A revolutionary idea

The MakerBot, seen here at Bridgewire, helped jumpstart the hackerspace movement.

The MakerBot, seen here at Bridgewire, helped jumpstart the hackerspace movement.

With 3-D printers, users can make almost anything they desire—maybe even guns. Maybe even kidneys.

I first saw a MakerBot in action last year at Bridgewire, the hackerspace/makerspace in Sparks (“Life hacks,” Nov. 10, 2011). It was printing whistles. Then, this summer, the University of Nevada, Reno’s DeLaMare Library became the first academic library in the country to offer 3-D printing in its facility. Suddenly, Reno had become a hub for hackers, with 3-D printers at the helm.

The name “3-D printer” is kind of a misnomer. It’s more of a fabricator, using successive layers of fluid material, like plastic, to make shapes—either simple shapes, like a fork or a spoon, or complex single shapes like a mesh hand. Take it another step and make parts for more complex machines.

The first item I printed was a companion cube, the iconic object from the video game franchise Portal. To do so, I went on Thingiverse.com, a huge database of open-source, user-made designs, and searched for the design I wanted. Then, I downloaded the file and the library staff showed me how to send the data to the printer. A couple of days later, my companion cube was ready. Recently, I’ve been using Google SketchUp to design a case for a solar powered cell phone charger so I don’t have to keep modding Altoids containers. I’ve also planned to design and print my own wedding ring when the time comes.

Oh, and by the way, I studied English in college, so I’m not exactly a pro at engineering. I do research technology in graduate school, so I guess I’m not a total noob, but really, if I can do this stuff, anyone can do it. I’m more interested in how 3-D printing, hackerspaces and the maker movement affect the way we think about the world and the way we choose to contribute to it. As I see it now, as a self-proclaimed technophile and cyberpunk, the future will come in pieces—either broken pieces, or parts of a whole, or perhaps both. And it will take everyone to put those pieces together.

Single unit production

A student-made design printed from DeLaMare Library’s Stratasys machine.

Despite its name, the MakerBot is not, in fact, a robot. It’s a 3-D printing device that prints a variety of objects, including parts to build other MakerBots. The idea of robots creating other robots is certainly evocative of Terminator or Battlestar Galactica, which is either terrifying or awesome depending on how nerdy you are. The first model of the MakerBot cost less than $2,500. It was built a couple of years after the development of the RepRap, established back in 2005 by Adrian Bower, a professor at the University of Bath. Bower made the machine’s design open source, which means that anyone could download the plans and build a RepRap of his or her own, which is exactly what people did. The MakerBot and the Fab@home project are also open source.

3-D printers had been around since the 1980s, but were limited to manufacturing firms, given that the printers cost around $200,000. But the creators of the RepRap and subsequently, the MakerBot, followed the path of the personal computer by making the machines affordable, compact and efficient. Depending on the object, it takes a matter of hours or days to create an item. Tod Colegrove, head of the DeLaMare Library, likens the process of printing to “squeezing frosting from a bag.” Material—DeLaMare’s printers use ABS plastic, the same used often in plumbing—is heated and squeezed out in layers, building upon each layer until the structure of an item forms. According to Colegrove, the two printers—the 3D Touch and the Stratasys uPrint SE+—have been going nonstop since they were opened to the university in August. The Stratasys has been printing for more than 2,000 hours, and Colegrove notes that the “+” means that the machine can print items with materials of different colors. On display at the library are objects printed, and sometimes designed by, students and faculty at the university, such as a skull, geometric shapes, an ice tray, and a little green bust of Yoda.

Like the printing press and the personal computer, 3-D printers have been hailed as a revolutionary device that will ultimately transform the way the world operates. Chris Anderson, author and editor of Wired magazine, calls 3-D printing and the maker movement “the new industrial revolution” in his new book, Makers. Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED), the organization that hosts TED Talks, called 2012 “the year of the 3-D printer,” and hosted several popular talks on 3-D printers—including, most notably, a talk by surgeon Anthony Atala called “Printing a human kidney” about the potential to print organs. This year, people around the world have printed thousands of objects using the printer technology. Recently, architects printed pieces of a house, a new aspect of pre-fabricated homes. Hobby scientists printed shells for hermit crabs whose real shells have been destroyed, providing a reusable, more durable home for the creatures. Even food has been tested with the machines, including burritos constructed by the BurritoBot.

