A box that can produce anything.
It sounds like a consumerist fantasy, but early purchasers of a new technology in central Maine say their three-dimensional printers are for real and will transform society in a way not seen since the arrival of the Internet.
Take Thomas Lemieux, an Oakland laboratory technician who indulges his passion for Iron Man costumes with an obsessive attention to detail.
Last year he spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars building a costume out of foam rubber and electronics that won him awards and acclaim at costume balls, gaming conventions and fairs for innovative do-it-yourselfers.
When Lemieux sat down to plan his second Iron Man suit, which he hopes to finish later this year, he wanted to solve a problem that had confounded him on the first go-round. The painted foam-rubber helmet was too soft and weak for him to install servo motors for a remote-controlled faceplate.
He considered having a hard plastic helmet custom-made by a manufacturing company, but the perfectionist didn’t want to lay out money for a helmet that might be a little off.
“What if you order it and it’s a little too small?” he said.
The problem led him to a technology that some experts say will change the world. Lemieux bought himself a 3-D printer, a MakerBot Replicator 2. It retails for about $2,200, but he found a broken one for $950 and replaced a motor to get it working.
In the same way that a regular printer lays down a layer of ink on a sheet of paper, a 3-D printer lays down a thin layer of plastic on a platform. But while ink printers typically print a single layer and move on, the 3-D printer puts down multiple layers of plastic, causing a shape to rise up out of the platform. When it’s done, it has made a complete object — maybe a cereal bowl or a doorstop or a picture frame.
Or, in Lemieux’s case, an Iron Man helmet.
One in every home
The MakerBot is one of several brands of 3-D printers that have begun marketing their products to consumers such as Lemieux, who have some need or desire for a product that can’t be found cheaply at the local Walmart.
With prices on the machines dipping to as low as several hundred dollars, Chris Bennett, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Maine at Farmington, said the machines will be in almost every home in the state in just 10 or 15 years.
They will penetrate the market in the same way that microwaves, desktop computers and high-definition television sets have, he said.
Gartner, an information technology research firm that pays close attention to technology trends, said in a recent report that the number of 3-D printers shipped worldwide is growing quickly, with consumers expected to spend $133 million on printers this year.
The number of printers grew from about 38,000 in 2012 to about 57,000 in 2013. The research company predicts the number will approach 100,000 this year and double again next year.
Meanwhile, prices are coming down, with low-end models capable of printing small objects about the size of a coffee mug, costing just a few hundred dollars.
“Simply experiencing the technology and conceiving ways to use it will mainly drive makers and hobbyists, not the average consumer, to purchase a 3-D printer to begin with,” said a Gartner researcher in an October report. “However, we expect that a compelling consumer application — something that can only be created at home on a 3-D printer — will hit the scene by 2016.”
The report also noted that, with retailers such as Staples and Amazon already selling 3-D printers, others are likely to enter the market soon.
Flexibility drives demand
The great appeal of a 3-D printer is that is can be used in such a wide variety of ways. On a commercial scale, massive 3-D machines are being used to print things such as cars and boats. One company, Contour Crafting, prints houses, using a machine that lays down concrete; its representatives claim they can build a working structure on the surface of Mars, using local minerals as the raw materials.
Other companies have printed biological materials, allowing medical researchers to print human cells for possible use as skin grafts or organ transplants.
When one of Bennett’s computer science students first asked the department to buy a Rostock Max 3D printer, the versatility is what made it happen.
The department didn’t have the $1,000 that would have been needed to buy a kit, Bennett said, but four other departments quickly saw applications for themselves and chipped in a few hundred dollars each.
“Everyone who has seen it has some ideas,” Bennett said.
The geology department can reproduce rocks and fossils, the arts department can create sculptures and the economics department can introduce its students to a technology that will be critical to a new generation of entrepreneurs and business leaders.
In his own class, Bennett said, students who are building electronic prototypes will use the printer to print some of the parts.
Bennett said when he began looking on the Internet for items to print, he was surprised at how many options there were.
“It’s really amazing,” Bennett said. “There’s a ton of stuff. There are tens of thousands of models you can download.”
A specialist such as a geology professor might visit africanfossils.org, where downloads are available to print replicas of a 4-million-year-old crocodile skull, a 17-million-year-old tortoise shell or a partial primate skull discovered in Kenya in 1985 and believed to belong to an early forerunner of man.
