maker day 3d printing
Who knew 3D printers in action would sound just like old school dot-matrix printers? But you have to get close to hear. That high-pitched, gear-y whine is almost drowned out by the din of 100 or so people wandering from machine to machine. This was the scene last Saturday at Maker Day in the Chattanooga Public Library’s Fourth Floor space. The room was packed from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
In the center of the room, a circle of 10 3D printers were each making tangible objects appear in the center of a box that bears a distant family resemblance to a photocopier. These are relatively simple, low-cost machines that—so far—produce only small plastic rabbits out of their boxy, high-tech/low-tech magic hats.
These machines are the bleeding edge of a technology that’s just starting to make its way toward the mainstream consumer. For now, these printers appeal mostly to people who are fascinated with the tech: more tool than toy, but with a relatively small repertoire; capable of amazing, but not-quite-ready for prime time as a mass consumer product.
This core was flanked by two more sets of machines and users. Advanced business and research applications are along one wall: 3D-printed titanium machine parts from Oak Ridge National Lab and demos by the UTC School of Engineering; Chattanooga-based Playcore and Astec, which use 3D printing for prototyping; Nashville-based Novacopy, which is Astec’s 3D printing vendor; and Ultimachine, a three-year old South Pittsburg company that makes circuit boards for 3D printers. On the facing wall, children were designing 3D objects on TinkerCAD, a kid-friendly version of the CAD software engineers use to design in 3D for the companies on the other wall.
Like the Internet when it was just a debutante, 3D printing has been all over the news in recent months, after many years of playing a more limited role in industry and academe. In addition to President Obama making it a feature of his State of the Union address a few weeks ago, notable 3D-printer stories have included artificial human ears that can be grafted onto people and a full-size concrete house.
If these bigger wows make the early consumer machines on display at the library seem a bit puny, consider this: One of those 10 machines was created mostly from parts printed by other 3D printers. As simple as they are, these machines can be used to create the next generation of themselves.
As with the Internet in 1994, it’s hard to say what this new phenomenon really is or what it will become. I spoke with three Maker Day participants who had very different ideas.
Mike Bradshaw, entrepreneur-in-residence at Co.Lab, sees Chattanooga playing a key role in a future in which much of the nation’s manufacturing is done on a distributed network of 3D printers.
“The world’s only citywide gigabit network is right here, and the future of micro manufacturing—or distributed manufacturing, the digital manufacturing revolution, whatever you want to term it—is going to be mediated by ultra high speed networks,” he said. “Software running on these machines will be matching the demand pull to the specifications of the available printers. That’s going to happen, it’s not my idea.”
Tim Youngblood, a software developer and founder of the ChattLabs maker space, helped Bradshaw organize the Maker Day event. He compares the widespread interest in 3D printing to his feeling when he bought his first AppleII computer at age 12 with money he made mowing lawns. Youngblood didn’t know exactly what it could do, but he knew he had to explore it. Now when people pick up a new object from the print bed of a 3D printer, he said, “You see ’em take a step back and then they reengage. They have to think about their world differently.”
Youngblood’s four-year-old twins are growing up thinking it’s normal for Dad to design and print their toys. What will they do with this technology in 10 years?
Tom Gokey, an artist whose work centers on collective social projects, made a presentation on the economics of 3D printing. “What happens when we can share physical objects the same way we currently share pdfs and MP3s?” he wondered.
He is interested not in what kind of stuff can be made with these printers, but how this kind of making will change our society.
“We’re on the verge of an economic revolution that will make the industrial revolution look like small potatoes by comparison,” he said. “I think there are genuinely new possibilities for liberation with this technology. But there will also be new possibilities for domination. I think we’re at a similar period as when the feudal system mutated and became capitalism. Capitalism is now mutating and becoming something else.”
With eyes wide open—and blazing with passion even at the end of a long day—these guys are describing visions as varied as those of the proverbial blind men trying to describe an elephant. They may all be correct. I can’t wait to see the full picture begin to emerge.