But perhaps it’s not so much a revolution as an evolution—the natural progress of technology, manufacturing, computing, art and commerce. Given the resources of the internet, it’s not the only tool available transforming the way we access products, information or new businesses. Services like PayPal function like online banks, providing its own credit service and issuing debit cards. The popularity of self-publishing exploded after on-demand printing sites like Lulu and CreateSpace gave authors the opportunity to upload files, design covers using a template, and order copies of the book to distribute themselves, or list them for sale on the web. This, along with smartphones, e-readers and tablets, has allowed anyone to become a published author. Etsy, eBay and Amazon help people sell and trade goods, including handmade or vintage items. And websites like SkillShare or the Khan Academy provide free access to education through the form of open source videos and web-based meetups.

“The beauty of the web is that it democratized the tools both of invention and of production,” writes Anderson in Makers. “Anyone with an idea for a service can turn it into a product with some software code (these days it hardly even requires much programming skill, and what you need you can learn online)—no patent required. Then, with a keystroke, you can ‘ship it’ to a global market of billions of people.”

And such, the process of rapid prototyping has become a metaphor for the modern era—experimenting until a perfect item can be scientifically constructed, and using open-source plans to do so. It’s redefined what innovation means—not just development of new ideas, but building off of other’s ideas. It’s both collaborative and competitive. The process of 3-D printing is very much rooted in interdisciplinary skills—it takes knowledge of computer-aided design (CAD), engineering, graphic design, sculpture, architecture and materials science, to name a few. It’s equally about science and art, and anyone can be an artist, an inventor and an entrepreneur. 3-D printing, and the hacker/maker movement as a whole, is revitalizing the way people learn and what they want to learn.

In that sense, it’s not just a new industrial revolution. It’s a renaissance.

Students have been printing items to study, including diagrams of molecules and geometric shapes.

New dimensions

Lisa Kurt, engineering and emerging technology librarian at the University of Nevada, Reno’s DeLaMare Library (“Multidimensional,” 15 Minutes, Aug. 2), certainly thinks so.

“We hear a lot, ‘How is this going to fit into a learning environment?’” Kurt says. “Part of it very much is that you often hear in a very general way, like ‘You’re preparing students today to get out into the work force but they will hold jobs that we don’t even know what those jobs are right now.’ It’s good to think that’s how the future is. That is how things are. I think the 3-D printer is sort of along those lines that we don’t even know yet or have even really tapped into what’s possible overall with 3-D printers—in society, like the big picture, not just in higher ed. I think in general we don’t even know yet where it’s going to take us.”

Libraries have been quick to embrace the model of hackerspaces, revitalizing the library’s role in a community. Kurt says that by offering 3-D printing, among other innovative resources, libraries have a new purpose.

Bridgewire member Jeremy Osborn first heard about open source 3-D printing three years ago when the RepRap was announced. He and two of his friends built one each. Most recently, Osborn has been handling much of the maintenance of the MakerBot at Bridgewire, but now also has his own MakerBot at home. Throughout the next couple of months, Osborn will be presenting on 3-D printers at most of the area’s public libraries. He says the libraries approached him about holding workshops after Bridgewire hosted an open house during Artown.

“Basically, I’ll be talking about the history of 3-D printing, what it’s used for, the role of hackerspaces and the maker movement,” he says. “But there’s also a lot to say about the consequences on intellectual property—the distribution of files being turned into physical options. Ideas which libraries are familiar with.”

According to Osborn, some people take to the idea more quickly than others.

Yoda, printed on the 3-D Touch.

“During Artown, people were interested in the art aspect of it,” he says. “Engineers tend to see the value immediately. The general public takes a bit longer to convince, mostly because they don’t really know what it is, but then they see products to put in their hands immediately. Kids see value immediately. They want to make custom toys as soon as they see it.”

Kurt says that the word has spread fast about the printers, and students and faculty from all departments are thinking of uses for it in their fields.

“Through this process, you just learn so much,” she says. “People are really delving into, ‘What is learning?’ I mean, it’s just interesting to see how much people are taking ownership over learning. Look at all the stuff that’s out there, like online courses where you can earn badges. That’s great incentive, but people are excited because they want to learn stuff. We have a lot of people here who have never heard of 3-D printing. We show them around. We point them to software to try out. … There’s a student building costumes for a movie he’s working on. This is a kid who’d never heard of 3-D printing. I think he studies criminal justice. But now he can also put 3-D printing on his resume.”

The open, cross-disciplinary aspect of printing is also demonstrative for the transformation of the economy—by creating a more diverse, well-rounded workforce.

“Tools are liberating design, but so are people,” writes Yves Behar in the newest issue of Wired magazine. “We have become participants on social platforms that allow us to collaborate and customize and create, and in the process we’ve become expert collaborators, customizers and creators. This ever-more-free design is speeding the adoption of new ideas, which in turn disrupt old industries. Designers, coders and entrepreneurs are challenging notions that sustainability is expensive, that technology is hard to use, that quality is exclusive. No segment of the economy will be left untouched.”

