Printing: Now in 3-D

Sometime in the distant future an avid tinkerer could — for the cost of a low-end automobile — purchase a machine that turns his ideas into three-dimensional objects. This same backyard mechanic could then access a global, user-generated database of plans that would allow his polymer manipulating micro factory to print objects from designs others have uploaded. He could do all of this without leaving the comfort of his suburban workshop.

Although it sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel, 3-D printing is already here. If you have $2,500, a passing knowledge of how to use a computer numerical controlled (CNC) machine and a spool of ABS plastic, you too could be printing objects on the Makerbot CupCake, a 3-D printer that comes pre-constructed. If the price is holding you back, but you know which end of the soldering iron is the hot one, the CupCake is “made from a 100 per cent open source design that can be freely downloaded,” allowing you to build your own. If you’re not exactly that ambitious, another popular option is the $750 kit, containing all the parts and plans.
It’s not the only desktop 3-D printer offered by MakerBot Industries, a Brooklyn-based company started by Bre Pettis of Makezine fame. He is also known for starting the hacker collective NYCResistor, which aims to build DIY communities and share knowledge about electronics. According to, Pettis has compared the CupCake to the legendary Altair 8800, the first affordable home computer.

It’s not exactly groundbreaking technology, as 3-D printers have long been used by the design industry, but the simplicity and affordability may very well cause a revolution.

The CupCake works like any other three dimensional printer, adding thin layers of plastic one on top of another to create the object of your choice. Its name reflects the size limit of what it can fabricate; it “won’t be able to make anything larger than a cupcake.”

Even with the size limit, the possibilities seem near endless. Have you ever had a clasp, buckle, battery cover or other plastic bit break or go missing? Instead of having to scour the Internet, hoping that the manufacturer offers a replacement, with a 3-D printer you can simply make the missing part. With a vibrant online community, chances are someone has already uploaded the design. Thingiverse, an online plan repository, lets you download plans for anything from planetary gears, lens caps, tool holders, to tiny gothic cathedrals.

With the quickly declining costs and incredible rise in access to 3-D printers, we can be sure that they will find their way into our daily lives. There is already heavy interest in 3-D technology in both the medical and architectural fields.

The Walter Reed Army Medical Center has pioneered a procedure for creating facial prosthetics. Instead of using a plaster cast, “doctors can use an imaging device, essentially a 3-D camera, along with software that creates a map of the person’s face with the corresponding prosthetic. The 3-D printer can then print out a mask that surgeons can use as a guide for reconstructive surgery.” At MIT there is research being done to create more precise pharmaceuticals. The printers allow pharmacists to create “complex drug release profiles, precise dosage control, and rapid formulation and re-invention without costly waste.”

Enrico Dino, a civil engineer, has designed “a full scale 3-D printing method that uses epoxy to bind sand.” With this he can create huge and complex shapes without the constraints of traditional building materials. With the strength of reinforced concrete, and the ability to work with various types of sand, 3-D printing may offer a cost effective method to house the world’s growing population.

It’s no surprise that three-dimensional fabrication is taking off. With the current emphasis on localization and de-centralization, manufacturing may move from the sprawling overseas factory to the “hackerspace” down the street. Add to that the immense freedom that low-cost prototyping gives to tinkerers, mechanics, designers and students, and there could be a manufacturing revolution. The next product you buy could be made, on demand, to your exacting specifications to suit your needs.