In the 1970s, the first personal computers did not seem to be very important.  Arguably, it took far more time and energy to get them to do something than was ever saved by using them.  Nonetheless, tinkerers all over the place talked about how important they were going to be. 

By the mid-1980s, they actually started being useful, and by the 1990s, they had begun transforming our lives.  Secretarial pools, travel agents, newspaper classified ads, and letters sent through postal mail have largely become anacronisms, and the technology has changed almost every area of our life.

But when we look at popular technologies that have come along since, they have been evolutionary, not revolutionary, despite what the ads say.  iPods, iPhones and iPads have just made some functions of personal computers available when you are not in front of a traditional computer.

But this week I got to play with a technology I believe may be truly transformative.  The device in question is called a 3D printer.  Calling it a printer is a bit misleading.  It creates three dimensional objects, in the case of the one I played with, out of ABS plastic, from a 3D model downloaded to it from a computer. 

Professional 3D printers exist, but they are expensive.  They start somewhere around $25-$30K.  But some NYC hackers created a kit to build one for less than $1000, popularly known as a MakerBot (the actual name is the Cupcake; MakerBot Industries is the name of their company), and they’ve been selling out each production run months ahead of time for the last year.  That’s what I got to play with.  You can see an object I printed below:

 MakerBot CS logo

The triangle is the actual object, the logo of Crash Space,
a hackerspace in Los Angeles. The frame underneath is
called a “raft” and is there to prevent curling as it cools.
The raft is peeled off and discarded.

The Cupcake is a machine you do a fair amount of futzing with in order to get it tuned in perfectly.  Once you do that, it runs well, but getting there can take a bit of work.  And the parts it creates sometimes are less polished than ones molded in a factory.  But if the technology evolves over the next decade in any way similar to how personal computers did in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the world will be a different place.  Here’s an example:

Twelve-year-old Julie buys a new cell phone.  They ship her the guts of it (a circuit board with a display and keyboard attached), and expect her to get the case for it separately.  She looks online, and finds a design she likes.  She edits the design, adding her name and a butterfly embossed on it.  She pays a license fee for the design, and then either prints out the case on the family 3D printer,  or goes to Ginko’s Copy Shop and has them print it for her.  She prints it in bright pink plastic that matches her room. 

Meanwhile, a fitting has broken on the dishwasher.  Her father dowloads the part data from the appliance manufacturer’s website and prints out the part.  Julie’s birthday party is the following weekend, and her mother prints out personalized party favors for the party shaped like butterflies (Julie likes butterflies). 

Does this sound fantastic?  Well, a MakerBot 3D printer was used about a month ago to create a replacement part for a dishwasher, though the manufacturer did not have a 3D model or even the plans available online.  At least for MakerBot tinkerers, this vision of the future is already becoming a reality.

I’m currently designing brackets to mount my cell phone and iPod in the car, which I’m hoping to print out soon (yes, I do know how geeky this sounds).  Meanwhile, the MakerBot folks announced the successor to the Cupcake this week, called the Think-O-Matic.  It can print slightly larger objects, has more accuracy, and has a small conveyor belt to move completed objects off the printing surface, so printing the next object can continue uninterrupted.  If you are interested in learning more, you can read their press release or watch a MakerBot in action.  Get ready for the future, here it comes!