3D printers give rise to 'desktop manufacturing'

Customizable objects from plastic dollhouse furniture to medical prosthetics can now be designed and printed out by almost anyone at the press of a button, and is going to lead to an 'explosion of new stuff,' predicts author Chris Anderson.

Technology lets ordinary people design goods and upload to factories to mass produce

Digital technologies such as 3D modeling software and 3D printers have grown cheap and accessible enough for ordinary people to make prototypes of objects that could, until recently, only be made by people who owned factories. (Emily Chung/CBC)

Customizable objects from plastic dollhouse furniture to medical prosthetics can now be designed and made by almost anyone at the press of a 3D print button, and this rise of "desktop manufacturing" is going to lead to an "explosion of new stuff," predicts Chris Anderson, author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.

"As easy as it is right now to publish a blog post, it is getting nearly that easy to make a physical thing. You don't need skills, you just need an idea," Anderson said during a recent keynote address at the Canada 3.0 digital media conference in Toronto.

In the past five years, digital technologies such as 3D modeling software and 3D printers have become cheaper and accessible enough for ordinary people to make prototypes of objects that, until recently, could only be made by those who owned factories or were skilled machinists.

Like YouTube, Wordpress

"Now, once they have that prototype, they don't need to buy a factory, they can just upload it to a factory in the same way that you upload your ideas to an information factory called YouTube or the Wordpress servers or just the internet," Anderson said.

Manufacturing, he added, is "turning into a button in your browser."

Anderson, a former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, and the father of five children, described his own discovery of just how easy it is now to order custom-made objects online.

A few years ago, he had created a robot blimp kit with his kids, and people started asking if they could buy it. In order to make an affordable kit, Anderson needed to buy some cheap motors. Online, he stumbled upon a manufacturer that made custom motors.

"I was like, 'I know nothing about motors,'" he recalled. "And they were like 'It's super easy.'"

By clicking options in a checklist provided by the manufacturer, Anderson "designed" a motor and ordered 5,000 for "a really good deal."

"I realized in that act, that basically with 20 minutes of clicking on the web, I got robots in China to do the work for me and they took PayPal," he said. "I felt chills in the same way that I felt chills the first time I put a video on YouTube."

Since that experience, Anderson has founded two companies that manufacture drones and robotics respectively.

Artists, architects and surgeons

On the floor of a tradeshow a short walk from where Anderson was speaking, Doug Angus-Lee watched over a microwave-sized 3D printer alongside a display of intricate objects.

They ranged from a detailed model of a human skull to a complex piece of art that looks like metres and metres of transparent plastic ribbons looping and folding around each other into the shape of a giant egg.

Angus-Lee is the rapid prototype product manager at Oakville, Ont.-based Javelin Technologies.

The company has 80 employees across the country, and has been selling 3D-modelling software to industrial design clients such as auto manufacturers since 1997. It added 3D printing and 3D printer sales to its menu of services three years ago.

"It's really expanded our clientele into new areas," Angus-Lee said.

Architects now hire Javelin to print accurate 3D models of buildings in a fraction of the time and cost it would take to craft them by hand. Animators turn their characters into collectible figurines. Doctors use MRI and CT scan data to generate models of body parts that can be used to plan surgeries and test medical prosthetics and devices.

"They can actually print an exact copy of a person's skull from the MRI data, then they can test the shape and the fit of the device that they need to implant before have to actually implant it," Angus-Lee said.

He added that artists "are really embracing the 3D-printer technology because they can create really complex designs easily."

'A photocopier of things in your pocket'

What this means is that manufacturing is no longer just the realm of professionals.

Anderson told the story of how his daughters recently requested new furniture for their dollhouse. An online search revealed that retailers carried only a small selection, and not necessarily in the right size.

With his children beside him, Anderson logged into Thingiverse, a site where people share blueprints for 3D printed objects, and found a chair uploaded by a set designer on Broadway.

"We downloaded exactly the right chair and we printed it on the 3D printer and they painted it and they loved it," Anderson recalled.

For those who want to create their own designs, software has made it simple.

Anderson showed how a free program called Autodesk 123D Catch can create a 3D model from images recorded by rotating your smartphone around an object, such as a person's head.

"You've got a photocopier of things in your pocket," Anderson said, adding that the model could then be used to print a custom plastic pez dispenser using a 3D printer.

Given that kind of power, Anderson predicts, ordinary people will design and manufacture things that the manufacturers would never have thought to make, leading to an "explosion of new stuff, different stuff, better stuff, cheaper stuff." He believes this "democratization" of manufacturing will lead to industrial revolution of sorts.

"Today," he said, "we are all industrial designers."