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Granite Geek: 3-D Printing's Hype and Evolution

In the opening credits of HBO's Westworld, 3D printing is envisioned as a technology to create robots in human and animal form

When 3-D printing first emerged, it inspired visions of a world where we could print any real-life object with the click of a button. And hype hasn't yet subsided...just click over to HBO's hit show Westworld, where the technology plays a key role in a futuristic vision of near-real robotic human (and animal) "hosts" designed for recreation. In the real world, however, 3-D printing is still very much in its evolutionary phase. 

For more on this we turn to David Brooks, who has been following this evolving technology. He’s a reporter at the Concord Monitor, writer at granitegeek.org, and the host of tonight’s Science Café discussion at the Draft Sports Bar in Concord, where he and a panel of experts will be discussing this very topic.

Let’s start with the technology.  How does 3-D printing work?

It squirts stuff from - basically -  a printer head, just like the printer next to your computer, and the stuff it squirts slowly builds up layer by layer by layer and creates a 3-dimensional object. It hardens and creates a 3-dimensional object.  That’s it.  And it uses a particular type of computer file to design the object on your computer, and then it squirts it out and creates it in real life.

Tell us how it‘s evolved since it first emerged on the scene.

It’s actually been around in some ways for a while in manufacturing.  But it really entered the commercial era – the retail era – a few years ago.  You probably have seen one at a local library or something like that.  Schools have them.  And they’re used to make plastic D&D figurines and rings and things like that.  And everybody said this is going to be the next big thing, and everybody’s going to have one in their house and be creating all these objects themselves, and that really hasn’t happened.  Some of the businesses that were established anticipating that would happen have folded. 

But the technology, as you say, continues to evolve – partly the actual machines themselves, the printers, but also the materials they use.  There are now 3-D printers that make metal instead of just plastic through a process called sintering, which basically you put down a metallic powder and zap it with a laser, or something like that, which hardens it.  And it’s used for manufacturing usually for rapid prototyping: so we’re trying to design our new widget and we think maybe it’s like this, and the computer says if we did it like this it will work but we’re not quite sure.  And it used to be that you had to send to a foundry and get a widget made and sent back to you, and now you make it yourself.

So at the very least it allows you to quickly test ideas.

Exactly.  Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.  That was its primary use.  It is starting to be used for actual production of one-off items or small numbers because it’s kind of slow.  But if you have a customer who needs a widget with a special dongle on it, and he only wants three of them, you can make them. You don’t have to go to China and get it made there and bring it back.

So it sounds like it’s especially important for businesses rather than just individual use.      

That’s how it is now.  In theory you could have one in your basement and then if you didn’t have a 3/16 bolt you could make it with your metal 3-D printer.  But that’s a ways down the road.

And you wrote in your article this week that it might be a source of employment. Could this possibly create jobs?

Well that is one of the most interesting possibilities.  The argument has been made, and it’s not unreasonable, that this will actually bring manufacturing back to the United States and back to developed countries, back to New Hampshire because the reason manufacturing went overseas is because, frankly, most labor and other costs were lower.  But if you can actually make, particularly for small batch items, if you can make them yourself you don’t have shipping times, you don’t have the problem of trying to get the plans over there and talk to another company.  It might be easier and better for you to do it here.  I’ve heard reports of it happening, but I don’t think there are any major studies yet, but some manufacturing has returned to the U.S. from overseas from low-wage countries as long as it involves a small batch.  Now whether that will continue, whether that will help… so for example in southern New Hampshire there are a fair number of metal shops and engineering firms that could in theory d this themselves.  Now how many jobs are going to be associated with that, because I mean after all a 3-D printer is less labor-intensive than perhaps a traditional foundry system.  So I don’t know.  But that is one of the things you hope, is bring in manufacturing jobs back from developing countries.

What do you think the future of 3-D printing will be?

I’m looking forward to 4-D printing where you can make an object and then it travels through time.  In other words, I don’t know.

Well, I’m sure your panelists tonight at Science Café will know.

That’s exactly the kind of question we will get to at the bar.  

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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