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In addition to MakerBots, the MakersFactory has powder printers, which are the next step up the 3-D printing ladder. They print using a variety of powdered materials including gypsum, nylon, clay—even glass, steel and titanium.
Using this technique, the object is printed within densely packed layers of powder. Wherever the design designates the object, the printer puts the powdered material and a binding agent; where the design designates empty space, the printer prints nonbinding, space-holding powder that is later blown away. With this self-supporting method, designs can have a level of fragility and detail that plastic printers such as the Thing-O-Matic can't support.
On the industrial level, 3-D printers can build remarkably complex things using the same additive, layer-by-layer process. Last year the Airbike, a customizable bicycle printed out of a powdered nylon that rivals steel or aluminum in strength, was unveiled by the European Aerospace and Defence group, and this year GE is rolling out a jet engine built with some 3-D-printed parts, including the fuel injector.
In addition to being an exciting technological advance, 3-D printing is potentially less expensive than traditional manufacturing (the price of 3-D-printed objects ranges from a few dollars on up), it is a low- or no-waste process, it allows for unlimited customization and it will soon be widely available.
"What I find the most exciting is just the potential, the unknown," says Catterlin. "It really does seem to have limitless possibilities.
"The technology is exciting and it's fun to see it print stuff, but just thinking about the bigger picture of what it means and how far it can go—that's what's the most exciting to me."
Michael Weinberg of the Washington, D.C.–based public interest group Public Knowledge recently wrote a white paper on fabrication and its legal and social implications, titled It Will Be Awesome If They Don't Screw It Up.
He says, "3-D printing technology is poised to have a huge impact on how people create and consume and think about objects. It has the potential to be a very disruptive technology."
That's a good thing, but also contains big risks, legal and otherwise. Part of Weinberg's job with Public Knowledge is to get out ahead of the curve and make sure laws aren't enacted in a knee-jerk reaction to this new thing.
"The last big disruptive technology was the internet," Weinberg says. "With it, some industries embraced it and engaged with it, and some saw it as a threat and tried to get laws passed and make it harder to do innovative things with it."
He says tools that replicate objects, such as DVD burners, photocopiers and manufacturing tools, already exist, and there are already laws that work to prevent their misuse.
"3-D printing is interesting to me because it's dealing with physical objects and you don't have this thing where everything connected with it is protected by copyright," he says. "We're now in a world that is not wrapped up in intellectual copyrights; we're free to create and build upon other ideas."
Weinberg gives as an example the fact that you can't copyright an object such as a desk. Anyone can measure a desk and then build or modify one to fit their own needs.
Perhaps the most significant economic implication of 3-D printing is that it is catalyzing a merging of industries. Dave Britton, cofounder of the MakersFactory, an educational and fabrication workshop, or "maker space," in downtown Santa Cruz, points out that 3-D printing is bringing together industries in previously unimaginable ways.