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Can 3D Printers Reshape The World?


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY; I'm Ira Flatow. What if you broke your doorknob, or you needed a spare part for your car, and instead of going to a store or your car dealership, you just powered-up your desktop 3-D printer, and hours later, voila, you've got the part you needed.

Some say 3-D printers already have that capability, after all people have printed out bicycles and bikinis and burritos and even a person's entire lower jaw from titanium on these nifty gadgets. And if that weren't enough, they're exploring how to print out skin and ears and bone and organs like the kidney, made out of living cells.

And how about creating robots that simply walk off the 3-D printer? My next guest says the list of what you can do with 3-D printers is endless, but it's what we haven't yet dreamt of doing with these printers that excites them the most.

TERRY WOHLERS: Terry Wohlers is the president of Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm that tracks the 3-D printing industry. He joins us from Fort Collins, Colorado. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Oh, thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Bre Pettis is CEO and co-founder of MakerBot Industries, which makes personal 3-D printers, here with us in our New York studioes. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

BRE PETTIS: Happy to be here.

FLATOW: And Hod Lipson is associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University. he's co-author of the forthcoming book "Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing" and co-founder of the Fab@Home project to develop low-cost 3-D printers, and he's here also in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

HOD LIPSON: Pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Terry, tell us how 3-D printing works. Is there just a simple thumbnail sketch you can do for us?

WOHLERS: Of course. You start with a 3-D computer model, and that model is sliced up electronically, so you can envision a stack of horizontal cross-sections, electronic cross-sections, and then those are sent to a device, a 3-D printer, and one after another is printed into a plastic, a metal, a composite and other materials, as well, layer upon layer.

So if you can model it on a computer, and it can be highly complex, it could be a human skull, you can slice it and then print it, and then the model is removed, it's cleaned up, and you have something that could be simple or highly complex.

FLATOW: Bre Pettis, you have MakerBot's 3-D printer. How does it work, and how much does it cost? Tell us a little bit about it.

PETTIS: So the MakerBot replicator uses one of two plastics. You can either make things in ABS plastic, which is what LEGO is made out of, or you can use PLA, which is the plastic that's made from corn. And then you get your plastic on spools, and it kind of looks like a big spool of spaghetti.

And the spaghetti goes into the machine, and it - like Terry said, it draws a picture in plastic, and then it goes up a little bit, and layer after layer, it creates your model, and you can really create anything.

And our machine makes things up to about the size of a loaf of bread. You can make things in two colors, and the machine comes assembled, so...

FLATOW: So if you can draw it so the computer can read the file, you can make a - you can print a 3-D printout?

PETTIS: Yeah, I mean, one of the exciting things about the space is, you know, you can get - you have a MakerBot, but then the design side, all the tools for designing things are becoming democratized. So 3-D printing is getting democratized, the tools that make things are getting easier. You can use things like Tinkercad, which is free and online, and you're off to the races and making things and making new doorknobs, as you say.


FLATOW: If I had a 3-D printer, I'm not wasting it on a doorknob.


FLATOW: Maybe a part that's hard to make. How much - how expensive is a MakerBot printer?

PETTIS: So you can get started for $1,749 dollars, and then the material is super-cheap, it's about $42 a kilogram.

FLATOW: Do you expect the price coming down to - that's where inkjet printers started out, right, laser printers were that expensive.

PETTIS: You know, I think there's a lot of connections between, like, the laser printer, you know, what happened with the laser printer and what happened with personal manufacturing, connecting that to personal manufacturing.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you want to talk about 3-D printing. Maybe you have one. Tell us what you're doing on your 3-D printer. Hod Lipson, you have one of the first open-source 3-D printers at Cornell called Fab@Home. How is this different from a regular 3-D printer?

LIPSON: Well, it was one of the first open-source, do-it-yourself kits, and what we were aiming for at the time was to create some kind - to bootstrap this revolution of 3-D printers at home. So 3-D printers were around, many people are surprised to learn, for two or three decades. So this is not really a new technology.

But in the last couple of years, it's making this transition from the mainframe, so to speak, to the desktop, and if you look back into history, it was the early kits of 3-D printers that helped usher this revolution of the desktop, and we were looking to try to create that revolution with a desktop 3-D printer that anybody can buy, and more importantly, anybody can hack and play around with and put new materials in.

FLATOW: Do you all think we're going to have - everybody's going to have a 3-D printer like they have an inkjet printer one of these days soon?

PETTIS: You know, there's a whole - you know, we've sold 10,000 MakerBots, and there's a lot of Fab@Homes out there, as well. MakerBots were inspired in part by Fab@Home. And we carry on that open-source tradition. And I have to say, like, there's people out there who are already living in the future, and it's already normal for them when something breaks, or they need something, they just make it on their MakerBot, and that's just absolutely normal, kind of like when, you know, microwaves came out.

