When I heard there was a 3-D printer at the Ross School in East Hampton I was eager to see it. In the past few months talk of these marvelous devices has spread across different fields and industries. I make no pretense of knowing much about the latest inventions. As a college student I turned in many a lengthy essay on pen and loose-leaf paper– a failed Bradburian revolt against computers induced by a (since improved) personal ineptitude for typing. However, news of 3-D printers has made its way outside of the tech world. At the NYC Armory Show this year, Chelsea-based Winkleman Gallery featured works by artist Shane Hope made of 3D-printed PLA molecular models on acrylic substrate. Imagine a rectangular surface, covered in globs of multi-colored, highly ornate, sculptural matter. It’s the sort of quizzical artwork you want to closely examine. The artist used a 3D printer he built himself, outputting thousands of forms of PLA (polylactic acid, an archival form of plastic) then arranging these forms on a wall-mounted support.
A few weeks before the Armory Show, The New York Times had an article in the Home section, that’s right, the section about gardening, interior design, etc., predicting that 3-D printers may become the home appliance of the future. Steven Kurutz’s “A Factory on Your Kitchen Counter,” began with citing President Obama’s State of the Union address: “In a lab in Youngstown, Ohio, the president said, ‘Workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost anything.’”
In the 80s when CAD (computer-aided design) was the big thing, S. Scott Crump developed the Fused Deposition Modeling process. Using CAD and a robotic machine similar to a CNC (computer numerical control) machine, 3-D printers were put into commercial use in 1990 by a company called Stratasys. Presently, 3D printers are used by architects to build models of skyscrapers—a process that would normally have taken weeks is now being done in mere hours. A company called Bespoke Innovations is even using rapid prototyping to make custom-designed prosthetics. Some modern printers now can produce moving parts like an adjustable wrench or water spigot. NASA may hope to have one in space that could easily make station parts in a pinch. There are also 3D printers being made that target hobbyists, for as little as $200 for a MakiBox A6 LT.
After hearing all this about the printers, it doesn’t quite compute unless you see one in action. Thanks to the Ross School for allowing me to pay a visit to their Innovation Lab, a special intensive workshop for advanced science and tech students, I was able to do just that. Lab Director, Dr. David Morgan, introduced me to two methods students are using for rapid prototyping (replicating using a 3D printer). One involves putting an object on a circular, rotating tray (called a NextEngine scanner) while the object is photographed from all angles. The images are then opened in a design program, like AutoCAD, that allows you to alter the size or design of the object. After that, it’s sent to the 3D printer, a MakerBot Replicator, where two spools of plastic filament fuse together through a nozzle and shape the new object, gradually adding layers from bottom to top. The second approach is to design the object essentially from scratch using 3D software. The printing process is slow, and involves direct interaction with the machine. There are still kinks that are being worked out.
Ross students are going to look back at this the way I look back at playing Oregon Trail on MS Dos. Pretty soon we’ll be printing out our own replicas of lost buttons like it’s nothing and have a laugh over this very article. Hang tight, we’re almost there!