Paul MacInnes 

Forget Avatar, the real 3D revolution is coming to your front room

3D printers are transforming how the world of design works – within minutes drawings can be turned into a prototype model, slashing costs but also giving consumers the power to become manufacturers, writes Paul MacInnes
  
  

Enjoy eating goulash? Fed up with needing three pieces of cutlery? It could be that I have a solution for you – and not just for you but for picnickers who like a bit of bread with their soup, too. Or indeed for anyone who has dreamed of seeing the spoon and the knife incorporated into one, easy to use, albeit potentially dangerous instrument. Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to the Knoon.

The Knoon came to me in a dream – I had a vision of a soup spoon with a knife stuck to its top, blade pointing upwards. Given the potential for lacerating your mouth on the Knoon's sharp edge, maybe my dream should have stayed just that. But thanks to a technological leap that is revolutionising manufacturing and, some hope, may even change the nature of our consumer society, I now have a Knoon sitting right in front of me. I had the idea, I drew it up and then I printed my cutlery out.

3D is this year's buzzword in Hollywood. From Avatar to Clash of the Titans, it's a new take on an old fad that's coming to save the movie industry. But with less glitz and a degree less fanfare, 3D printing is changing our vision of the world too, and ultimately its effects might prove a degree more special.

Thinglab is a company that specialises in 3D printing. Based in a nondescript office building in east London, its team works mainly with commercial clients to print models that would previously have been assembled by hand. Architects design their buildings in 3D software packages and pass them to Thinglab to print scale models. When mobile phone companies come up with a new handset, they print prototypes first in order to test size, shape and feel. Jewellers not only make prototypes, they use them as a basis for moulds. Sculptors can scan in their original works, adjust the dimensions and rattle off a series of duplicates (signatures can be added later).

All this work is done in the Thinglab basement, a kind of temple to 3D where motion capture suits hang from the wall and a series of next generation TV screens (no need for 3D glasses) sit in the corner. In the middle of the room lurk two hulking 3D printers. Their facades give them the faces of miserable robots.

"We had David Hockney in here recently and he was gobsmacked," says Robin Thomas, one of Thinglab's directors, reeling a list of intrigued celebrities who have made a pilgrimage to his basement. "Boy George came in and we took a scan of his face." Above the printers sit a collection of the models they've produced: everything from a car's suspension system to a rendering of John Cleese's head. "If a creative person wakes up in the morning with an idea," says Thomas, "they could have a model by the end of the day. People who would have spent days, weeks months on these type of models can now do it with a printer. If they can think of it, we can make it."

All of which means that they can make a Knoon. To get it to the printing stage I first designed my implement using a piece of software freely available from (of course) Google. The program is called SketchUp, and it allows you to draw any image you want in three dimensions. It also allows you, thankfully in my case, to browse through a warehouse of pre-existing designs and adapt them for your own uses. I took two designs, one for a spoon one for a knife, and then spent hours trying to get them to join together. I must point out that this was my problem and not the software's; I had a distinct difficulty grasping the concept of rotation in three planes.

When the file was complete, and expunged of the many errors I had introduced to it, it was ready to print. The basic concept of 3D printing has not changed enormously since the first patent was filed by one Wyn Kelly Swainson in 1971. His idea involved inserting a tray into a vat of liquid plastic and directing a laser into it. The laser would fuse a solid line of plastic onto the tray and, in dropping the tray down, another layer could be added on top.

While the techniques of modern 3D printing would be familiar to Swainson, the capabilities of the technology would not. Advances in mechanics, alongside huge leaps in software programming, mean that printers can render objects to incredible degrees of sophistication and refinement. Professional printers such as those at Thinglab, for example, are capable of printing 46 layers per millimetre.

The picture would be even less familiar to Swainson once you factor in the further collaborative potential afforded by the internet. Google's 3D warehouse, with SketchUp designs that range from humble cutlery to a complete collection of the world's great football stadiums are available to view and, mostly, to download. People can share their designs with people on the other side of the world; those people in turn can improve them and, with a little adjustment, turn them into something real. (Instead of the Knoon, I had thought about taking a version of the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro to Thinglab and convincing them it was all my own work. I decided no one would believe me.)

The internet is helping to foster communities of three dimensional designers, but it is also helping to propagate the machines themselves. Prices that used to be prohibitive, with printers costing upwards of £25,000, are dropping. Furthermore, the floor is being lowered faster all the time, thanks in no small part to open source designs that are available online and that freely spread knowledge and expertise. The products that come out of this process might be of lower specification, but they are also much, much cheaper. One such product, the CupCake CNC by Makerbot industries, retails at roughly £600 for a "deluxe kit" of complete parts and assembly instructions.