In this sense, 3-D printing is antithetical to the free market, because open source is founded in the idea of redistribution. Manufacturing is democratized. But it also creates a new type of free market, where people have to think way outside the box in order to compete. In either case, it gives people direct access to their products.

“There’s kind of an ‘anything’s possible’ attitude right now, which is awesome,” says Kurt. “And so I think people are trying to figure out new business models, small businesses, going back to this idea that you’re kind of an entrepreneur and an inventor of something. Now you can actually build prototypes for yourself, and you can either pitch that to a company or you can outright make yourself a product. You can either make it available online and sell it that way, or make it open source, but there’s also things like Etsy where you can print things for people and sell things that way. If you are able to do large scale printing, for example, Nervous System [a design studio], they’ve come up with a model where they are able to print a number of things and offer jewelry and vases and artwork and lamps and all kinds of things they can sell. They sell them on their own website. There are numerous venues for those ideas. That’s what I feel is kind of changing, that it’s taking people that have these new ideas that are making things I think maybe, say 15 years ago, would be kind of stuck just going to their local craft fairs or open studios or trying to sell their stuff in this word-of-mouth way. But now they can have a web presence. The internet has changed a lot of the way people sell things”—things like electronic parts, tools or home decor, and yes, sex toys. And also, weapons.

Tod Colegrove checks on the condition of items being printed in the Stratasys machine in the DeLaMare Library.

The peoples’ printer

For projects like the Wiki Weapon project—its tagline “Defense distributed”—embracing 3-D printing is an all-or-nothing deal. The Wiki Weapon aims to make gun schematics free to download, where anyone could upload the designs to a printer and assemble their own gun. While working models of assault rifles have been built, it’s far from perfected technology.

The project released a video in July, and the backlash was immediate. But despite the fear that surrounds the notion of the independent, mass producing weaponry, people have been building their own weapons—including guns and bombs—for decades using scrap objects and household chemicals. Publications like the Anarchist Cookbook have provided instructions for homemade weapons for decades before the information became available on the internet.

But for most people, it’s an act of curiosity and a challenge to emulate the function of a firearm. Like lockpicking, a popular competition in hackerspaces (“Throw away the key,” Jan. 19), it’s more about learning the ins and outs of how guns work and less about intending to harm others.

Kurt says that as a librarian, it’s important to her to not judge or censor what people want to print. To do so would go against her role to inspire creativity and curiosity in the library. The only weapons printed at the library have been throwing stars made from ABS plastic.

But part of the hacker mentality is about protection against forces out of our control—knowing how we can build the infrastructure on which we depend—and the ability to print weapons seems to demonstrate the entire purpose of keeping 3-D printing open source.

The Wiki Weapon’s website’s skirts the questions of legality and morality. In response to the question, “Are you making guns for people?” the site’s frequently asked questions replies “Is giving you a blueprint for a house the same as building that house for you?”

The FAQ goes on to say, “Guns prove out some of our younger generations’ beliefs about information and sharing at an extremity. If we truly believe information should be free, that the internet is the last bastion of freedom and knowledge, and that societies that share are superior to societies that censor and withhold, then why not guns? The firearm has pride of place in underlining an individual’s significance as a moral agent.”

Weaponry is not the only morally gray area of 3-D printing. Environmentalists are concerned with producing more objects made with non-recyclable materials. Others question the ethics and safety of printing human organs using biomaterials. And the legality of what can be printed and how—or if—to regulate products on the market has been an issue since the early days of file sharing. With apps like 123-D, a 3-D modeling app created by Autodesk, a person can simply take photos of an object and upload it to a printer. What’s to stop someone from printing parts to build an iPhone? Theoretically, there will be a day where there is nothing that can’t be printed.

Some researchers believe this will lead to a shift in perspective. Maybe it won’t be so important to trademark and protect designs. Maybe commerce will become less about unique, closed source designs and more like a trade economy. And Kurt says it’s unlikely that everyone everywhere will be even remotely interested in 3-D printing, especially since there are still many people worldwide without computer access.

But for all of the movement’s gray areas, the world seems more excited about the potential of 3-D printers than concerned. Many information technology activists are starting to claim that having access a 3-D printer will become a right, similar to the fight to keep the internet uncontrolled and uncensored. Projects like 3D4D Challenge aim to use printing to solve problems around the world by holding a contest to find practical applications for 3-D printed objects.

“It really seems to be a movement just continuously growing,” Kurt says. “So how do we support that? People are uncertain of how much this technology will really change. In a way, it’s revolutionary, but that depends on what we do with it. It’s kind of about having that spark of, ‘Maybe it won’t work’ in the long run. But maybe it will.”