2013 may go down as the year when 3D printing went mainstream.
More stories on the technology started popping up on media outlets other than tech-centric blogs. Controversies erupted over 3D-printed firearms and how they would be covered by an extension of a ban on plastic guns. Meanwhile, scientists and physicians began speculating on how soon full-size human organs could be created using the technology.
But in the Fremont studios of Makerhaus—a headquarters for Seattle’s maker movement that celebrates technology’s impact on art, engineering and design—co-founders Ellie and Mike Kemery just want to give local residents a chance to make 3D-printed gifts for the holidays if they sign up for Saturday classes.
“3D printing is where desktop publishing was about 20 years ago,” said Mike as he demonstrates one of Makerhaus’ two printers. A small figure of a seal that was born on a software program in a nearby laptop computer slowly comes to life, layer by layer. The material is plastic, but Kemery says glass and metals can also be used in the process.
“Plastics are the most common right now,” he said. “It’s the most simple to print. The materials science is going to evolve and really expand.”
That’s just one part of the explanation as to why the technology is becoming more accessible. As with the early days of desktop publishing, software was the initial barrier to entry. Yet as its price goes down and it becomes easier to use.
“That barrier’s coming down,” he said. “It used to be for engineers, but now it’s really simple. Mainstream people all over can just download the software and actually use it and run it. So it’s become this wild and magical thing, and there is a big attraction to it and it’s catching on.”
That creaking sound you hear may be a range of industries—art, medicine, retail, engineering—in the early stages of disruption thanks to 3D printing. Toys and jewelry are first on that list, and Kemery envisions a time when someone needing a plumbing part that would have involved a trip to Home Depot could instead download the software from that company’s website and print it themselves on their home 3D machine. Those living in remote areas would simply need a printer and broadband access to replicate replacement parts for appliances and home systems.
“It won’t be a blanket replacement for everything, because the material and the engineering behind a lot of products need to be just so for them to function properly and eliminate any liability,” Kemery said. “But there are a lot of simple non-intelligent products that people will be able to just print on their own.”
Ellie Kemery added that with many patents for certain products expiring soon, 3D technology could break down even more barriers “for people to bring ideas to life.” And with the growth of handheld scanners, “you don’t even need to know CAD (computer assisted drawing). You can literally just scan whatever it is you’re trying to replicate.”
When it comes to art, “many people as artists sculpt physically in clay, and others sculpt digitally,” Mike Kemery said. The new .STL (for stereolithography) format for 3D printing, which is supported in Windows 8 software, could become as common as JPEGs. Others print 3D objects and then cast them in metal, bridging new and traditional artforms.
As with any rapidly-growing technology’s journey to the mainstream, legal and ethical issues may have to play catchup, as is seen in the debate over 3D-printed weapons and the ban on plastic guns.
“The analogy is like the music industry, when Napster came out and people were actually downloading songs for free. Especially with scanning, this is opening up that potential,” Kemery said, referring to the ramifications for protected intellectual property.
“With any technology that’s disruptive and brand new, people just kind of wait to see how it pans out, and then I think the legal system does what it needs to do.”