Coming Soon ...

Monday, May 07, 2007

... to a Home Office Factory Near You!

I recall seeing a very primitive, early version of one of these in an industrial museum in Europe about twenty years ago. (I think it was in West Germany.) The item it was laboriously making looked more like a three-dimensional contour map than a smooth, attractive, "normal" object, and it seemed like it would take all day for it to be done, too. The aesthetic difference between then and now reminds me of the difference in graphics quality between the early Atari video games and World of Warcraft, square edges and all.

I was vaguely aware that these were seeing industrial use, but I was pleasantly surprised and mildly intrigued to learn that three-dimensional printers will soon be cheap enough to have in your own home:

Three-dimensional printers have been seen in industrial design shops for about a decade. They are used to test part designs for cars, airplanes, and other products before they are sent to manufacturing. Once well over $100,000 each, such machines can now be had for $15,000. In the next two years, prices are expected to fall further, putting the printers in reach of small offices and even corner copy stores.

The next frontier will be the home. One company that wants to be the first to deliver a 3-D printer for consumers is Desktop Factory, started by IdeaLab. The company will start selling its first printer for $4,995 this year.

Bill Gross, chairman of IdeaLab, says the technology it has developed, which uses a halogen light bulb to melt nylon powder, will allow the price of the printers to fall to $1,000 in four years.

"We are Easy-Bake Ovening a 3-D model," he said. "The really powerful thing about this idea is that the fundamental engineering allows us to make it for $300 in materials."

Others are working on the same idea.

"In the future, everyone will have a printer like this at home," said Hod Lipson, a professor at Cornell University, who has led a project that published a design for a 3-D printer that can be made with about $2,000 in parts. "You can imagine printing a toothbrush, a fork, a shoe. Who knows where it will go from here?" [bold added]
It's that last line I like. Anything to save me from making a needless trip to the store is a winner in my book!

-- CAV


: Replaced original, already-expired link from the Houston Chronicle with one from the New York Times. For the curious, CNN runs a similar story.


Sid said...

Damn, article gives a 404.

About the last line, I was wondering: Sure, you can print a shoe or a fork, but will you be able to actually use it? I think not.

The sturdiest and best looking shoes are leather ones (REAL leather ones), and unless a new and better synthetic material is invented, I don't think this is going to change.

Same with forks and other cutlery. I'd take a steel or silver fork over a plastic fork any day (and so will most people, I suspect).

About games: There's been a huge change in the quality of graphics, especially in the past few years. The latest demos are jaw-droppingly beautiful.

<rant> However, the complaint that gameplay is being forsaken for graphics seems to be somewhat valid. Very few games released these days interest me. I find myself going back to the old classics (I'm talking about 5 to 25 year old stuff) over and over again.

Will the same happen to photography and printing? Some photographs we see right now are aesthetic and technical masterpieces. In the future, will we see people focusing more on getting the 3D right than on capturing the content in the best manner possible? </rant>

On a related note: 2D games have all but died out. Will the same happen to 2D printing?

At the risk of sounding cheesy, the future holds exciting times, indeed.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you for mentioning the dead link. I found one that works at the New York Times Try that one. In my update, I also noticed a similar article at CNN, which I have also linked.

Regarding shoes, I started having a similar thought to yours, but realized that this is something that will be possible in a later iteration of these printers than the first generation, if it can happen at all.

What will be interesting to see is whether new techniques and materials will start coming out of the web from tinkering users in much the same process of distributed development as we see with open source software. Since basic knowledge of materials science strikes me as less widespread than familiarity with software, this seems less likely to me, but we may find out otherwise in a couple of decades. Maybe people will become motivated to study after a few ignorant early adopters set their own houses ablaze.

On games: I noticed how addictive and time-consuming these could be at a very young age and played them only briefly in the mid to late 1980s, so I have to guess here, but I would suspect that the tradeoff of intellectual sophistication for fancy graphics is, besides being a little of a "new toy" phenonmenon, a cultural phenomenon related to the wider availability of the games combined with the general mindlessness of American pop culture, which I am sure heavily influences the game development process worldwide.

Greg said...

Regarding game play I disagree. Halo 2 and the Wii really speak for themselves. If you have not played Halo 2 on XBOX Live then you have no idea what video game competition is.

Sid said...

Yes, Halo 2 multiplayer is great. Multiplayer alone does not make a classic, however. How many people are going to remember it, say, 10 or 15 years from now? There's going to be a new multiplayer game that will be all the rage, and Halo 2 will be quickly forgotten.

There are games, like some of the games of the Zelda, Mario and Final Fantasy series, that people still remember as if they were released yesterday. These are the classics I was talking about, and there have been disappointingly few released in the past few years.

The Wii is an innovative idea, and one that actually focuses less on graphics, thereby validating my point somewhat. The games right now seem to have the "new toy" problem that Gus mentioned. Who knows, the Wii may actually see a multitude of classics because of its limitations.

In any case, this is hardly the place to be discussing gaming.

Gus Van Horn said...

Hmmm. Since I usually answer comments, I'll briefly say that it is alright with me to continue the discussion if you are so inclined. It's a little off-topic, but it did grow from the original post, and I did have to moderate your comments on gaming. My silence on the topic is due simply to the fact that, not being a gamer, I have little to contribute to the discussion.

Having said that, I should have phrased, "... I would suspect that the tradeoff of intellectual sophistication for fancy graphics is ..." in my last comment as "... I would suspect that any tradeoff of intellectual sophistication for fancy graphics is ... ".

I am sure that there is plenty of junk (Grand Theft Auto strikes me as such -- but I have only seen ads for it.), but almost equally sure that not everything is dumbed down or burdened by "new toy syndrome", or at least not equally so....