From ventriloquist's dummies to turkey dinners, 3-D printing is heading home

April 23, 2012 By Joel N. Shurkin
The Model 1 (above) is the first Fab@Home system. It includes everything necessary for basic, multimaterial desktop fabrication. It makes use of a basic "syringe pump"" material dispensing tool, with disposable syringes to enable dispensing of a wide variety of materials. Credit: Image courtesy of Fab@Home

When the ventriloquist Jeff Dunham wanted to make a new dummy for his show, he designed the character's head on his home computer and then printed it out in his workshop.

Using a rising technology known as 3-D printing, Dunham's printer laid down layer after layer of colored plastic until it formed the dummy's head.

Scientists at Cornell are printing out turkey dinners the same way. Several manufacturers are creating customized dental crowns, and others individualized artificial hips.

3-D printing has already begun to revolutionize manufacturing and now is on the verge of spreading out into home and office. And just as desktop computers created a revolution by moving computing from huge corporate-owned mainframes to everyone's desktop, 3-D printing is poised to do the same.

Those in the field call 3-D printing "additive manufacturing,", because it makes stuff by adding things together, with nothing left over. Whatever the name, the machines are getting smaller, the software more available, and the machines -- nicknamed fabbers -- cheaper, some under $1,000.

"In just a few hours, these mini-factory machines can produce a simple object like a toothbrush or make complex machine components, artisan-style jewelry or household goods," wrote Hod Lipson of Cornell University and Melba Kerman, a consultant at Triple Helix Innovation, in a report called Factory@Home for the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The printers work like ink-jet printers except they spray plastics, metals, or almost any substance that can flow, onto platforms in very . The layer hardens, the platform moves down slightly, and another layer is added. Like color printers with four or five different inks, the 3-D printers can have more than one substance.

A large industry is burgeoning around the technology, said Terry Wohlers, a Colorado consultant who specializes in the industry. Everything from small-startups to huge corporations is using 3-D printing to build prototypes, finished parts, or complete items, or to provide a printing service.

Nike designs running shoes on a computer and prints out prototypes, he said. Boeing has 3-D printed parts in ten of its aircraft. Thousands of printed devices serve as implants in human bodies, modified to each individual by simply adjusting the software, Wohlers said. The machines can turn out laboratory equipment, electronic devices and customized medicines.

Now some of the attention is turning to individuals and the home.

In Lipson's lab at Cornell, researchers are putting 3-D machines to work in the kitchen. With the help of New York chef Dave Arnold, they are constructing food. They can make it look like any design desired, write with it, or write on it.

The devices, about the size of large microwave ovens, work something like the "replicators" in Star Trek, where Capt. Jean-Luc Picard regularly ordered "Earl Grey tea, hot" and the hot tea and cup appeared instantly. The difference, according to Jeff Lipton, a graduate student in Lipson's lab, is that the fictional replicator made food from basic atomic elements, while the devices at Cornell need tubes of more complex liquid or paste ingredients, to put the food together. What goes in, comes out.

Not everything works, Lipton said. They worked with cheese, Nutella, hummus and, peanut butter. It didn't come out well. They tried using artificial ingredients. Ditto.

"Some people can accept a little artificiality and you can cross this valley where it is no longer food: it's gunk," Lipton said. In the early experiments, "we crossed that valley and came running back."

They tried some of the recipes Arnold helped design with the chefs at Cornell's esteemed School of Hotel Administration.

"They judged us harshly," Lipton said. But, he said, they are getting closer.

In the case of turkey, the tubes contained ground turkey and an emulsifier, Lipton said, the kind of "meat glue" used to make sausages. The turkey substance hardens after printing and looks, tastes, and smells like turkey, he said.

Lipton said that the biggest difficulty with replicating food is calibration.

"Two batches of cookie dough can have wildly different cooking properties." Getting the temperature right proved difficult. Even changing temperatures in the kitchen or lab could throw off the process.

Lipton said they are working on a feedback system that will allow the printers to calibrate themselves.

Getting temperatures right also was a problem at England's Exeter University, which prints chocolate. Chocolate is difficult to work with because the temperature has to be just right and the flow rate perfect. Using control systems designed at Exeter, users can design their own desserts.

There is little waste with any of these uses.

Not everyone is convinced all this will lead to 3-D printers in every home. It may, however, be a new way of doing business, bringing in an age of what economists call a "long-tail economy," in which companies deliver huge volumes of goods, but with small quantities of many items for its customers, something like the Amazon and Netflix models.

"The homeowner or the consumer will go on the web, will punch in the part number, it will available in digital form somewhere, or there will be a service and it will be printed. That's how I believe it will unfold," said Wohlers.

Or, you go to the printer and order up "turkey, dressing, mashed sweet potatoes and Earl Grey Tea.

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not rated yet Apr 23, 2012
I've been following the development progress of these ingenious devices. They have been getting better and better. They can only continue to get better and faster. Materials will be developed that will allow one to make virtually anything that can fit in one of those things. Yea, verily, the replicator is nigh upon us. Crazy world.
5 / 5 (4) Apr 23, 2012
There's a couple of provisos, though. Today many manufactured devices require pre- and/or post-processing for some of their parts (e.g. hardening/annealing of metals, coating, etching, ... ). This is something that fabricators can't do (yet).

