Entering the Era of Printable Devices?
By Howard Rheingold, Tue Feb 03 13:00:00 GMT 2004

Can inkjet printing technologies of the near future democratize manufacturing, similar to the way Gutenberg's press democratized knowledge five hundred years ago? A decade from now, will we literally print out working computers, televisions, MP3-playing t-shirts?

I've seen some evidence that an unexpected convergence of different fields might bring about the era of printable devices faster than anyone expected. Expensive 3-D prototype-makers have existed for years, but new hybrids of semiconductor, electroactive polymer, microfluidic and microactuator technologies raise the possibility of affordable fabricators in the near future. Like the microchip and the laser, a truly affordable and reliable device that can print working circuits and even mechanical devices will constitute more than a powerful technology in itself – it could become an enabling platform that makes possible the creation of myriad other technologies.

As usual, the interesting questions might start with how present-day manufacturing might be done less expensively or in greater volume. However, if we extrapolate from the PC and Internet, we should expect that when enough people get their hands on desktop fabricators, they also will do things that were never possible before: Foldable screens that you put in your pocket are easy to imagine, as are intelligent fabrics that transform your tie into a telephone. Then there are there are ideas that we can think about today, but haven't -- and the ideas that we aren't even equipped to think about until a population of tinkerers get our hands on 3D printers.

Creating a 3D object with computer-controlled fabricators is an extension of the same methods that enable a cathode-ray tube to paint two-dimensional displays on screens by turning on and off the right pixels at the right time – except a 3D printer will have to work in layers, turning on and off the deposition or removal of physical substances at specific 3D coordinates. Lasers that harden a semifluid polymer, or which etch hardened plastics have been used successfully on small (but not micro-scale small) objects. If you are an industrial designer who needs to create fast prototypes, you can spend tens of thousands of dollars today on a huge device that uses lasers to deposit specified patterns of plastic. But the past of 3-D manufacturing technology might not be the path to its future. The convergence of new materials, techniques developed by the microchip fabrication industry, the microfluidic precision of inkjet printers, and miniaturized mechanical devices fabricated of new materials make it possible to use far less expensive means to create complex machines that can move and exert physical force as well as compute, display, or communicate information.

UC Berkeley engineering professer John Canny and his co-investigator, Vivek Subramanian are using electroactive polymers, gold nanocrystals, and inkjet printers to print devices that can move as well as process information. Canny and his graduate student Jeremy Risner are working on flexible micromechanical actuators that can be fabricated by the same printing process. They call it "flexonics."

Z Corporation, a startup in Burlington, Massachusetts, markets an "affordable 3D printing system" that uses a spray nozzle adapted from an HP inkjet printer to spray a liquid that binds powdered solid substances into the desired shape. The powder is often starch or plaster. CEO Marina Hatsopolous has been quoted as saying: "A lot of our materials are food-grade, but they aren't very tasty." Hatsopolous also was quoted in the same New York Times article as saying that their hardened starch could print out separate parts, even bearings: "We can do a ball in a ball in a ball. We've got really cool ball bearings."

What kinds of products, services, conflicts, environmental impacts might affordable 3D printers bring? What kinds of factories will go away, what kinds of toxins will flow into the environment, what kinds of wealth and power might emerge from an era of printable devices? David Pescovitz wrote this rather optimistic scenario about the future of flexonics, raising once again the question of whether populations of individual and active users will shape the printable device revolution, the way our experiments and enthusiasms shaped the PC and Internet revolutions: "Flexonics is still in its infancy, but the technology’s potential raises questions about what it will mean to be a consumer in an era of devices-on-demand. You’d no longer pay for a product, Canny says, you’d pay for plans. I look forward then to a generation of do-it-yourself industrial designers, tinkerers who tweak commercial product designs to improve and customize them. How will I access the fruits of their labor? Peer-to-peer plan networks, of course, where designs for blenders and mobile phones and TV remote controls are swapped like so many MP3s."

I like that vision of networked do-it-yourself 3D designers. It's a clear and positive image of what could be possible. I can also envision an alternative future in which digital rights management is extended to manufacturing, restricting the power of innovation to large organizations, rendering formerly active users into relatively passive and powerless consumers.

P2P fabrication networks or Flexonics monopolies represent one kind of vision and anti-vision of a possible future. What others can you imagine?