personal fabrication.” Inside the book are, among other examples; pictures of women’s shoes with spiraled-metal heels, an eight-handled coffee cup that can be grabbed from all angles; a plastic human skull made from a genuine one that had been scanned; and a table whose legs were designed on a computer to replicate tree branches.
In 1998, Lipson received his PhD in mechanical engineering from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. But then he left the country, doing postdoctoral research at Brandeis University’s computer science department and serving as a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s mechanical engineering department. He was invited to join Cornell’s faculty 13 years ago and in a short lecture the 2007 TED conference presented his “selfaware” robot (a machine that can compensate for damage that would otherwise disrupt movement). The engineer also participated in teams that built relatively inexpensive, low-cost 3D printers called Fab@Home fabbers, and robots that replicate themselves using basic parts.
In 2010, Lipson and Kurman were commissioned by the US Office of Science and Technology Policy to write about “The Emerging Economy of Personal Manufacturing.” Their research for the article apparently served as the basis for the best-selling Wiley volume.
As the field of 3D printing is ever changing, Lipson and Kurman were careful not to explain only how the devices will be used in the future – as the information would quickly become obsolete. Instead, they focused on the deeper implications of the new technology on society in the present and the future.
They begin the book with the dream of “printing” fresh, organic, low-sugar blueberry muffins using a “food cartridge.” This process is not the same as bread machines from the 1980s, but food “designed” on a computer screen using special software and created with the contents of the cartridge. The same computer-aided design software technique will be used for making fresh tuna steaks, a couscous dish and a mouth-watering layered cake with chocolate-mocca-and raspberry frosting. Diabetics will one day, the authors predict, connect real-time data from sugar/ insulin sensors and produce breakfast according to the results.
One day, probably a few decades from now, 3D printers will be able to “print” living organs for replacing diseased ones in the body. You will be able to produce a customized toothbrush for yourself on your home 3D printer if you mislaid your usual one. A pregnant woman who undergoes an ultrasound of her fetus will be able to get a memento – a 3D model of her unborn infant exactly reproduced in plastic. Tiny computer chips could be designed and printed rather than painstakingly constructed using acid and other dangerous materials. A delicate, 3,000-year-old cuneiform tablet can easily be scanned and turned into a plastic replicate that can be examined and studied without fear that it would be damaged.
Lipson writes that he first heard of the concept of three-dimensional production of objects when attending a dull Technion engineering class at the end of the 1980s. A salesman from a Herzliya company named Cubital Systems suddenly barged into the classroom; the students had never heard of it, even though it was a subsidiary of Scitex and Clal. The salesman declared enthusiastically that his company was making 3D printers and would bring about a “revolution” in production.
“I hold in my hands the future of production,” he boasted. “This plastic object was created with a laser that ‘prints’ it” in three dimensions, the Cubital Systems man said, noting that the moving gears were not put together by a human but produced by the printer. “Suddenly,” the authors wrote, “the conventional world of manufacturing looked terribly obsolete.”
But the promised revolution did not occur at the planned speed. Cubital went bankrupt a few years later, Lipson recalled, as the 3D printing process was too complex and slow, and the machines were too expensive to allow traditional manufacturing companies to preserve their profits. Gradually, new companies formed to create the printers and software. Some of the applications, like human organ production, are probably decades away, but others are already here.
But while the technology offers so much, it also poses dangers – even now, lethal pistols and machine guns made out of plastic in 3D printing machines. The book presents and explains the “Ten Principles of 3D Printing”:
Principle 1: Manufacturing complexity is free.
In traditional manufacturing, the more complicated an object’s shape, the more it costs to make. On a 3D printer, complexity costs the same as simplicity. Fabricating an ornate and complicated shape does not require more time, skill, or cost than printing a simple block. Free complexity will disrupt traditional pricing models and change how we calculate the cost of manufacturing things.
Principle 2: Variety is free.
