Have you guys been following the hoopla about 3-D printers? Those marvelous machines that can make just about anything you want on demand? A year ago, MyPlasticFreeLife.com reader Eleanor K. Sommer contacted me for my opinion about 3-D printers (something I hadn’t even heard of at that point) and was concerned that these machines could be another way to bring more plastic stuff into the world. Plastic crap on demand, right? Well, she’s done a ton more research since then and offers this guest post to share what she’s learned. I’d love your comments after reading the post. Some people think that 3-D printing will revolutionize and democratize innovation. What do you think?
3-D Printing for Home and Office
Eleanor K. Sommer
About a year ago I saw a video of someone “printing” a wrench. David Kaplan, a theoretical physicist at John Hopkins University, interviewed Joe Titlow of Z Corporation while he made a working three-dimensional copy of the tool in a couple of hours. The demonstration, done for a National Geographic program, was captivating and awesome. The video went viral on YouTube. [Note: The original video seems to have been removed from YouTube. This link is to a copy of the same video on a different channel.]
Watching it, I lapsed into a Star Trek moment. “It’s a replicator,” I said to my husband. The device, a bit larger than a street-corner mail box, is so post-21st century. So far future. So full of possibilities.
Pulling myself back from warp speed, though, I became disturbed. This wunderkind appliance had implications I could not even imagine. The substance must be powdered plastic, I decided as I watched. I cringed at the thought of household desktop “printers” adding to the mountains of plastic waste in the world. More useless stuff.
I was wrong. At least about Z Corp. Titlow told me the material is a special kind of powder and contains gypsum. Z Corporation uses “eco-friendly, non-hazardous” building material and produces “zero liquid waste,” he said and the company tries to be eco-friendly in other ways, such as replacing plastic drums with cardboard ones for shipping the powdered materials to clients. [Note: To add strength, there is the option for parts to be "infiltrated with resin" (i.e. plastic).]
The Plastic Universe
Most 3D replicators, however, do use plastics—thus the potential for an explosion in plastic waste.
3D printing is really old tech in many ways. For decades manufacturers have used software programs to manipulate expensive equipment to transform raw materials (or parts) into products through automated molding, carving, cutting, and assembly. What makes the 3D copying equipment rapidly emerging in the marketplace different is its compact size, speed, self-contained and self-reproducible components, and ease of use.
At this year’s Makers Faire, according to Jaymi Heinbuch, there were at least 55 3D machines and at least 23 of them were unique designs. Heinbuch focused on MakerBot and Cubify. The most common raw materials for 3D printing are plastic polymer liquids and powders. Cubify uses the coploymer ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). Makerbot uses ABS and polylactide (PLA), which is a thermoplastic aliphatic polyester made from renewable resources such as corn starch.
[Makerbot's site advertises, "Pack up the Bot, and grab your SD Card and you’re ready to go to your friends birthday and make all the party favors."]
But some of the more sophisticated and industrial machines create products from ceramic powders or specialized metals. There are even biological 3-D printers that have recently become hot in R&D. Some human tissues and even a vein have already been “printed.”
Just imagine having your own replicator at home. Break a plate from your grandmother’s china service? Print a new one. Lost your mom’s favorite pliers? Quick make a new pair before she comes home. Like your friend’s fabulous new sandals? Throw them on the 3D copier and make your own!
Consider RepRap—one of the first incarnations of desktop 3D printing. Besides being cheap and easy to use, RepRap can reproduce itself—nearly, anyway. You’ll need a handful of metal parts to make it work. That’s scary. And not because of the prescience of Karel Capek (R.U.R.) or because I think the Borg are on the drawing board. My fear is the proliferation of plastic trinkets in a world already inundated with plastic waste. Health concerns are implicit in every stage of plastic production: manufacturing, use, and disposal. Do we really need the convenience of downloading a program (or scanning an object) to print more synthetic stuff?
Z Corporation at least has addressed environmental and health concerns. But machines for small scale manufacturers and for home use utilize liquid plastic. I can give RepRap kudos for cutting edge tech and open source programming, but the new polymer geeks of the world need to be on notice to address environmental and health issues. (No one from the loosely formed RepRap network could be reached for comment.)
Like all aspects of paradigm-shifting innovations, 3-D technologies are revolutionary for business and culture. Part of me finds the idea exciting and enticing: tools and household items can be custom-manufactured. Stores could downsize and stock pictures or samples of items and “print” them when needed. However, the implications for the environment are staggering and frightening. Instant “stuff” could easily move an already out-of-control consumer society to overwhelm the natural environment with a debilitating plastic plague.
How we refine and use this technology is the key to a safe and prosperous future. Will we use to help people and the environment or to satisfy consumer whims? Only the future will tell. In the meantime, I guess I’ll have to wait a bit to order a cup of Earl Grey tea from my kitchen replicator.
So? What do you think? Are 3-D copiers and printers exciting or scary or a mixture of both?