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3D Printers Are Building the Future, One Part at a Time

Don't just download music. Download sculpture. Or a bicycle. That's the promise of 3D printing

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Makerbot shot glasses, image courtesy of Flickr user jabella

Used to be that when you heard “3D,” you thought of goofy gimmicks and glasses that would go well with a lampshade on your head. Not any more. In just the past week, news articles detailed important advances made with 3D laser scans: Scientists concluded that teenage T. rex were pretty hefty. Engineers identified which parts of Venice are most at risk of sinking. And police have recreated accident scenes.

But the coolest thing happening with the third dimension involves printers. Yes, printers. A 3D printer works much like your inkjet printer does, only instead of creating a two-dimensional image on a sheet of paper, it builds a physical object by stacking one very thin layer of material on top of another. That’s the idea, anyway. But to me it’s like electricity—let’s call it magic and leave it at that.

The printers are already having an impact in manufacturing. Companies are no longer using them just to create prototypes; they’re making actual parts. In fact, it has been estimated that by 2020, half of the parts used in machines will be designed on a computer and then built by printers. And why not? Printer-produced objects are lighter, cheaper, more energy efficient, result in less waste and can be made from a wider range of materials. They’re also much easier to customize, which has led some to foresee the day when we’ll download products as we now do music, then print them out at home. But first we’ll be able to tweak them into our own special versions.

That flexibility is likely one reason some artists have started using printers to express themselves. Laurie Anderson has included a 3D printer piece in an exhibit now showing in Philadelphia. Micah Ganske is has integrated small plastic printed sculptures into his artwork, which is featured in a show opening next month in New York.

The artist needs only to provide the original design on a computer. The machine does the rest. This raises the prospect of being able to download designs an artist has made available and printing out our own 3D sculptures. That’s happening already on the website Thingiverse, which is loaded with what’s described as “open-source art.”

3D printers are making waves in medicine (prosthetic limbs) food (customized candy) fashion (the first printed bikini) and even the military. (The U.S. Army has reportedly experimented with a mobile printer that could crank out tank or truck parts on the battlefield.) Still, this replication revolution won’t really take hold until we have 3D printers in our homes, just like the PC transformed the Internet into a daily obsession.

That’s where an outfit like MakerBot Industries comes in. Started in Brooklyn almost three years ago, the company hopes to make 3D printers so affordable and personal they’ll become part of our daily lives. It sells a basic model of its Thing-O-Matic, aka the MakerBot, for under $1,000. It fits on a desktop.

MakerBot, which helped launch Thingiverse, has been a big driver in getting artists to dabble in printer sculpting. And it’s the impetus behind a new crowdsourced science project called Project Shellter, where it’s asking people to come up with a design for a shell hermit crabs can use for homes.

But the real sweet spot of makerbotting, as the process has come to be known, may be in schools. Bre Pettis, one of MakerBot’s co-founders and a former teacher, sure thinks so. His take: Let kids design their own things and then actually watch them take shape, and you’ve opened a door to technology and engineering much more personal than any Lego could ever be.

I think he’s on to something.

Prepare to be amazed

Here’s are videos that will give you a taste of what’s possible with 3D printers:

Bonus video: You don’t want to miss this BBC report on two guys who set out to make a working bicycle from parts created by a 3D printer.

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