A single 3D printer can make many shapes. Like a human artisan, a 3D printer can fabricate a different shape each time. Traditional manufacturing machines are much less versatile and can only make things in a limited spectrum of shapes. 3D printing removes the overhead costs associated with re-training human machinists or re-tooling factory machines. A single 3D printer needs only a different digital blueprint and a fresh batch of raw material.
Principle 3: No assembly required.
3D printing forms interlocked parts. Mass manufacturing is built on the backbone of the assembly line. In modern factories, machines make identical objects that are later assembled by robots or human workers, sometimes continents away. The more parts a product contains, the longer it takes to assemble and the more expensive it becomes to make. By making objects in layers, a 3D printer could print a door and attached interlocking hinges at the same time, no assembly required. Less assembly will shorten supply chains, saving money on labor and transportation; shorter supply chains will be less polluting.
Principle 4: Zero lead time.
A 3D printer can print on demand when an object is needed. The capacity for on-the-spot manufacturing reduces the need for companies to stockpile physical inventory. New types of business services become possible as 3D printers enable a business to make specialty – or custom – objects on demand in response to customer orders. Zero-lead-time manufacturing could minimize the cost of long-distance shipping if printed goods are made when they are needed and near where they are needed.
Principle 5: Unlimited design space.
Traditional manufacturing technologies and human artisans can make only a finite repertoire of shapes. Our capacity to form shapes is limited by the tools available to us. For example, a traditional wood lathe can make only round objects. A mill can make only parts that can be accessed with a milling tool. A molding machine can make only shapes that can be poured into and then extracted from a mold. A 3D printer removes these barriers, opening up vast new design spaces. A printer can fabricate shapes that until now have been possible only in nature.
Principle 6: Zero-skill manufacturing.
Traditional artisans train as apprentices for years to gain the skills they need. Mass production and computer-guided manufacturing machines diminish the need for skilled production. However traditional manufacturing machines still demand a skilled expert to adjust and calibrate. A 3D printer gets most of its guidance from a design file. To make an object of equal complexity, a 3D printer requires less operator skill than does an injection molding machine. Unskilled manufacturing opens up new business models and could offer new modes of production for people in remote environments or extreme circumstances.
Principle 7: Compact, portable manufacturing.
Per volume of production space, a 3D printer has more manufacturing capacity than a traditional manufacturing machine. For example, an injection molding machine can only make objects significantly smaller than itself. In contrast, a 3D printer can fabricate objects as large as its print bed. If a printer is arranged so its printing apparatus can move freely, a printer can fabricate objects larger than itself. A high production capacity per square foot makes 3D printers ideal for home use or office use.
Principle 8: Less waste by-products.
3D printers that work in metal create less waste than do traditional metal manufacturing techniques. Machining metal is highly wasteful as an estimated 90 percent of the original metal gets ground off and ends up on the factory floor. 3D printing is more efficient for metal manufacturing. As printing materials improve, “Net shape” manufacturing could be a greener way to make things.
Principle 9: Infinite shades of materials.
Combining different raw materials into a single product is difficult using today’s manufacturing machines. Since traditional manufacturing machines carve, cut, or mold things into shape, these processes can’t easily blend together different raw materials. As multi-material 3D printing develops, we will gain the capacity to blend and mix different raw materials. New, previously inaccessible blends of raw material offer us a much larger, mostly unexplored palette of materials with novel properties.
Principle 10: Precise physical replication.
A digital music file can be endlessly copied with no loss of audio quality. In the future, 3D printing will extend this digital precision to the world of physical objects. Scanning technology and 3D printing will together introduce high-resolution shape-shifting between the physical and digital worlds. We will scan, edit and duplicate physical objects to create exact replicas or to improve on the original.
Some of these principles already hold true today. Others will come true in the next decade or two (or three). By removing familiar, time-honored manufacturing constraints, printing sets the stage for a cascade of downstream innovation. The 14 chapters, while lucid and understandable to the layman, is not one of those popular books by a self-styled “expert” rushed to press to become a quick bestseller. Over 100 annotations from scientific sources are provided at the end of this serious and fascinating volume that points the way to the future.