Around these machines, as with any new technology, you find an excitable crowd
of hobbyists and visionaries, industrialists and revolutionaries. Tuning
into the hubbub tends to induce anxiety: is it really possible that before
the decade is out, we’ll be printing out iPhones in our printed-out homes?
There are university researchers and garage tinkerers around the world
who’ll tell you yes, we’re working on ways to print out electrical circuits
or clear glass or concrete walls.
The farther reaches of 3D printing have a whiff of science- fiction about
them. Enrico Dini is an exuberant Italian engineer who wants to build houses
using a giant printer that creates organic, Gaudi-esque structures using a
mixture of sand and binding agent. His company is based in London, “because
I wanted to approach the private equity companies in the UK. Also I was in
love, for a woman, but this is another story.” The technical and logistical
problems of Dini’s D-Shape printer are immense – transporting vast
quantities of sand, for one – and the financial ones even greater since the
recession. Dini fears that big companies are already working on rival
projects, waiting to enter the field at the right moment. “They have the
capital to do 100 times better than me what I did,” he says.
Such is Dini’s passion for the technology that nothing will put a stopper on
his ambitions. His latest project is to build a Foster and Partners-designed
structure on the moon using a 3D printer working with binder and moon dust.
The first deep vacuum trials were a success. (Last summer, an object – a
spanner – was printed in zero gravity for the first time; being able to
manufacture complex objects quickly, and with little human intervention,
mean that 3D printing is an ideal outer-space technology.) “If I don’t put
my life on the table to demonstrate today that this is feasible,” he says,
“everything might become a flop.” So he carries on.
Space igloos will always be more appealing than eggcups. But what’s happening
at the lower end of the 3D printing market is just as radical as what’s
going on at the top end, if for different reasons.
You might not know anyone with a 3D printer yet, but, says Neil Gershenfeld,
head of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, “digital personal fabrication has been growing exponentially,
and the ways these exponentials work is that there’s a kind of barrier to
perception. You may think nothing’s happening and then suddenly there’s a
revolution.” Brooklyn-based MakerBot has sold around 6,000 machines, to
tech-savvy early adopters like the aforementioned eggcup maker, Brendan
Dawes. But we don’t know how many 3D printers there are out there – some,
like the RepRap, can make their own parts and reproduce themselves. Bowyer
designed them to be “evolutionarily stable”: RepRaps offer people goods so
that people will build them, just as flowers offer bees nectar so that
they’ll carry their pollen.
Another problem with the perception of desktop 3D printers is that the things
people are making at home right now don’t look that exciting. Take the
Thingiverse, a website where people upload photographs and design files of
things they’ve designed and made themselves. There are plastic kittens.
Plastic door stops. Plastic plant pots. Plastic toy planes. Plastic widgets
and encoder wheels and screw isolators and servo wheels, individual parts to
improve your printer but not much else.
But just when your inner cynic starts to kick in, because homemade plastic
tchotchkes don’t look much more appealing than ones made in Taiwan, someone
will tell you a cautionary tale. Gershenfeld invokes the name of Ken Olsen.
The head of a company called the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), in
1977 Olsen made a famous pronouncement: “There is no reason for any
individual to have a computer in his home.” As Gershenfeld says today, “Now
DEC is bankrupt, and you have a computer at home.” Underestimating the
potential for new technologies to adapt, evolve and thrive can make you look
Once you’ve got over the fact that, yes, if people are given the chance to
make anything they want, they’ll make carrot holders, the Thingiverse shows
us something important. What’s extraordinary about the growth of 3D printing
is how democratic it is. When people design things, they can easily share
the digital files so that others can copy them. Once you’ve got the file you
can tweak or customise it to suit you. “If your needs are the same as
everyone else on the planet, you can just buy the same mass-produced
product,” says Gershenfeld. “But if you want a telephone with a wildly
different shape, or custom train track, you can do that.” Bowyer published
the details of his first RepRap machine online to keep the technology free.
He did so, he says, “for an uncharacteristically noble reason. It seemed to
me that this was a very powerful technology, and if you try to create
ownership over it, you divide the world into haves and have nots, and that’s
a way to make bad things happen.”
There’s a revolutionary flavour to this conversation. Are there industries,
“haves”, that ought to be watching their backs? “The people who should be
threatened largely aren’t,” says Gershenfeld. “Because they consider these
toys. By the time they are threatened, it’ll be too late.”
At the Royal College of Art, you can see why the technology has the power to
divide. Walking between the rooms of the Rapidform studio, the machines look
anything but toylike. A huge titanium printer is covered in mathematical
formulae – “It’s a bit of a black art to operate it,” says Nick Grace, the
affable studio manager – and there is a smell, which I identify as soy
sauce, but is in fact a melange of many noxious chemicals. (Compare with
Adrian Bowyer’s RepRaps, which run on a starch-based plastic called
polylactic acid, and give off a sweet smell.)
Within the bland industrial casing of these machines are produced items of
baroque strangeness and beauty, which can be seen in glass cases mounted on
the corridor walls: a titanium face pouting angrily, a resin dog with
antlers, a tiny, perfectly formed wax seashell. The latter two were created
by scanning real objects, scaling them up or down, possibly adding antlers,
and printing them out.
That’s why the debate between traditional craftspeople and digital designers
is getting lively. “Traditionally,” says Grace, “the non-maker had to rely
on another human being to help him out. Now they can do it all themselves.
There’s a lot of Luddite mentality attached to it, a lot of fear. Some
people think that in order for something to be good it has to be difficult
to achieve, and for someone to achieve something easily, it’s just not fair.”
When Grace shows me how to use some design software, I reconsider what he
means by “easily”. As I clumsily make holes in a 3D cube on the screen, I
wonder how long it would take me to design something worth printing.
According to James Russell, the College’s Computer Aided Design Advisor, it
wouldn’t take more than a few weeks to master the technology. But, he
admits, “Making the software more accessible to the masses is what needs to
happen next.” Or I could just copy something else.
At the beginning of last year an app called Trimensional was launched which
allows you to scan objects with your iPhone. It’s not accurate – the scans I
made of my colleagues’ faces would suggest that the Telegraph
is staffed by troglodytes – but it only costs 69p, compared to the thousands
you would pay for a decent desktop scanner.
The point is this: as scanners become cheaper, or scanning apps more refined,
we will be able to create design files for all the objects we own or covet.
Once you have the file, you can find a way to print it out, either at home,
or at one of the printing bureaus that are opening thanks to enterprising
start-ups like Sculpteo and Shapeways.
This seems like murky territory. But as it happens, design items in the UK are
afforded very poor protection against copying. At best, designs can be
registered for 25 years. They’re treated as industrial products rather than
artworks, which can be given copyright stretching to 70 years after the
death of the creator. But even if our design protection is brought into line
with the stronger laws which operate in the EU, what’s to stop someone from
copying, for example, a lamp they like in the privacy of their own home?
With each passing year more and more of our lives become digitalised: the
music we listen to, the photographs we take, the films and television we
watch, the things we read. There was a phrase Gershenfeld used that stuck
with me, perhaps because it sounded so fantastically Star Trekkian:
“programming physical reality”. Turning what’s on the screen into what we
have around us.
It’s frightening, because it’s new, and because some people – designers,
craftspeople, manufacturers – could lose out because of it. But don’t be too
afraid. “For centuries we’ve been passing through these transitions,” says
Gershenfeld. “It takes us back to racing horses against steam trains. The
trains won, but we still have horses.”
This article also appeared in SEVEN magazine, free with the Sunday
Telegraph. Follow SEVEN on Twitter @TelegraphSeven