The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

July 27, 2012

3-D Printing: Inspiring Creativity or Just Proliferating More Plastic Crap?

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, 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?



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8 years ago

hi Per- glad to hear this, at the very least this should be the norm for any 3d plastic and it would be interesting to know what percentage of the market uses this vs. standard polymers.

8 years ago

jdmarshall good point jdmarshall, and I hope that is true — however, the problem is that once this technology gets popularized in our mainstream (unconscious, oblivious to plastic waste, too distracted to care) society, it can go like wildfire producing more plastic experiments, mistakes and successes that will most likely most of the time end up in the trash/environment. right now they are a little too expensive, but in my small community anyone can go to the library and play with that one….so it is coming.
The only way around the problem that I could see is that every 3d machine came with a processor to recycle objects into 3d raw material (is that even possible?) or making the raw material/plastic ‘wire’ so expensive that it is valued and used carefully (unlikely).
I love the idea of these printers, don’t get me wrong – they are empowering to inidviduals over corporations, they encourage innovation and creative thinking and making. I have seen great things about 3d printers at the MAKERSFaire in San Mateo, but every time I go (and it’s almost time to go again!) I am pulling my hair out at the oblivion of people to the concept of plastic waste. People oooo and ahhhh and get excited, but scarce few are asking questions. From what I have seen the vast majority of these machines are not designed for other materials like fiber, cement-based plaster etc – they are for plastic. I asked several booth vendors about it last year, and they said no, not really available. Some can be special ordered to print in chocolate or ice or other materials, but plastic is the norm…
so – all that to say I just love the innovation and while probably the innovators had great intentions–our plastic-addicted and addled society (in which I sadly still include myself to some degree) will take it and run with it in all it’s polymer-spewing glory, unless something arises to either strongly encourage recycling or *something* – the consequences are just plain scary.

product label printing
10 years ago

Replicator using 3D printing is awesome. 3D printing is an additive technology in which objects are built up in layers in a process that often takes several hours. But 3d printing looks so amazing…..

10 years ago

I just want to be able to make that ONE LOST LEGO piece that we can’t find for each set.

Beth Terry
10 years ago

Apparently, LEGO will sell individual pieces However, the shipping if $4.95, so if you’re only missing one piece, it turns out to be a pretty expensive piece. Not that I’m advocating plastic toys, but buying or fabricating an individual brick definitely saves more plastic than replacing the entire set.

10 years ago

If you can get to a Lego outlet, they sell individual pieces in bulk bins. No shipping and no packaging!

10 years ago

This is an article/video on 3-D printing medical devices for children:

10 years ago

You can actually 3-D print with almost anything. All you need is a powder and something to bind it.

This means you can actually hack these at home 3-D printers to print with materials like fiber, salt and concrete (it has been done successfully with relative ease). It’s a technology that’s still in its infancy and actually has a lot of positive potential for more sustainable building practices that are very much plastic-free.

I think it’s far too early to draw conclusions about how much more plastic waste it will produce when there is so much research surrounding 3-D printing technology being done at major institutions to solve these exact issues….

10 years ago

Worked in a plastic factory for a while where we recycled plastic for our production. I don’t see why these printers couldn’t add a grinder on the side to reuse the plastics. ie: kids want to play ball today, print = ball, tomorrow they want to play frisbee, throw the ball back into the printer, print, and the ball just became a frisbee. I could see great reductions in waste from such. And as printers use a binder instead of the heat and pressure of an injection molding machine, I would imagine they could work with 100% regrind. In fact as most printers are just a powder and a binder there is no reason plastic has to be the medium, just a manufactures preference, powdered recycled paper would work just as well. Hey, shred all that junk mail and old telephone books to make the kids toys?

On the wrench though, we have 3D printers that can print in metal, all be it different technology. And jewelry gal, they can even print gold, print a locket, 3D relief inside, even print the chain, all in one piece, you’ll be able to open the locket, and the chain is a chain; you can even make it so it is non disassemblable and totally without seams or casting marks of any kind.

10 years ago

Like any tool, this can and will be misused.

But I think if you took the time to familiarize yourself with the ethics of the people who are building these sorts of tools, you’d find a lot of common ground.

They dislike the Disposable Society just as much as you do. Arguably even more, and for a lot longer. Chastizing them will certainly do nothing to help either cause.

10 years ago

No need to worry about plastic 3d printers. People are too busy texting while driving or adding more members to their social media to be able to have enough time to design the part they want to print. If they just download the design to be printed, it’ll probably cost them big bucks for the copyrighted 3d part which if it mimics something in real production, will then end up costing someone money in court to fight the copyright infringement lawsuit.