As for the 'paste' dinners. That doesn't sound too appetizing (then again: we eat fast food - to get to that level shouldn't take too much more doing).
1 / 5 (5) Apr 23, 2012
VD = Ventriloquists Dummy?
1 / 5 (1) Apr 23, 2012
I can see how this could revolutionize cookwear, dishes, and flatware. It's easy to see how you could print an extra set of plates, replace a broken cup, print a set of plates with a special design on them, like happy birthday Vendicar or something. Just about every hand utensile in the kitchen can be made of plastic, ceramic, or epoxy, which are materials that these printers handle well. Imagine always having exactly the tool you need. I also imagine that some types of raw materials might be recycleable, simply by grinding up your old stuff and feeding them back into the printer to make new stuff. Glass, for example, should fit that category, as well as some plastics. For ceramics, you might need to add a liquid binder, but they should also be reusable.

Think of all the semi-disposable things you could print. Combs, hangers, toothpicks, etc.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 23, 2012

And, if enough people start to have this type of thing in their home, you might see manufactured items start to be designed with in-home part replacement in mind. For example, things might come with a list of part schematics that you can find online. Like those little pins that hold the shelves up in a cheap book case. Imagine never worrying about losing one again?
not rated yet Apr 23, 2012
I wonder how many of this machines own parts could be printed to make more of itself? Will we mass produce mass production? Or what if it was scaled up to print modular homes of sorts? Or even better, scale it down to make complex devices from simple nano-scale structures. Imagine having something like this used in unison with city planning software that automates city repair in key areas. I wonder how gun control would work if one could print and assemble whatever weapons one wanted. That could become an issue. I will continue speculating comfortably in my armchair. Thoughts?
not rated yet Apr 23, 2012
As we become able to manipulate things at the atomic level, no doubt a replicator of sorts will become possible, after all it is a natural progression, unless of course it is one of those impossible things?
not rated yet Apr 23, 2012
Wonderful way to send millions of people to the scrap heap. This is a wonderfully exciting and disruptive technology. It won't be ubiquitous for quite a few years, but where will the cooks be when everyone uses a "fabber" for lunch? Will there be "bread lines" for the millions of unemployed, or will they be called "fab lines"?
not rated yet Apr 23, 2012
Or, you go to the printer and order up "turkey, dressing, mashed sweet potatoes and Earl Grey Tea.

That is what i was going to say. except i was going to say: "Tea. Earl Gray. Hot. Picard to Riker, are we nearing the Risa System yet?"
1 / 5 (4) Apr 23, 2012
Wonderful way to send millions of people to the scrap heap. This is a wonderfully exciting and disruptive technology. It won't be ubiquitous for quite a few years, but where will the cooks be when everyone uses a "fabber" for lunch? Will there be "bread lines" for the millions of unemployed, or will they be called "fab lines"?

This kind of technology is essential for survival when there will be so few workers per retiree.

In 1950, there were 7.2 people aged 20-64 for every person of 65 or over in the OECD countries. By 1980, the support ratio dropped to 5.1 and by 2010 it was 4.1. It is projected to reach just 2.1 by 2050. The average ratio for the EU was 3.5 in 2010 and is projected to reach 1.8 by 2050. Examples of support ratios for selected countries in 1970, 2010, and projected for 2050:
US: 5.3 / 4.5 / 2.6
Japan: 8.5 / 2.6 / 1.2
Britain: 4.3 / 3.6 / 2.4
Germany: 4.1 / 3.0 / 1.6
France: 4.2 / 3.5 / 1.9

not rated yet Apr 23, 2012
Soon people won't shoplift from stores but will illegally download blueprints from Internet. A new age of online piracy?
not rated yet Apr 23, 2012
Welcome the age of replicators.
not rated yet Apr 24, 2012
I'm betting on Wal-Mart (or maybe Target or Walgreens) being instrumental in the uptake of this technology. They'll jump all over it as soon as it makes economic sense to put a couple of 3D printers in their stores and you will pick up products just like you pick up pictures now. There probably won't be a great many products available at first, but it will ramp up quickly as revenue from the first generations of 3D printers lead to better technology that can do a wider range of products and the cycle will intensify. Within the next couple of decades, a big box store should only need to be a fraction of it's current size to hold the same product selection. It should still be in their interest to pursue this as they have the most stores and can still order the printers and printing material in bulk for discounts, just much less complicated for delivery and stocking.

Count me as being in the camp for this being the beginning of a second industrial revolution.
0.1 / 5 (35) Apr 24, 2012
Why can't it print it's own "syringe pump" or syringes?

"It makes use of a basic "syringe pump"" material dispensing tool, with disposable syringes to enable dispensing of a wide variety of materials." - Article

Because it can't make the materials needed, and can't print smooth edges. Two key abilities needed to make a syringe pump.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2012
I wonder how gun control would work if one could print and assemble whatever weapons one wanted.

No different than now. Those who have a motive to get a gun can get a gun. Putting printers into people's homes isn't going to change who has guns and who hasn't (though if someone starts printing a virus or nukes we may have a problem).
Those who want guns will always have them. Those who don't won't.

Wonderful way to send millions of people to the scrap heap.

Add free power (which we're already very close to) and free (robotic?) resource gathering and you have the makings of a society where you only work when you want to. What's wrong with that? I don't think 9-to-5 is an issue carved in stone for all eternity.

Soon people won't shoplift from stores but will illegally download blueprints from Internet.

Or people will just put 'open source' alternatives on the net - just like now.
not rated yet Apr 28, 2012
What I would like to know is why the printer shown in the article is printing a dildo?

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