3D printing: more than just rocket parts & movie props

3D printing is one of those gee-whiz technologies that pops up from time to time in the media. Rockets with 3D printed engines! Peter Jackson’s 3D printed props! Those are the glamour stories. But what I want to know – and what I set out to discover in the writing of this column – is whether 3D printing is getting uptake in the real world.

To find out, I talked to two scrappy kiwi entrepreneurs in 3D printing. The first, Dave ten Have, was co-founder and CEO of Ponoko¬†from 2006 to 2012. Ponoko was one of the world’s first fabrication-on-demand services – proving once again that New Zealand startups can lead the world in innovation. The idea is that customers can design their own product (such as jewellery or furniture), and Ponoko will create and ship it. The company launched in 2007 with laser cutters, and added 3D printing machines in 2010. Ponoko is still a thriving business, but nowadays ten Have is COO of an invention kit startup called Makey Makey.

I asked ten Have whether 3D printers will ever become a consumer tool, like an ordinary 2D printer is nowadays. “I always thought the idea of a consumer focused 3D printer was a stupid idea,” ten Have replied, popping my hype balloon. “You played with a ‘god box’ for 24 hours and then it was…what next?” Instead, ten Have likens a 3D printer to “a fancy electric drill.” He thinks it’s a tool you might keep in your garage for weekend projects, for example doing modifications to your car. “I could see the large car companies providing catalogs of aftermarket parts,” he suggested.

Gordon Dykes is also skeptical of consumer 3D printing. Dykes, who works out of the 1st Assembly¬†startup hub in Lower Hutt, makes 3D delta printers and sells them under the brand name Fre3formD. Since I live and work in the Hutt myself, I popped down to see what Dykes is currently working on. I found him to be an enthusiastic developer and passionate about 3D printing. He’s rightly proud of his custom-designed printer, which he sells for $2,500. At that price it’s not likely to be a consumer item, and sure enough he says the machine is mostly used to create specialist items like hinges and terrain maps. He reckons his machine is ideal for “testing your ideas” – maybe a new medical device, or a more efficient manufacturing part. Since New Zealand has always had more than its share of tinkerers and inventors, Dykes’ 3D printing machine could be a useful addition for those types.

One place that 3D printing is having a definite impact is in schools. It’s typically included in courses such as Digital Technology or Visual Design. One enterprising kiwi Biology teacher is even using 3D printing to create skulls. This makes me think that perhaps 3D printing is this generation’s BASIC computing? When I was in high school, technology consisted of learning the simple programming language BASIC. Fast forward to today, and kids are learning 3D printing, web design, video editing, even how to build a drone! In other words, digital technology for this generation is about much more than coding “Hello World” into a green screen. Technology now enables the building of custom physical objects. That’s going to change how we live and work.

Gordon Dykes agrees that 3D printing comes naturally to today’s children. “Teachers don’t get it,” he says, “but the kids do.” Of course some teachers, like the skull-creating Biology teacher mentioned above, clearly do get it. But Dyke’s point is that too often, we adults compare 3D printers to 2D ones – and that’s a false comparison. It’s not about copying out words or images onto a sheet of paper. It’s not really about copying at all. The true potential of 3D printing is in creating entirely new, often custom, objects.

A better comparison for 3D printing is with lego. Gordon Dykes told me he loved lego as a kid. “I learned how all the pieces could connect,” he said, “but as my thinking developed, I remember being frustrated by the limited combinations I had to express my imagination. Learning how 3D printing works has given me a chance to revisit the way I once played with lego – only the geometry I’m using to build things has virtually limitless combinations.”

It’s those “limitless combinations” that are key for 3D printing going forward. Take for example the projects being created by Ross Stevens and his Industrial Design students at Victoria University. One project, the Cortex Cast, is a custom medical cast created using a 3D printing program. Developed by Jake Evill under the supervision of Stevens, the cast “incorporates data from the x-ray and the scanned arm to create a lattice support that is denser over the break area and lighter for the rest of the cast.”

Stevens and his students are “genuinely world leaders,” according to Dave ten Have. As for his own hobby projects, ten Have is currently focused on what he calls “computational fabrication” – combining 3D printing, laser cutting and CNC milling on the desktop. He will be demoing his new system in Detroit this July.

I started out by asking whether 3D printers are getting uptake. The short answer is…yes and no. While it isn’t a consumer tool yet (and may never be), 3D printing is giving inventors and hobbyists a lot to play with. It will certainly lead to more groundbreaking inventions, like the Cortex Cast. But what’s most exciting about 3D printing is that this generation of kids is already familiar with it. I can’t wait to see what they build when they enter the workplace.