For as long as there has been imagination, people have dreamed up ways to turn their ideas into reality. Although it may be a while before we’re able to immediately conjure our thoughts into existence, the latest and greatest technology bringing consumers one step closer to this future is 3-D printing.
An innovation that’s becoming increasingly affordable and accessible, the 3-D printer allows users to take digital models of pretty much anything and churn out a fully realized plastic version a few hours later. Using plastic filaments, often sold in coloured spools, consumer 3-D printers are able to re-create most models by adding very fine layers of heated plastic on top of one another.
This “additive manufacturing” technology is quickly gaining a fan base, and, here in Vancouver, there’s no shortage of enthusiasts. One such person is John Biehler, a local technology blogger who got into the 3-D printing game just over a year ago.
After seeing 3-D printing demonstrated on an episode of The Colbert Report, Biehler was amazed at the preciseness of the technology and even more surprised when he found out the machines themselves were going for around $1,500. While that’s not cheap, Biehler was impressed that what seemed like a technology with endless possibilities could be had at such a price.
“I never thought it was affordable,” he told the Georgia Straight by phone. “I placed my order after that show and got the kit a week later.”
At the time, consumer 3-D printers weren’t available as pre-made units, so Biehler had to purchase all the parts and spent 20 hours assembling the machine using the instructions provided.
“It seemed reasonable for the future, and I was willing to take a risk with it,” he said.
Fast-forward to the present and Biehler has since become something of an expert on the subject, having printed hundreds of items and tinkered with his machine through trial and error. Biehler has given talks on the wonders and possibilities of 3-D printing and has joined several enthusiast groups in the Lower Mainland.
“There’s a growing number of people both here in Vancouver and online that are excited by what 3-D printing has to offer,” Biehler said, noting that online communities have sprung up where people share their 3-D models with one another. “There are people like 3-D animators that do stuff for video games and movies or guys that do virtual set design, and they use these machines to help them with their work.”
Several companies sell 3-D printer kits online, each with varying degrees of complexity. These companies include 3D Solutions, Solidoodle, and MakerBot. Prices range from around $400 for a build-your-own setup to $1,500 for a fully-assembled rig.
Andrew Milne is a graduate student at Simon Fraser University’s school of interactive arts and technology and iSpace research program. Milne also teaches after-school technology classes at Science World, where 3-D printing plays a big role.
“There’s a kind of magic to it. To take something from your computer, a 3-D model, to press a button, and to have that magically appear as a real physical object is pretty neat,” Milne said by phone.
While Milne says the technology is fun and exciting, he’s also quick to note that it may not yet be everything people think it is.
“There’s a wonderful graphic called the tech hype curve, and the idea behind the curve is that you get hype before the technology is really ready, and I think that’s happening here,” he said. “It’s one of those technologies that gets people’s imaginations going. They wonder if they could print this or print that, but there are still limitations.”
Those limitations include the material used for printing, which is often a colourful plastic; the finicky nature of some of the home-built kits; and the size of what can be printed at home.
Currently, the largest models that can be printed using home kits equate to roughly the size of a loaf of bread.
“Printers will get better,” Milne said. “Right now, high-tech labs can print in chocolate, metal, and even human cells. There’s a guy in the States that’s printing kidneys. So that tech will trickle down to the home market. Whether that’s in five or 10 years, who knows?”
For now, enthusiasts like Biehler are happy with what they’ve got. When asked about his thoughts on the future of the technology, Biehler said it would be interesting to see how copyright issues and the freedom to print anything play out.
“One of the most popular things I get asked for is Lego,” Biehler said.
Currently, people are free to print whatever they wish, including things like toy bricks, weapons, and other objects that have been copyrighted in other mediums. Whether or not those copyrights should carry over to 3-D printing remains up in the air, but it’s something Biehler and others in the community have had many talks about.
“It’s insane how fast it’s moved since I got involved,” Biehler said. “Who knows where it’ll go?”