It was really exciting, but once you have them, you just - normal life.

LIPSON: But I think, you know, in general, just like today we see computers at home, we have mobile computers, but we also have desktop computers, and we have computers in the cloud. Probably in the future, we'll have 3-D printers the same way: We'll have some at home printing in food and toys, and we'll have a couple of printers at work doing specialized things and some printers in the cloud doing more industrial-level things, and it's going to be an ecosystem.

FLATOW: Terry Wohlers, let's talk about that a little bit more. Where do you think the - which industries do you expect to see this making most use of 3-D printers in the future?

WOHLERS: Well, the early adopters have been automotive and aerospace and consumer products, the types of products that you and I buy when we go to a store. Almost everything today that you buy has been impact in the prototyping phase of product development.

Now we're seeing companies apply these devices to parts that go into actual products that we buy, particularly in aerospace, medical, implants for example, and dental. Those are the three big areas. And now we're seeing companies and individuals buy machines for more of the consumer end use, although I would argue that not everyone will have one in the home. But I do think that average people will buy parts that are made by these systems by going online and buying from - whether it's Safeway.com or Amazon or some other service.

And that manufacturing may occur across the street or in your neighborhood. It could be across the state, but it will bring manufacturing much closer to you and decentralize it, rather than having to ship - or make millions of something and ship it across the world and then half of the product going to the landfill because there's not an appetite for that particular product.

FLATOW: What about biological products, body parts. Are we not making some progress there?

WOHLERS: Well, we are, particularly parts that are replacing biomaterials, for example, titanium hip implants. More than 20,000 of those have been successfully implanted into humans. And a lot of spines and some other - cranial facial-type parts, skull plates made also in titanium.

And then there have been bones, heart tissue that have been printed into a scaffold structure that holds the shape and size of the part of the bone that needs to be replaced, and then that scaffold structure is biodegradable, and it holds the living cells, and over time, that degrades and absorbs into the body, and the living cells take that over.

And there's a lot of work being done around the world, has been for more than 10 years, in the area of both printing hard and soft tissue to the point where I do believe, and hopefully the other guests agree, that in our lifetimes, we'll be printing body parts regularly.

FLATOW: Hod Lipson, you're already printing stuff, body parts.

LIPSON: Yeah, we've printed meniscus, cartilage of the knee.

FLATOW: Is that what you were holding up there?

LIPSON: No, I was holding here a titanium nose implant, just this is something that we didn't make but we received from a metal-printing company, EOS. And it's just fascinating to see how something like this, made of titanium, very complex, very, you know, structured and porous would be a nightmare to make any other way, but you can make it on the fly in a custom shape.

FLATOW: Right, and you say you make tissue already?

LIPSON: Yeah, so we've been quite a while working on this area which we call bio-printing, together with Larry Bonassar and Jonathan Butcher at Cornell, where we actually print with live cells. It's not printing a scaffold on which you put cells but actually taking the cells, putting them in a hydrogel ink and actually printing the final constructs out of live cells.

And the benefit is that you can merge multiple cells into the same print in order to make a heterogeneous tissue.

FLATOW: And what tissues have you made?

LIPSON: So so far, we've made cartilage, meniscus of the knee, and Larry and Jonathan are working on printing spinal disks and heart valves. And so bones and bone tissue and cartilage are kind of the lowest-hanging fruit, so to speak, because they are very amorphous, and they're very simple structures, but little vascularity. And that's where the state of the art is.

But I think as the technology progresses, we'll be able to make more sophisticated implants.

FLATOW: Maybe kidneys, livers, things like that?

LIPSON: The trend is going for moving - is again moving from parts, so to speak, from simple tissue, to making complex, more complex organs, kidneys certainly have been reported to have been done, liver and you know, it will take a while before we can do more complex things.

FLATOW: Is there something you gentlemen don't think, that cannot be printed? Is there no limit to what you can do, Bre?

PETTIS: I believe there's - you know, the only limit is the human imagination, and the unimagined is such a fantastic frontier. It's such a - you know, people are just getting their hands on 3-D printers, and you can get into it, and...

FLATOW: It's a thing called the Thingiverse, right? Tell us about that.

PETTIS: Yeah, get me excited here. So we have a site called Thingiverse, where people share their digital designs, and every day there's new, cool things that you can make on your MakerBot or any 3-D printer, really. And when people make stuff, and they share it, they put it up there, they do it under open licenses, which means that people can - if you upload your knee, somebody has a different-looking knee, they can modify your knee to fit their knee, and you're off to the - you know, you're literally off to the races.

FLATOW: You're going to have to modify that nose to fit mine.