What would be cool though is if someone created a printer that uses existing plastic bottles as the media that is melted to create the new part.

10 years ago

The problem with the hype about 3D printing can be seen by thinking about the performance of this plastic wrench compared with that of a metal one. They did a demo but nothing like what a real wrench is capable of.

10 years ago

I think this tecnology will be a long time coming to a store near you. I can see it’s usefullness in medicine or micro-tecnology but as a new way to produce more plastic crap; it sucks
As I was reading the posts it occured to me that the only way to get folk to stop buying all this plastic(or non-plastic) junk will be to help them see the extent of the brainwashing done by the large corporations to MAKE us think we want/need all the “stuff”
I am already a non-consumer and I get the word out whenever I can…of course a lot of folk think I’m nuts but I have caused a few friends to alter their thinking.
Sorry to go off topic.

Per R. . Salkowitsch
10 years ago

A lot of 3D printers use polylactide, which is biodegradable. At least the hackerspace brands.

10 years ago

Yeah,More Crap – if they’re not talking about cradle to cradle responsibility fot the replicator and what it makes – they need to put a hold on it right now — neither the ecosphere nor our bodies can manage the toxic load alreadly present — don’t make it even worse!

Jennifer Mo
10 years ago

One of my favorite Etsy shops uses 3D printing to produce geeky, amazing jewelry based on organic patterns that would otherwise be difficult to achieve and impossibly expensive. I’m OK with plastic that is beautiful, enduring, and prompts people to ask me questions about cells.

Barbara Torrey Centofante
10 years ago

I don’t even want plastic that is recycled… I want plastic usage to get down to the bare minimum.

Suzanne Meyer
10 years ago

crap crap crap booooooooo

Connie Curtis
10 years ago

cant wait to see your book.. something on my want to read list..

Connie Curtis
10 years ago

more crap.. more stuff. lets get out doors more.. dont need more stuff

DeNomy Dage
10 years ago

perhaps it might be useful if they could make something using recycled plastic materials. it may cut down on more plastic production?

10 years ago

Ha! My first thought was: Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. – glad I’m not the only die hard Trekkie out there.

I don’t know what to think about this idea… when I first heard of it a while back it was in the context of manufacturing tools to be used by astronauts on the space station – you know, where getting something you need would be a major project. Certainly would have simplified things on Apollo 13.

But in normal day to day life… I dunno. Can these things actually replicate the functionality of stuff or just the shape of it? If they could come up with a way that you could put the old stuff back into the machine to be made into new stuff then I’d be all for it – but I have a hard time imagining that.

knutty knitter
10 years ago

I’ve seen one of these in action – I don’t think it is anywhere near mass marketing. It will have some uses but I don’t think it will catch on in a big way. Not yet anyhow. Might be good as a small repair business add on.

viv in nz

10 years ago

My immediate take was, “This is awful!” But I read the comment from julsie. Imagine being able to replicate a small broken part and not having to toss an entire device! That could be wonderful. And, better yet, maybe one day you can feed your plastic juice bottles or pieces of a broken plastic toy into the machine and use immediately recycled plastic. That could be god.

Tracey TieF
10 years ago
Reply to  EmilieV

MMM I’d be very worried about the Volatile Organic Compounds in the air around a plastic using machine. Coloured plastic is really toxic and carcinogenic. When we make recycled plastic, we often use 50% new plastic. I’d like to see our old plastic shredded, not melted, into a new kind of low resource ashphalt, not toys.

10 years ago
Reply to  Tracey TieF

You’re right Tracey. I clearly hadn’t thought it through!

10 years ago

A relative has a makerbot, which just makes plastic crap. Crappy plastic crap, IMO. Although I’ve seen stories online from people who use their 3d printers to make replacement plastic parts for small appliances like coffee makers. A little DIY plastic to avoid buying a whole new plastic gadget!
I can’t wait to hear more about the 3d printers using other materials. Forget the party favors, I want to print customized plates for my kid’s birthday party, then toss them all on the compost pile afterwards.

10 years ago

This is beyond my comprehension . . . I tend to agree with Tracey although I can see some incredible applications with prosthetic limbs . . . I doubt that the cost of using this printer lends itself to churning out plastic garbage for more than marketing. Once this technology is used more widely I can see more positives rather than negatives.

Tracey TieF
10 years ago

New technology always brings wit it the potential for good or ill. If we are into plastic crap, we’ll make plastic crap with 3-D printing.If we are into quality durable and innovative goods,we’ll make that. You can guess what’s going to happen. I look forward to “My replicator sucks. Can I borrow your 20th century wrench?”

Leanne Wingatui
10 years ago

More crap. Just more crap.

Caralien Speth
10 years ago

All of the above.