Sunday, September 28, 2014

On-Demanding People: From 3D-Printing Revolution to 4D-Printing Evolution

by Drew Martin
Last winter my youngest kid, then six years old, asked for a 3D printer as a holiday gift. His intention was to make figurines to add to his collection of store-bought Angry Birds paraphernalia. He was not confronted by business demands, and he did not need a TED Talk to seed a vision, it simply made sense to him: why get a box of toys when you can get something that will make boxes of toys? I have not bought him one...yet. Maybe a new term for 
demanding millennial kids should be on-demanding kids.

I like the phrase technological advance because it signifies not only a departure from the current state but also movement towards something else that is predetermined. The 3D printer has already been played out in science fiction, including the replicator in Star Trek, and even in mythologies and old stories such as the gold-egg-laying goose in Jack and the Beanstalk. The "revolution" of 3D printing, a technology that has been around and in use for decades, is that it is coming to your home.

The parallel to personal computers is uncanny. My millennial teenage kids are in the same position with 3D printing as I was at their age with computers. I had early access in the 1970s to the first computers through my father's nuclear lab, and yet at that time there was the question of why you would ever need or even want one in your home. Once the size and price dropped, it just happened. And like the early trinkets of 3D printing, the first real instance of computers in homes was through video games. Playfulness aside, they also introduced intense graphic user interfaces at least a decade before Apple caught on to it for their Macs.

In ten years' time, everyone who has a reason for owning a computer now, will own a 3D printer and companies such as Home Depot need to get on board and have as much of their inventory scanned/modeled as possible, otherwise they will go the way of Borders Books, Blockbuster Video, and Tower Records. Why would I jump in a car and drive ten miles to pick up some plastic hooks or a screwdriver when I can just print them out?

I watched an interesting documentary yesterday on Netflix, called Print the Legend, about the two forces behind desktop 3D printing: Makerbot (pictured top) and Form Labs (pictured second from top), and the guys that are running these companies, Bre Pettis and Maxim Lobovsky, respectively.

Makerbot, which uses extrusion-based technology, is the more popular of the two and has a larger market share, but Form Labs uses a more-advanced system, laser-sintering stereolithography, and spits out a better product. Extrusion works by squeezing heated plastic through a nozzle, whereas stereolithography uses a laser to polymerize and harden a liquid resin. 
You can see the difference in quality and prices of the systems as shown in the comparison of rooks (pictured middle) made by these desktop printers, along with the one made on a 3D Systems industrial printer. Better is about quality of the material used and "resolution," which is the quality of the end piece. We are all familiar with image quality differences in the world of digital images, so one could say that the Makerbot end product is lower resolution and has a rough, almost pixelated look, compared to Form Labs.

In addition to Pettis and Lobovsky, another main character in this story is Cody Wilson, a free-market anarchist, and guns-right activist, partially shown here (pictured second from bottom) holding the first 3D-printed gun, The Liberator, made with a Makerbot. Pettis refuses to address the topic of guns printed with his machines. After Cody's video about The Liberator went viral, Pettis splashed around a feel-good story about Robohand, a prosthetic (pictured bottom) made with the Makerbot, for kids born without fingers. In the end, The Liberator was more of a sensation with 3,700,000 views compared to 484,000 views for Robohand. If Wilson is a thorn in the industry's side, it is in the right place. During the divided national argument about acquiring guns, he simply made one. He slyly disrupted a disruptive technology.

In the end, this documentary is really a story about the personalities of Pettis, Lobovsky, and Wilson. Pettis is pitched as the next Steve Jobs, and there is much time devoted to him turning his back on his friends and cofounders in order to build a bigger company. There is also a change of character the other way around. Avi Reichental, CEO of 3D Systems, at first tries to crush Lobovsky's Form Labs with a lawsuit for copyright infringement but then comes around and decides to be more open with his company. One of the strongest human voices in all of this is Nadia Cheng, Lobovsky's girlfriend, who questions the emotional tools of her boyfriend and other entrepreneurs out to "change the world."

I think the technology will be especially interesting when the units become mobile. I am thinking about how spiders operate their three pairs of spinners, and can emit different substances, such as a sticky or a non sticky thread. Picture automated spiderbots spinning latticed footbridges in remote places, or safety netting on construction sites.

Even more fascinating is 4D printing, which is about programming physical materials to build themselves. This would have infinite applications from nano and micro needs to the built environment with construction, infrastructure, and manufacturing. S
elf assembly is a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure through only local interaction. Materials can be programmed to assume a desired geometry once they are activated by energy sources such as heat, movement, pneumatics, gravity, and/or magnetics.

Click here to watch Skylar Tibbits TED Talk, the Emergence of "4D Printing."

Click here to watch the trailer for Print a Legend