FLATOW: I mean, (unintelligible), the Thingiverse, I was on there today, it was beautiful, everybody sharing all their 3-D printing designs or constructs. We have to take a break, and when we come back more, we'll talk with Terry Wohlers, Bre Pettis and Hod Lipson. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. If you do 3-D printing, you want to share it with us and talk about it, please don't be afraid to participate. You can also tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow; this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about 3-D printing and what a 3-D printed future could look like with Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates. Bre Pettis is CEO and co-founder of MakerBot Industries. Hod Lipson is co-author of the forthcoming book "Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing" and co-founder of the Fab@Home project.

And if you think you can tell when something is 3-D printed, we have a test for you. Test your skill by taking our quiz at sciencefriday.com, and go over there and do the little quiz and see if you can tell what is 3-D printed and what is not.

One of the things - I imagine if you can make it into a liquid and squeeze it into something, you can stick it in a 3-D printer. Would that be right, like, sort of?

LIPSON: Yeah. Basically, any material you can squeeze, melt or generate into a powder, you can print.

FLATOW: So the food industry must love this, processed food.

LIPSON: So I think the food industry is just picking up. This is one of the big surprises that we had when we open-sourced the printer, and we watched what happened. It wasn't printing robots that everybody wanted to print. It wasn't printing knees or implants. It was printing food.

FLATOW: Like what?

LIPSON: It started off with things - simple things like chocolate and cookie dough, and then frosting, and took off from there. And basically, you know, food is a fantastic material for 3-D printing. It's well-suited. It's a benign material, and people have fun working with it.

FLATOW: Wow, chocolate. You can make a 3-D object out of chocolate, anything you want.

PETTIS: Multiple flavors.

LIPSON: And then you can eat it.


LIPSON: If it doesn't work out, you just eat it and try again.


FLATOW: But people are going to say hey, you know, you're now even more processing our food than before. It's going to be less healthy, because it's even more processed to get into a 3-D printer.

LIPSON: I think it's the - if you think about it, we'll have a much larger variety of food items that are made freshly. It's actually the other way around. The materials themselves might come kind of frozen in a cartridge, but you can make with them lots of different things.

FLATOW: So you could go to the store - theoretically, in the future - go to the freezer section and say, ooh. Here's a cartridge for my 3-D printer, and it'll be food. Stick it in there and make some cookies, shaped cookies, 3-D cookies, any shape you want, anything?

LIPSON: Oh, mom. We only have chocolate chip cookie dough left for the 3-D printer. Ah. No, I think it's going to be more exciting than that. You'll have a variety of different printing materials, and you will download recipes, share them with other people online, make variations, print them different sizes, shapes. It's going to be a very exciting frontier.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Mark in Charlotte. Hi, Mark.

MARK: (Technical difficulties).

FLATOW: Hey, how are you?

MARK: Good, thanks. I've got a question, then I'll take the answers off the air. But how big are these machines, these printers they're talking about? And is it feasible to (technical difficulties). And the second thing is: What is the limit of the current objects that they can make, that they can print?

FLATOW: OK, good question. How big an object?

PETTIS: So you can - a MakerBot is about the size of your microwave. And so you can - and you can actually - it's light enough that you could carry it on the subway if you want to take it to a party and print out shot glasses. And you can make things with it up to about the size of a loaf of bread.

Now, if you want to spend more money, you can - there's machines out there, or if you want to make it yourself, you can make a machine that's even bigger. But we settled on the loaf-of-bread size for our machine.

FLATOW: Terry Wohlers, what have you got?

WOHLERS: Yeah, well, there's the (technical difficulties) that build up to about a meter in one dimension. And so you asked before: Is there any limitation as to what can be made? There are limitations with - one is size. The marine industry and the aerospace industry, they want to be able to build parts that are several meters in length, and so that is certainly a limitation. Also, materials.

While there are a lot of plastics and metals and composites out there, we need more. You know, compared to conventional methods of manufacturing, there's still, you know, a relatively small number of materials available for these machines.

FLATOW: What's your limit on it?

LIPSON: Well, I think it depends what - which direction. So people have printed very small, things that are about a millimeter in scale, but lots of details, microscale. And people have printed things the size of a room. But these are experimental systems.

FLATOW: They printed a whole room?

LIPSON: Absolutely, from, you know, concrete and structural materials. These are not - this is not something you can get at home. It's more of a research, experimental system. But people are exploring the limits in materials in large scale and in small scale in all directions.

FLATOW: So you could put concrete into the printer?

LIPSON: Absolutely, you can...

FLATOW: And it will print out a building?

LIPSON: Some of these experimental systems do exactly that. And you don't have to stop at concrete. You can also print wiring inside the wall. You can do a lot of interesting things. You can make structures that you cannot make any other way, and I think that's - you know, if there's one important message, I think, about these printers, it's not about how you duplicate things that you make today with other techniques, but it's how you explore, as we said, the new frontiers of design, making things you can't imagine today. And that's really the direction.

