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February 21 2013

3D printing from your fingertips

The 3Doodler is a 3D printer, but it’s a pen. This takes 3D printing and turns it on its head …

In fact the 3Doodler rejects quite a lot of what most people would consider necessary for it to be called a 3D printer. There is no three-axis control. There is no software. You can’t download a design and print an object. It strips 3D printing back to basics.

What there is, what it allows you to do, is make things. This is the history of printing going in reverse. It’s as if Gutenberg’s press was invented first, and then somebody came along afterwards and invented the fountain pen.

While the 3Doodler looks simple, the creators have obviously overcome some serious technological difficulties to get it working. One of the things that’s hard to do on 3D printers, at least hard to do well, is unsupported structures.

As anyone that owns a 3D printer will tell you, the cooling time for the plastic as it leaves the print head is crucial to allow you to print unsupported structures. Too hot and it doesn’t work, the structure sags and runs. Too cold and it just plain doesn’t work at all. From their videos, the 3Doodler inventors seem to have cracked the problem. Building a free-standing structure appears to be easy and well within the capabilities of the pen.

It also takes 3mm ABS and PLA as its “ink,” the same stuff used by most hobbyist 3D printers. I’ve got spools of this stuff hanging around my house, which I use in my own printer. But unlike my printer, which cost just under a thousand dollars, the 3Doodler costs just $75.

It doesn’t have the same capabilities, but that’s the difference between a printing press and a pen. It has different capabilities, ones a “normal” 3D printer doesn’t have. It’s not a cheap alternative, it’s a different thing entirely.

I’m currently watching the 3Doodler climb past its first million dollars on Kickstarter. When I say its “first” million I mean that. The project has more than 30 days left on its campaign and already it’s gone viral. This is the next Pebble. The next Kickstarter success story.

The creators have tapped into a previously untappable market: People who wanted a 3D printer but couldn’t afford one, and people who see the obvious potential of a fountain pen over a printing press, for both art and engineering.

The guys behind the 3Doodler made $60,000 dollars while I wrote this post. My hat is off to them. It’s not often someone comes up with an idea this good.

I’m going to be writing a series of posts on hardware startups over the course of the next few months, and rest assured I’ll come back to the 3Doodler. But not until they can type faster than they can make money.

November 27 2012

Printing ourselves

Tim O’Reilly recently asked me and some other colleagues which technology seems most like magic to us. There was a thoughtful pause as we each considered the amazing innovations we read about and interact with every day.

I didn’t have to think for long. To me, the thing that seems most like magic isn’t Siri or self-driving cars or augmented reality displays. It’s 3D printing.

My reasons are different than you might think. Yes, it’s amazing that, with very little skill, we can manufacture complex objects in our homes and workshops that are made from things like plastic or wood or chocolate or even titanium. This seems an amazing act of conjuring that, just a short time ago, would have been difficult to imagine outside of the “Star Trek” set.

But the thing that makes 3D printing really special is the magic it allows us to perform: the technology is capable of making us more human.

I recently had the opportunity to lay out this idea in an Ignite talk at Strata Rx, a new conference on data science and health care that I chaired with Colin Hill. Here’s the talk I gave there (don’t worry: like all Ignite talks, it’s only five minutes long).

In addition to the applications mentioned in my talk, there are even more amazing accomplishments just over the horizon. Doctor Anthony Atala, of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, recently printed a human kidney onstage at TED.

This was not actually a working kidney — one of the challenges to creating working organs is building blood vessels that can provide cells on the inside of the organ structure with nutrients; right now, the cells inside larger structures tend to die rapidly. But researchers at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania are experimenting with printing these vessel networks in sugar. Cells can be grown around the networks, and then the sugar can be dissolved, leaving a void through which blood could flow. As printer resolution improves, these networks can become finer.

And 3D printing becomes even more powerful when combined with other technologies. For example, researchers at the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine are using a hybrid 3D printing/electrospinning technique to print replacement cartilage.

As practiced by Bespoke Innovations, the WREX team, and others , 3D printing requires a very advanced and carefully honed skillset; it is not yet within reach of the average DIYer. But what is so amazing — what makes it magic — is that when used in these ways at such a level, the technology disappears. You don’t really see it, not unless you’re looking. What you see is the person it benefits.

Technology that augments us, that makes us more than we are even at our best (such as self-driving cars or sophisticated digital assistants) is a neat party trick, and an homage to our superheros. But those that are superhuman are not like us; they are Other. Every story, from Superman to the X-Men to the Watchmen, includes an element of struggle with what it means to be more than human. In short, it means outsider status.

We are never more acutely aware of our own humanity, and all the frailty that entails, as when we are sick or injured. When we can use technology such as 3D printing to make us more whole, then it makes us more human, not Other. It restores our insider status.

Ask anyone who has lost something truly precious and then found it again. I’m talking on the level of an arm, a leg, a kidney, a jaw. If that doesn’t seem like magic, then I don’t know what does.

September 24 2012

Four short links: 25 September 2012

  1. Stewart Brand Interview (Wired) — full of interesting tidbits. This line from the interviewer, Kevin Kelly, resonated: One other trajectory I have noticed about the past 20 years: Excitement about the future has waned. The future is deflating. It is simply not as desirable as it once was. (via Matt Jones)
  2. Commercial Use of Small Drones Still Without RegulationsFAA officials have also been working for the past five years on regulations to allow commercial use of small drones, which are generally defined as weighing less than 55-pounds and flying at altitudes under 4,000 feet. The agency has drafted regulations that were initially expected to be published late last year, but have been repeatedly delayed. Five years. That’s as long as the iPhone has existed. Just sayin’. (via Jim Stogdill)
  3. Multicore World 2013 — conference just for multicore. Check out the last conference’s program for what to expect. No word on whether it’ll have parallel sessions, ho ho ho.
  4. Turning a Shipping Container into a 3D Printer — a walk-in printer. AWESOME.
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