For the generalist, there’s Thingiverse, which houses thousands of designs including wind gauges, telescope mounts and birdhouses.
Potential economic shift
Just as email reduced the need to ship information physically, 3-D printers will reduce the need to ship purchased items, Bennett said.
“In the future, when you go to Amazon, you’re not buying and having it shipped,” he said. “You’re buying and having it printed.”
The new model has the potential to rewrite the rules of commerce radically.
“Some companies are worried, and for good reason,” Bennett said. “There would be zero reason to make it at the factory.”
It also has the power to unleash a torrent of new inventions from entrepreneurs who weren’t able to get the funding to manufacture their own ideas. For just a couple of thousand dollars each, inventors now can turn their ideas into reality, and those costs are coming down all the time.
Still, significant barriers continue to prevent the average homeowner from running out and buying a 3-D printer.
Discouraging consumers will be the upfront expense, the need for a level of technical know-how and uncertainty about whether the printer’s costs will be worth it all.
The cost of larger, more useful models quickly jumps into the thousands of dollars. The plastic, too, can get pricey, with each 2.2-pound spool of plastic filament costing about $24.
For now, there are just a handful of 3-D printers in the state, mostly owned by manufacturing businesses or organizations. Bennett said he knows of libraries, schools and museums that plan to get their own printers.
At this point, though, very few people have, like Lemieux, brought a printer into their home.
The number is expected to grow, in part because a home-printed object has something that no store-bought object has — infinite customization.
Lemieux is not just building an Iron Man suit. He’s building an Iron Man suit that will conform perfectly to his own body and no one else’s.
He finds two-dimensional models of the pieces and uses a program to turn them into three-dimensional designs. Then he tweaks it to fit his specific body size and shape.
Sometimes, he said, he prints a piece that seems perfect — until he tries it on.
“I could have used a fraction of a millimeter more, and it would have been perfect,” he said.
Others have found their own uses for the technology.
Designs also can be made by scanning in physical objects, allowing people to make action figures of themselves or to print a reproduction of unborn children, based on scans of the womb.
There are also more serious applications.
One case, well-publicized by the 3-D printer industry, involved a father who used a 3-D printer to print a prosthetic hand for his disabled son.
“It saves that guy thousands of dollars because it costs so much for a prosthetic hand,” Lemieux said. “He can not only make a hand for a fraction of the price, but he can make new ones as he grows up.”
Iron Man and beyond
Working in his basement, Lemieux has kept his own printer busy.
It looks like a cube about the size of a microwave, with clear glass walls, thick wires and electronics components spilling out everywhere. A spool of plastic is mounted on the back, and a thread that looks like thick fishing line is pulled into an extruder, heated and laid down on the printer.
The plastic comes in different colors and textures to serve different purposes. The Iron Man suit is hard and rigid, but he could print with a softer, rubberized plastic that would allow for some flexibility, like the sole of a shoe.
Lemieux isn’t worried about the fumes that come with heating plastic over 300 degrees, he said, because the plastic is cornstarch-based. “It almost has a little sweet corn smell when it’s printing,” he said.
When he’s at work, he can monitor the progress of the latest project on his phone, using a webcam he has set up.
He’s already printed the suit’s finger components, some buckles to hold it to his body and the Iron Man helmet, in 11 different pieces, which he rattled off easily.
“The jaw, the middle of the face, the forehead, two sides of the head, the middle of the back, two parts for the top, one for the back of the head that’s removable, and then both ear pods,” he said.
He joined them using a solvent that has made them into a single piece of plastic. “It dissolves a very thin layer of the surface, and they fuse together,” he said.
Aside from the suit, he has made a plastic linked necklace and a couple of toys — a minion from the movie “Despicable Me,” and video game characters Mario and Luigi.
When the case on his iPhone broke, he was able to print another one. It’s better than the original, because he was able to find a design that appealed to him — a stencil cut-out of Iron Man’s helmet.
“They charge 20, 30 bucks for those snap-on cases,” he said.
By making consumers into producers, the 3-D printing revolution also will shrink the gap between individuals and larger production companies.
Lemieux, for example, now is using the same technology as the biggest special effects studios in Hollywood. Some of their effects are created using CGI, but some of the suit models, which are worn in the movie by Robert Downey Jr., were printed on a 3-D printer, just like Lemieux’s.
Lemieux has a future project in mind that hints at just how amazing the future of production could be.
“I’d like to print a 3-D printer too,” he said. “They have the designs online.”