The bottom line is that with these printers, complexity is free. For the first time in human history, making something complicated, with details and features, is not more difficult than making a paperweight. It takes the same amount of resources and skills in terms of manufacturing. And that's a first in human history, and that changes everything.

FLATOW: You know, I saw an architect, on his desk, less than five feet long, was a three-dimensional Manhattan. Every building in Manhattan was build from a 3-D printer on his - this gorgeous layout of Manhattan, and one building had a different color on it. And I said: What's that building? He said: That's the building I'm designing. I wanted to see how it fit into the rest of Manhattan. So he printed out the rest of Manhattan and stuck his building in there that he'd also printed out.

PETTIS: We just made all of the buildings in SimCity, the old-school SimCity videogame, and printed them all out. And then we made a robot to go through it Godzilla-style. I mean...


FLATOW: You'll have to get another one to take on Godzilla? Can you make robots? Will they literally walk off the printer when you're done with them?

PETTIS: So - you - there's experiments being done with making electronics on - but those are still early days. That's one of the good frontiers. But you can definitely make robot parts that either come off and move together, and you would just add a servo or a motor, and you're - and you could make a remote - we love to make remote-controlled cars and remote-controlled battlebots and all these kind of things. It's really an endless possibility of how much - what you like to do. Whatever you like to do, MakerBot it.

LIPSON: We've made, in the lab - we've printed a battery, a real, working battery.

FLATOW: You made a battery with all the extra parts in it?

LIPSON: A battery with all the materials in it. And we've made - and we've printed an outrigger, a motor, out of raw materials. And we are - one of our milestones, our goals is to print a robot that will walk off the printer, batteries included, so the whole thing from raw materials.

And we've printed the pieces. We haven't quite been able to print the whole thing together, but I think we'll get there in a year or two.

FLATOW: Hod Lipson, have you been able to make anything - is there anything you don't think that you can make? I mean, is there a limit to what you can make, or when you - for example, when you make the battery and the parts, do you have to stop the printer and put new material for the insides of the battery, outside of the battery. Or is it all a one-step process?

LIPSON: It's a one-step process. So you preload the printer with five different materials for the battery, and it goes. Now, the challenge is you have to spend some time thinking about how to make a battery out of purely materials that you can squirt out of a syringe in our case. And, for example, a battery, if you take apart a conventional battery, it has a - what is called a separation layer that's typically made out of paper.

And we could print everything, but ironically, we couldn't print the paper. We had to actually think of some other material to replace that. But once you go through this kind of challenge of swapping materials, you can print, I think, almost anything.

FLATOW: What is the technological breakthrough, if any, that you're waiting for in this world?

PETTIS: You know, I think that - you know, one of the technological breakthroughs isn't really what you would think of as normal technology, but it's the culture of sharing. So one thing Hod and I both share is we both make machines, and we do research. And we release it, and we let anybody do anything they like with it.

This culture of sharing is something that means, really, there's nothing we can't do with a community, and, you know, it means that whatever we do, that people will stand on our shoulders, and, you know, it happens. And then people stand on those people's shoulders. And then, you know, I can stand on Hod's shoulders, and then Hod can stand on my shoulders. It's like a standing-on-shoulders Mobius strip.

FLATOW: That's a great, touchy-feely answer.


FLATOW: I'm glad you said that. But I'm looking for a technology answer. You know, what kind of breakthrough do you need to go to the next level? Terry, is there something that, you know, you can think of, where we are in printing, and hey, if we only had this?

WOHLERS: Well...

FLATOW: Or don't you need anything?

WOHLERS: You know, I think most of the pieces are in place today, honestly. You know, if you look at the machines and the materials and how they're being applied, now it's - you know, the devil is in the details. Now it's the little things - and maybe not so little - like standards development and getting companies to believe that it's possible to use these devices for actual manufacturing.

I mean, they've been used for two decades as a solution for prototyping, but to get the GEs and the Honeywells and the Boeings of the world to understand that - and those three companies, by the way, are - they do get it, and they are moving ahead quickly, and they're investing dearly in this technology. And for example, Boeing has more than 20,000 parts on just one aircraft program. And they have 10 different platforms, production aircraft that are flying parts today.

FLATOW: Gentlemen, this is exciting. Thank you very much - we've run out of time - for being with us today. Hod Lipson, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, co-author of the forthcoming book "Fabricated: The New World of 3-D Printing," and co-founder of the Fab@Home Project. Bre Pettis is CEO and co-founder of MakerBot Industries. And you can get a printer from MakerBot, right?

PETTIS: Makerbot.com.

FLATOW: Dot-com. And also, I want to thank all of you who phoned in, and Terry Wohlers, who is - Wohlers, excuse me, is president of Wohlers Associates. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today. Good luck to you.

PETTIS: Thank you.

LIPSON: Thank you.

WOHLERS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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