By Nick BeJeaux
3D printing is the fastest growing technology today, generating hype and expectations much like the earliest computers did in the mid-twentieth century.
As most important technologies, like the telephones, computers, or the Internet, 3D printers began as a novelty before taking the world of innovation by storm. It emerged in the early ‘80s in, of all places, Japan as a new field of engineering and design called “Additive Manufacturing.” However, the cost of building these machines, not to mention the time needed to program them to make a design, was prohibitive. But that all changed in 2010, as technology finally caught up with the concept.
“It used to be like when computers came out and they took up half a basement, but it got to the consumer level four or five years ago and at that point a lot of people were latching onto it because it was new and cool, but you had to do a lot of the work yourself,” said Mike Brandyberry, a 3D Designer and technology enthusiast. “Makerbot sort of became the Apple of 3D printing and marketed it for the consumer, but even today they’re very expensive. The base model is still around $3,000.”
Brandyberry is also the Maker Space Technology Engineer at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library, which has offered 3D printing services since opening its doors last year. Users pay by the project, and about 10 cents per gram of material used, usually a type of plastic. That’s a fraction of the cost of owning, operating, and maintaining your own printer. In the beginning, many patrons that were aware of the service used it to make toys or knickknacks. The Maker Space in the library, which is not open to the public, is littered with tiny robots, dragon eggs from Game of Thrones, busts of beloved thinkers like Einstein, and complex DNA models – all made on a printer.
But lately the Library has received orders for much more complex projects.
“For the first six to nine months we had the service, we were definitely getting chachkies,” said Brandyberry. “People would download scans of an action figure, or a bracelet, or something just say ‘Hey, look! This is 3D printed!’ But after that initial rush, we’re starting to see some very deliberate designs. We’ve had gear mechanisms come out of the printer – we have no idea what it’s for, they don’t tell us – but it clearly isn’t a toy. Someone is clearly trying to prototype something that was in their head.”
Like computers, 3D printing technology was immensely complicated to operate and expensive to own. After three decades of improvements, the technology has gotten much cheaper (each of the machines in the library cost about $1,500 to $2,000), but the technical know-how to operate them is still not something you can pick up intuitively.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to be like the iPhone, where everyone and their grandma has one,” said Brandyberry. “You still have to be very tech savvy. Forget about maintaining the machine, you have to know how to scan and object with a laser scanner, which is still very pricy, or you have to model it in 3D. That’s a whole different skill set.”
Converting physical object into computer files sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but with a lot of training and practice it is possible. We see it all the time in CGI movies and videogames, but the level of detail requires to print components for a prototype go beyond that of your typical game programmer. The Library has realized this need for training, and so offers courses in 3D Modeling.
Adam St. Pierce is a digital literacy librarian at the main library, and is one of many that teaches adults and children how to use this technology. But the greatest hurdle his students face is pulling and idea out of their head and turning it into a physical form.
“What I teach is an introduction to how 3D modeling works and how to work in a 3D space and begin to create objects,” he said. “People think it’s really cool, and it is, but it requires a lot of special reasoning. Architects and engineers that can do that well make loads of money in the private sector. This is going to be the thing my kids talk about.”
At the end of St. Pierce’s two-hour introduction class, students will have designed a model and received a printed version of it engraved with their name. The Library is looking into offering more advanced courses, but details on that are still being determined.
Brandyberry believes that gaining technical training in this field now will pay in spades later as the technology advances. After all, this is the tech that is making NASA rethink how it will set up colonies on outer planets, how the UN will bring affordable shelter to impoverished regions, and even how to create cheap but durable prosthetics. All of that is before it eventually breaks into manufacturing.
“It’s picking up exponentially because there’s a huge amount of money and excitement behind it,” he said. Especially for rapid prototyping, not only for doing it in-house, but because you’re dramatically cutting down on the risk if industrial espionage, which is a major concern today because most manufacturing is done in China. It my not be on the scale of industrial manufacturing yet, but for prototyping, it’s becoming essential. When it does eventually become the go to for industrial construction, it will change a lot of things.”