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Radical technology looks set to turn consumers into creators, cutting out waste, packaging and miles.
There are disruptive technologies, and then there are insanely disruptive technologies. Without much fanfare, one of the latter is coming down the road, and it could be as transformative as, oh, the personal computer.
The technology is 3D printing, which is exactly what it sounds like. Imagine your standard printer placing one layer of material on top of another, according to a strict template, leaving you with complete objects – mouse traps, shower curtains, whatever you were just about to add to that endless list…
It’s an idea that has sparked scientists’ imagination since 1986, when Charles Hull patented the first apparatus for ‘stereolithography’ (his name for it). Today, it’s almost a case of, ‘you name it: they’ve printed it’. MIT has designed a ready meal printer for waste-free gastronomy, giving you the perfect balance of taste, texture and aesthetics every time; the Forgacslab, University of Missouri, has printed human cells layer upon layer to give the first artificial vein; and German company EOS printed the body of a violin from an industrial polymer that looks (and, more crucially, sounds) like good old wood.
Now, 3D printing is set to take manufacturing out of the factory and into your living room. Price levels for these domestic gods are dipping towards affordability, with the Thing-o-Matic from US-based startup Makerbot on the market for $1,299. It’ll print anything from a chess set to a model Gothic cathedral, with all the detail of its intricate interior. The Thing-o-Matic uses thin threads of plastic as its raw material, including polylactic acid: a compostable, corn-based polymer. The material is heated and then deposited in neat rows, according to instructions from a template on a USB cable or memory card. Almost any product can now be scanned and transformed into a template using free opensource software from Meshlab.
The environmental implications are considerable. Today’s consumer economy is premised on mass remote manufacturing. In terms of energy and resource consumption, the efficiencies of scale rarely justify the waste it generates. Then there’s the fuel required to ship the products across the world, and the packaging to make sure they arrive on the shelf in one piece, and the marketing to persuade the consumer that, yes, they really did need a fancy new cheese grater – or, even worse, a set of two…
According to CEO and co-founder Bre Pettis, Makerbot has a “profoundly subversise” mission: to democratise the manufacture of goods.
“It’s a radical notion that has at its heart a bracing vision of people as creators, not consumers. No more marching in lockstep to buy stuff at Wal-Mart!” Instead they’ll be asking, ‘Can I Makerbot it…?’
Next up? Researches are taking home-printing to scale with building fabrication. The California Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies hopes to 3D-print a custom-designed house, in no more than a day. – Carl Frankel
Photo credit: David Neff