298 Mulberry Street in Downtown Manhattan is the epicenter of the next industrial revolution. It’s here that the first store run by 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot® is showcasing the company’s latest achievement: the Replicator, a desktop terminal with which anyone can make the jump from private user to manufacturer.
Seven empty, black-painted beer crates hang on the white-paneled wall. The indirect lighting draws onlookers’ attention to the plastic containers, which are snorting and shaking. Inside, a discarded microwave rotating plate moves slowly up and down as an aluminum nozzle, as thick as a finger, spews endless layers of red, molten synthetic material onto its surface. The sweet, warm smell of hot plastic hangs in the air across the gallery’s 650-odd square feet. What may sound like a scene from the latest vernissage for contemporary art is, instead, being played out at the newly-opened store of 3D printer manufacturer
MakerBot in downtown Manhattan. And the beer crates? A closer look reveals that they are display items of the currently most technologically advanced 3D printer for the private user: the Replicator. A desktop device that sets new standards in the field of 3D printing. With improved resolution, higher speed and a low price equivalent to 1,650 euros, this miniature 3D factory is primarily aimed at tinkerers and do-it-yourself enthusiasts. “Our mission is to jump-start the next industrial revolution,” says Bre Pettis, CEO at MakerBot, about his vision for the Replicator. What at first seems like typical American motivational bla-bla, turns out upon closer inspection to be an eerily beautiful future scenario.
From media to manufacturing democracy
If you believe what Pettis says, the upcoming revolution will be a walk in the park. Soon, more and more affordable 3D printers will be a permanent feature on every desktop at home. Designers and ambitious amateur engineers around the world will be creating their own computer-generated 3D models and sharing them on internet communities like MakerBot’s own “ Thingiverse” platform, a Napster for 3D graphics. Free 3D software such as Google’s SketchUp will bring the necessary digital workbench directly into people’s living rooms. As a result, looking for an iPhone case will no longer mean raking through excessive product ranges listed on Amazon. Digital natives, as aspiring individualists, will be able to create or modify their favorite 3D model in any way they please before collecting it from their very own 3D printer three hours later. And those who’d rather save themselves the effort of setting up or even buying their own device can turn to a provider like Shapeways, who will manufacture their artistic creations for them. Pettis’ scenario is therefore nothing less than the blueprint of a market shift similar to the one that plagued the publishing and agency world at the end of the 1990s. “The rapid advancement of ‘desktop manufacturing’ is, for the manufacturing industry, what the invention of ‘desktop publishing’ was for the media sector,” says Pettis.
3D printing: bigger than the invention of the Internet
Pettis is certainly not alone in how he sees the situation. Renowned digital visionaries like Chris Anderson are following the New York revolutionary theorist into the sector. The former chief editor of Wired gave up his post at the end of 2012 to co-found “ 3D Robotics,” a community for do-it-yourself, remote-controlled aircraft, in order to be closely involved in the drastic changes in the manufacturing industry. During his last public appearance as chief editor at Wired in November 2012, Anderson explained that his move boiled down to one simple assumption: that the impact of the 3D printing revolution will be bigger than the invention of the Internet. Anderson attributes the essence of this daring claim to the fact that there is a “maker” in every one of us. In his recently published book “ Makers,” he provides numerous examples to support this conviction. In short: We are all creative. Cooking, writing, and taking photos are creative challenges we face up to every day because they are fun. Up to now, the tools haven’t been available for these creative tasks to involve more complex manufacturing processes. The democratization of 3D printing, however, is breaking this barrier. That’s the theory, anyway. But will this really be the case in the real world?
“Would you like to print this Broadway show now?”
To get straight to the point: it already is. And not only with trivial, everyday objects like the iPhone case mentioned earlier. Examples range from classic “prototyping” at engineering firms to art projects and pioneering applications in medicine. “Since founding MakerBot in 2009, we’ve sold more than 15,000 devices,” says Bre Pettis, summing up his success so far. “Our customers range from Disney, Google, Ford and Microsoft right up to small, niche suppliers such as Pebble,” a manufacturer of Wi-Fi-enabled digital watches. Eric Migicovsky, founder and creative mind behind Pebble, relies entirely on the Replicator when developing his prototypes. The young pioneer’s main argument? Speed. No other technology allows users to create a testable prototype so quickly. It’s a similar scenario in Kacie Hultgren’s atelier. The scenic designer also relies on a 3D printer during the development and design stages of her Broadway shows. Not only does this speed up the New York designer’s creative process, but also that of her designer acquaintances. She makes her creations available to the public for further use on Thingiverse.
Medical engineering as a driver of the movement
“You can already download more than 25,000 designs from Thingiverse,” Bre Pettis explains with some pride. “For me, the most impressive projects continue to be those from medical engineering.” One of these projects, curiously called “ Rest Devices,” is used by sleep labs around the world to help diagnose sleep apnea. “If we manufactured our instruments the traditional way with injection molding, they would cost so much more,” says Thomas Lipoma, MIT student and co-founder of “Rest Devices,” explaining the benefits of 3D print manufacturing. Seth Horowitz, assistant research professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, offers a similar argument. With a printed anatomical 3D model of a human inner ear, Horowitz saves his campus thousands of dollars each year – money that in the past was spent on buying the models.
Alongside the pure economic advantages, Bre Pettis sees personal freedom as the fundamental benefit of his development. “Once you start up your 3D printing works, it changes you for ever. We’re giving you your own small factory directly on your desktop. The only thing you need is an idea and a minimum order of one.” Long live the revolution.
MakerBot was founded as a workshop in a garage in Brooklyn, New York, in 2009. With a market share of 25% and 165 employees, the last three years have seen MakerBot rise to become the international market leader for 3D printers in the home-user sector. One of its biggest investors is Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.
With the Replicator 2, MakerBot is presenting its fourth generation of desktop 3D printers. The revolutionary device can print objects with a diameter of up to 32 centimeters with 100-micron layer resolution, a unit that refers to the minimum height of each layer of printed material per print interval. The thinner the layers, the higher the quality. In comparison, the market standard is 270-micron layer resolution. The operating temperature of the Replicator 2 is between 15 and 32 degrees Celsius. PLA, the polyester plastic used for the printing process, is available in nine different colors and types, from transparent to metallic. A standard printer spool costs the equivalent of 36 euros and is enough to print around 6,700 cubic centimeters in volume, the same as 390 standard chess pieces. The material can withstand temperatures up to approximately 100 degrees Celsius and is biodegradable.
Text: Thomas Escher
Illustration: Jan Meyer, grasundsterne
Translation: Toby Skingsley