It was a wonderfully balmy Wednesday evening when I wandered a block north from Checkpoint Charlie and turned a corner to find where the RepRap presentation was taking place. It’s a standard smart rent-by-the-day seminar place, with windows at the front and everything done in curves and modern white. I’m late of course, and I’ve missed the opening buffet and getting-to-know you chat, and the man of the hour has already started speaking, but he seems only to be closing his opening comments and so I am whisperingly directed to a chair near the front, after checking in the guitar that I’m carrying with the nice people at the front, the guitar which I will forget when I leave and have to return the next day to pick up, and settle down to listen.
Tonight has been set up by the electronics manufacturing company RS Components, here to promote the world of 3D printers and present the potential of self-replicating products to us, representing (apparently) the German social media scene.
Since I started hearing about 3D printers I’ve been fascinated by the concept. Why? Although a lot of people now hear the word 3D printer and think, oh yeah that thing that makes a mini-me and couple of other small plastic gimmicks, I hear the word 3D printer and think, world revolution. And what they speak about tonight, and what is in their literature, happily backs me up on what has struck me about this technology.
Let’s face it, our world is in a mess. Now I fess up, I’m a capitalist, I’m not a pinkie limp-wristed liberal, not since I turned 30 anyway and firmed my wrists up, and I think capitalism is the system that, whether fortunately or unfortunately, fits most closely to the weirdness that is human behaviour.
Once hunters and gatherers, we are now a digital nation of (online) shopkeepers. More or less. But despite my feeling that capitalism is kind of okay, it is still obvious that the version of it that we have now, of gathering global capitalism, where national governments have not the slightest bit of power to change the behaviour of the international corporations whose driving force is by default profit, is leading us on a path to, if not hell, then somewhere that doesn’t sound all that nice, at least not if you’re not in the top 15 percent of earners.
And this very global capitalism has its foundations sunk well and truly into the sands of mass production. These very international corporations’ profit and source of power rests on this one business model, and it’s the model which they use to keep the little people down and themselves up.
And that’s why 3D printers fascinate me. Because mass production exists and is the dominant system at the moment because it’s simply the cheapest way to produce things. But if you’ve got 3D printers that can – let’s say for a minute – produce the same products for the same price as the mass production system but one at a time, with each printed thing being specifically tailored for its maker, each theoretically unique, then the power that these global corporations hold will drain through their hands.
But it goes further. Because in fact the individual manufacturing thing doesn’t only cost the same price as the mass produced version. Firstly it’s cheaper to create if only because when you mass produce, you’re going to necessarily end up with a certain percentage of each product that you can’t sell, so you have to factor in that cost, and secondly, you can take an older product, melt it down, and make a new one out of the same material.
Oh yes, and there’s the other thing, the elephant behind the sofa.
Yes, folks, the environment.
Before I start banging on about saving the planet, let’s sticking to the cost factor. Because the fact that every year millions of products don’t get stuck in landfill or wherever they go nowadays, but that those same products that have been used are simply melted down and turned into the next thing that you need, will save everone a whole helluva lot of money. And because the financial advantage doesn’t go to global corporations but simply straight to the people who are using the things themselves, then instead of those self-same corporations holding onto nine tenths of the world’s wealth, that wealth, translated as financial well-being, which is itself translated in some places simply into survival, will impact on the individual human beings that make up, well, us.
Lord knows I could go on and on about all this and of course I would dearly love to, you know me, but I want to talk about the RepRap thing before you get bored and wander off.
Adrian Bowyer is the man of the hour. He’s the man standing in front of us speaking, he’s the inventor of the RepRap, which stands for self-replicating rapid prototyper. Mr Bowyer is very clever, I know this because I looked in Wikipedia and discovered that he is the co-inventor of the famous Bowyer-Watson algorithm, used of course for computing Voronoi diagrams in computer geometry. See? I can google. Mr Bowyer spent years as a senior lecturer in Bath University, and he does come across like a university lecturer. Bet he’s got lots of cardigans at home. Very nice man. And of course he is, as I said, the man who invented the RepRap. This is where the RepRap takes the beautiful revolutionary (see above) idea of the 3D printer, and the ways in which it stands to change the world for the better, to the next dimension, in that the printer is intended to be able to reproduce itself. I say is intended to. Its claim of course is that it is now a self-replicating printer, but the thing is that at the moment it is only able to print around 40% of itself. The rest, the circuit board and various moving parts, can be bought online and/or from a local hardware store. So it’s not 100% self-replicating, but it’s on its way.
And what’s perhaps most impressive about all this is that the whole thing is done as open source, which means that Adrian’s refrained from copyrighting the thing. So that anyone anywhere can print/build a RepRap for themselves. They can modify it, change it, improve it, and then load their own design up to the internet for other people to again use and improve on. Which brings us to the online community of 3D makers. There is apparently a huge community of people who are all busy designing and making 3D things, and they all take their designs and put them online for other people to use. Everything’s open source. These people want the world to be a better place, and they want everyone to get on the job. There are various online portals where you can find this kind of stuff; the biggest apparently is thingiverse.com (great name). There you can find a whole load of designs that you can download and stick into your 3D printer. Or download and open up in your own 3D design software and poke at it until you have something that’s more to your liking.
Wow. What a world.
Back to Mr Bowyer: Adrian Bowyer is truly an evangelist of 3D printing, and he covers a lot of the stuff that I spoke about above. It’s obviously his dream.He’s pursued this thing for years now and he’s not going to stop. In 2006 the Guardian wrote that it’s „the invention that will bring down global capitalism, start a second industrial revolution and save the environment“. And why hasn’t it done that yet? Because, Mr Bowyer says, in 2006 the price of one of these printers was 10,000 Pounds plus. Since then it’s come all the way down to 600 Euros. That’s affordable for any middle class home. Pretty much.
So like I say, I think the whole thing is brilliant and that it’s going to lead us to a better world. Even now human organs are being 3D-printed using organic material. 3D prosthetic limbs are already being printed out for under 100 dollars and used from Africa to the US – at a tiny percentage of the previous cost, and so bringing a new-found availability to things that just make life better.
The only thing that dampens my enthusiasm in any way is the same question that other people are asking: Has the time of the 3D printer actually arrived yet or is it still on the way? And I think it’s still on the way. It hasn’t quite arrived yet. The basic RepRap model can only make things 20cm by 20cm. Which, let’s face it, is limiting. And although both the RepRap and other basic home 3D printers are available for between 500 to 2000 dollars, they’re all small, and are somewhat limited as to the materials with which they can print. Althought apparently now you can 3D print with liquid chocolate, which can onlybe a good thing. But I think 3D printing will come into its own when you get 3D printers which can print a metre across, with a range of materials, when you can reproduce all the parts on the printer using a printer, and when these bigger machines were available for a thousand odd euros. Then our brave new world can begin.
Article by Noel Maurice
More information about the RepRap project: http://reprap.org/wiki/RepRap
More information about RS Components and their 3D printing solutions: de.rs-online.com