So where are we now?
One day soon, we’ve been told over the last decade or so, we’ll all have 3D printers in our living rooms! You can make whatever you want!! But we don’t, and you can’t. “With every technology, you have the hype cycle, and right now we’re sort of at the bottom, because the hype is over,” says Joris Laarman, a Dutch designer who has engineered new types of digital-fabrication materials and whose work is the subject of an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York through January. “People are kind of like, ‘Okay, so? What can we do with it? Was it real or was it just hype?’ ”
Well, for some it hasn’t been just hype. Laarman uses 3D printing to create functional, usable furniture called micro structures. SpaceX has a dedicated 3D printing zone at its plant in Hawthorne, California. GE’s Brilliant Factory aims to use 3D printing to transform large-scale manufacturing.
But where is 3D printing for the rest of us?
Part of the answer lies in the book.
The book is 194 pages long. On each page, color photographs and diagrams illustrate clear instructions presented in large type beneath easy-to-read headlines:
DESIGN. RESIZE AND DUPLICATE.
BUILD THE TALLEST BUILDING.
PRINT, TEST, AND ITERATE!
The book is written for teachers and students, and each of the nine projects in the book begins with a Lesson Summary. Such as: “Students will be asked to create a vehicle . . . to carry 100 mL of water from the starting line, around a track and to the finish line. Students should aim to spill as little water as possible while speeding around the track.”
The book is called the . And it reflects the new direction the consumer 3D-printing industry is taking. In September, the day before its release, employees were smiling about it at the Brooklyn headquarters of MakerBot, the company that pioneered desktop 3D printing less than a decade ago—the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic, which came in kit form, was introduced in 2010. It seems simple today, when compared to their most current model, the Replicator+, on which, with a little help, a ten-year-old could open the box and be printing in less than 30 minutes.
That book, that machine, and that kid are the future of 3D printing.
Emily Jackson Sanborn became the Orono Middle School and High School librarian last year. The Maine schools had a 3D printer already—somewhere. She dug the kit out and enough curious students wanted to help her figure it out that she started offering mini-classes during students’ advisory time. It was such a hit that Jackson Sanborn and her principal applied for, and won, a foundation grant to buy a FlashForge—a “super-crazy-easy out-of-the-box printer to use.” The school also hired a new IT director over the summer, who brought a MakerBot Replicator II and a bit of experience. “My goal is for the kids to work toward a project with a real-life application,” says Jackson Sanborn. “A problem that we can create a fix for.” This year, one high school student will print a gimbal camera mount to film projects for his acting class.
At the World Maker Faire in New York, in September, the 3D Printing Village showcased dozens of machines meant for the educational market. Booth after booth, many of them surrounded by kids. There was a booth by a company that sells 3D printers that work off a smartphone. A high school girl sat behind a booth at the end of a row fiddling with a printer she had hacked so that two extruders could work simultaneously. Dremel, the hand-tool manufacturer, started selling its Idea Builder 3D printers in 2014. At that time, the 3D-printer-in-every-pot hype was still high. Now, Dremel president John Kavanagh says the company has recalibrated its mission. “There’s still a consumer market, it’s just that it’s a smaller market. It’s these ultra-creatives or the ultra-technical. So the needs we were actually trying to fulfill in the consumer market weren’t really there—and yet the needs were there in education,” he says. Dremel has since set out to provide schools with a premium product and easy customer service. “You don’t want to put a product in the school that is not easy to use, because the teachers aren’t experts in 3D printers. And the product really should be reliable and safe. The teachers don’t have time to try to call remote customer service.”
For companies like MakerBot and Dremel, the problem on the educational front is that several companies are marketing basic, low-price printers to schools. They have lower capability (smaller, slower, fussier), but the price is alluring for school budgets. So instead of buying one for $2,000, a school might buy four printers by for $449 each. “We’re often shocked at how quickly it seems to be—I hate to say it—a race to the bottom on price. To get these higher volumes and unit sales, the overall value of those in the business isn’t that high,” says Kavanagh.
And yet in some communities, basic works. Ron Smith teaches welding and engineering at Nestucca Junior/Senior High School in Cloverdale, Oregon. His 3D printer? An Afinia H480, a now-discontinued desktop model he’s had since 2014. At the end of the year, each student gets to design his or her own keepsake, something small that they want just for themselves. “These are some of the tools I can use to get kids interested, to go on to college and learn more about stuff like this,” he says. “Around here, if you don’t own a dairy, if you don’t work in tourism—we’re on the coast—then you work for pretty much minimum wage. There’s no industry. We have a cheese factory in Tillamook, which is 25 miles away. So I’ve done a really, really good job of trying to stay up with technology and get my kids interested in stuff like that. To show them it’s a big world out there, go out there and make your mark, that type of thing.”
Which brings us back to the book. The book is about the future. “The revolution didn’t happen overnight the way commentators and the media predicted, so now a good amount of skepticism and cynicism has set in,” says Josh Snider, public relations manager at MakerBot. “There’s still a widespread understanding that the technology will mature and have its place in a number of industries, but the general public still only sees 3D printing as a curiosity and a ‘revolution pending’ status.”
But you know who’s not skeptical? Kids. The kids who learn the nine projects in the MakerBot Educators Guidebook will grow up thinking—grow up knowing—that printing works in a lot of ways and for a lot of things. And that it is their technology. In October, MakerBot announced the creation of MakerBot Labs, an initiative that includes new software, hardware, and community building designed to let creators create with fewer technological barriers. The centerpiece is the Experimental Extruder. An extruder is the device on a printer that absorbs whatever material is being used to print—usually plastic filament—then heats it so that it can be extruded onto the printer’s work surface (called the build plate), and casts it in solid form again. More advanced printers have experimented with other materials besides plastic—wood, metal, stone—but those materials tend to clog and wear out normal extruders. The new one from MakerBot promises to handle a variety of exotic and composite materials—cork, wood, copper, brass—printable within a temperature range of 100 and 255 degrees Celsius. “We know printing in non-typical materials—anything that isn’t PLA or ABS plastics—is much harder to do and requires some trial and error, something our competitors are happy to leave out when they list their ‘material compatibility,’ ” says Snider. “We’re going to leverage our community to collaborate and hone different material profiles.”
The thing about 3D printing is, you’re going to mess up. Maybe mess up is the wrong phrase. Your efforts will not always succeed. Things won’t work. An object will collapse, or not fit together, or break when you try to remove the supports that hold it together as it comes into being. This will be frustrating, especially if you’re a seventh-grade teacher with a room full of kids staring at you. But that’s what happens. 3D printing is not really printing at all. It’s manufacturing. It’s making. And that’s a messy business. Today’s most-used printers make it easy without making it simple. They help get you to a place where you can fail, and that’s what makes us create.
Messy is where we are now. The revolution is messy everywhere. It is messy at SpaceX and it is messy at GE. And it is messy at schools where kids are learning to use a new generation printer to make keepsakes and gimbal mounts and small water-carrying robots so that—in another ten years—they can work at SpaceX, and GE, and companies that don’t even exist yet, using materials that no one has imagined, to make breakthroughs nobody has dreamed of.
This appears in the December 2017 issue.