This is where the possibilities for 3D printing start to get interesting. A recent article by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine made the case, in rather excitable terms, for the transformational effect it might have on business. "Every garage is a potential micro-factory and every citizen a micro-entrepreneur in the age of democratised industry," he wrote, describing how a thousand ideas could bloom into companies thanks to the lowered cost of prototyping and the small-scale production lines that 3D printing can facilitate. Team up with newly flexible Chinese manufacturers, according to Anderson, and "one-person enterprises can get things made in a factory the way only big companies could before".

But what if increased business opportunities were only the beginning? What if 3D printing actually changed lives not just for entrepreneurs but for consumers, for citizens? Adrian Bowyer is a senior lecturer at the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Bath. Since 2005 he has been working on the Reprap, a project with a clear aim: to make a 3D printer that can reproduce itself.

"The whole idea behind Reprap is either that it prints itself out or that anyone can get hold of it by downloading the design from the web," says Bowyer. "What's more, when you've got a machine you can print a set of parts for a friend and no one has to pay any royalties to do that."

At the moment, the Reprap can print half of its own parts – the rest, says Bowyer, "we have deliberately chosen so that they are completely standard bits and pieces that anyone can get anywhere in the world". The next goal is to get to the point of full self-replication. Bowyer's aspirations, however, go a lot further than that.

"I would like it ultimately to be cheap enough for everybody to own," he says, "and that's including the world's poorest people. Cheap enough for everyone to own and to be versatile enough that we could print a significant fraction of everything we need using the machine itself. Rather than using factories and shops and having trucks going up and down the motorway and raw materials having to be shifted around and so on, not only will the machine copy itself it will work with a raw material that will copy itself.

"How can it do that?" he continues. "The answer is that it will work with a plastic made from plants and if you've tens of square metres of land you have your own supply of raw material. Not only that, every time you use it, it's taking carbon out of the atmosphere."

I put it to Bowyer that he's making his small, slightly rickety printer sound like a panacea for the world's ills and he laughs. His enthusiasm and high hopes may belie the current limitations of his technology, but they are also typical of those who are immersing themselves in this new manufacturing. There is a can-do spirit abroad.

It's something you find when browsing the 3D warehouse or sites such as Thingiverse, where "makers" post their home-designed and self-printed parts. Among the thousands of objects you'll find a Gothic Cathedral play set ("Ever wanted a Gothic Cathedral of your very own? Intimidated by the centuries long construction schedule? Then we have a Thing for you!") but also a peristaltic pump.

Offline, meanwhile, the same dynamism is apparent in the explosion of Hacker spaces. These are as they sound – cheap workshop spaces where amateur electronics enthusiasts gather to swap home-made gadgets and plan collaborative projects – and they are springing up across the world. In London, in a brightly lit office space, I found people enthusiastically soldering parts, tweaking others and explaining still more to each other. The guest speaker that evening was Mitch Altman, the godfather of Hacker spaces and inventor of a controller that can switch off any TV. His mantra is that "anyone can make a living from doing the thing they love". The London Hacker space is, naturally, building its own Reprap.

Cory Doctorow is a writer and technophile who runs the highly successful blog Boing Boing. His recent novel, Makers, tells the story of two creative types and their trusty 3D printer who inadvertently create an entirely new economic system. Of course, the old economic system proves not to be too happy about this. Doctorow is sceptical about making grand claims for the potential of 3D printing, but equally so about any fears the technology might prompt.

"When people talk about 3D printers there are two ways they envision disruption," he says. "That they will enable widespread copyright infringement, or that they will be used either to print viruses or AK47s. When I hear people say that, it seems to me to have such a poverty of imagination that it'll be rather short of the mark. In general when we predict how things will go, from hobbyist to artisanal to manufactured, we tend to underestimate the potential for weirdness."

Doctorow does believe, however, that 3D printing has already brought about real, tangible change. "We are now in a world where you can choose to make something physical, at a very low cost," he says. "3D printers come out of rapid prototyping. That's no coincidence. The reason you prototype is to find out cheaply whether or not it's not a mistake. There's a famous quote sometimes attributed to Tom Watson of IBM that to double your success rate first triple your failure rate. That's what 3D printing is allowing people to do."

I guess he's talking about me there. I got my Knoon back from the Thinglab and it's clear I might have some work to do before I take it to market. The joint of the handle was too weak, the blade a bit skew-whiff and the bowl couldn't carry any liquid. All that before we even get to the whole shoving a knife in your mouth thing.

Still, it'll be something to tell the grandchildren about. The grandchildren I'll have downloaded and printed from the internet, that is.