To best explore the reasons for why anyone does anything, I developed a format called the “why-to”. I assembled a number of why-to guides, devoted to a variety of activities, into a single collection titled why-to: a short and helpful guide to motivate one’s pursuit of activities either a.) previously not pursued or b.) pursued so regularly that no one knows or remembers why they’re doing them in the first place. And, now that I’ve taken up writing about 3D printing, I realize that, there are times when its necessary to invoke the why-to form once again because, as with all activities, the reasons for 3D printing objects can quickly become unclear.
As “3D printing” transforms from a technological means to an end into a successful SEO search term — driving traffic and media attention to a given project or product simply for the use of 3D printing in even the most tangential way possible — I believe it’s important to revisit the concept of additive manufacturing, building up an object layer by layer through the translation of digital designs to physical reality, and remember why anyone 3D prints anything in the first place.
Why-to 3D print (for prototyping purposes):
With the inventors of 3D printing often coming from industrial backgrounds, it made perfect sense to apply their new technology to the field of industrial design. When the technology first emerged in the 1980s, and took root in the 1990’s, it was used as a method for rapidly prototyping a design before moving into final production. Rather than mould a prototype out of clay or cobbling it together from wood, 3D printing made it possible to create an accurate representation of a computer model in the physical world. Then, if any changes needed to be made to a design, one could do so via a CAD drawing, and 3D print a new iteration.
Why-to design things on the computer:
By storing data on a computer, it’s possible to save a lot of space in the physical world. For instance, a collection of movies — in the form of DVDs, VHS tapes, or even, the now absurd, Laserdiscs — necessitates an entire piece of furniture just to be stored conveniently. The same movies, in the form of digital files, merely take up space on your hard drive. So, to design objects on a computer can save you a lot of space.
More importantly, the plethora of software in existence to serve computer users allows for almost superhuman abilities in countless fields. When it comes to design, computer users are able to draw lines with high degrees of mathematical complexity and artistic creativity, apply filters that completely alter human perception and craft 3D objects of Escherian whim.
Why-to draw impossible labyrinths:
The works of Dutch artist M.C. Escher left a permanent impact on me as a child. I had seen his drawings of castle towers with stairways that led to parallel dimensions of space and they resonated with me on a deep, subconscious level. When I was young, I had no words to describe the dreamlike connection I had with his sketches, but, now as an adult, I believe that Escher’s labyrinthine worlds of impossibility hint at some truth about our universe. My conscious mind won’t allow me to dwell on the concept for too long, but I sometimes wonder if life is a labyrinth itself, endlessly repeating with no escape.
And, as our computing powers increase, so too will our powers of design, until we can construct entire worlds so realistic that we may, one day, get lost in them ourselves.
This saved a great deal of money, while providing manufacturers and designers with very realistic models of products that might be mass produced.
And, so, rapid prototyping was born. For years, the technology was mainly used to prepare prototypes before using traditional manufacturing for mass production. It was only until the expiration of key patents that the technology would begin to move towards its full potential.
Why-to 3D print (to 3D print a 3D printer):
In two separate parts of the world, the UK and the US, two scientists worked with their respective universities to develop low-cost, open source, desktop 3D printers. Hod Lipson designed, with his team at Cornell, the [email protected] 3D printer, while Adrian Bowyer worked with his group at the University of Bath to design the RepRap 3D printer. The designs for both were made available to the public, inspiring and inviting individuals — non-experts — to design and build their own.
The RepRap project, in particular, was an exercise in a very interesting philosophical concept thought up by Bowyer. The professor reasoned that, if it were possible to design a 3D printer that could 3D print all of the parts necessary to build a copy of itself, the financial system, as we know it, might be forever altered. Hypothetically, if the machine could produce itself, as well as almost anything else, there would be no reason to buy, sell, or steal things because the cost of making the printer and manufacturing goods on the printer would be so low as to render our current system of economic exchange obsolete.
Why-to forever alter the financial system as we know it:
Currently, the global financial system has a habit of increasing the power and comfort of the super rich. It’s a disappointing fact, but, more or less, true. Because “money”, a sort of abstract concept for representing real world value to increase the efficiency of bartering, can be used to buy things, it can also be used to purchase situational advantages in the social structure.
Why-to use an abstract concept to represent real world value:
Before societies relied on symbolic representations of goods – like gold, cash and coins – humans bartered their way to survival. A hunter could trade a piece of meat or some furs for weapons constructed by an ironsmith, allowing the ironsmith to concentrate on honing ironsmithing skills and the hunter to concentrate on honing hunting skills. In cases, however, where the ironsmith didn’t actually need meat, but really needed some new shoes, the bartering process grew more complicated. First, the ironsmith would need to trade weapons for meat and then meat for shoes. You can imagine that, anymore protraction on this process would become quite burdensome. Reasonably, societies invented a token to act as a placeholder for the goods being traded. Instead of endlessly bartering until finally reaching the desired good, one could simply trade items or services for money and the money could be used to purchase the desired good.
Such advantages in the social structure might include: paying a judge to rule a court decision in your favour, contributing to a politician’s campaign to advocate governmental policies on the behalf of your company, or funding research institutions to purposefully discredit legitimate scientific findings to ensure a positive business climate for your own well-being. Though they may seem like advantages for a small group of individuals, they may not benefit the majority of society’s members.
Why-to 3D print to improve third world conditions:
There are a number of non-profits out there that are trying to ease the suffering of those living in harsh environments through 3D printing. Because desktop 3D printers can be relatively affordable, some groups are donating 3D printers to residents of third world regions so that they may manufacture their own goods, without paying possibly costly market prices for the same products, or to overcome physical harm caused by war.
Why-to 3D print prosthetics:
One particular group, called Not Impossible Labs, visited the Sudan, where war has led to amputated limbs among many of the country’s residents. Prosthetic limbs, unfortunately, have price tags usually well over $10,000. Not Impossible Labs has trained a handful of Sudanese in the use of 3D printers and CAD software to design and print prosthetics for anyone who may have suffered the loss of a limb. These cheap replacement arms and hands may not be as high quality as those made by major medical manufacturers, but they may greatly increase the quality of life for people who could not afford prosthetics otherwise.
Therefore, changes to, say, government regulations could alter the financial system in a way that prevents those with preposterous levels of wealth from further transforming the system in their favour, at the detriment of the collective.
Bowyer also described the relationship between humans and his RepRap invention as a form of symbiosis, which I found to be particularly intriguing. Humans could use their 3D printers to construct objects that might aid in their own survival, while simultaneously improving the machines’ designs. Over time, people would increase the printers’ own ability to survive, building more and more, and consequently, germinating the device around the world.
In 2009, a key patent for fused deposition modelling held by Scott Crump, founder of 3D printing industry leader Stratasys, expired, inspiring DIY enthusiasts to make their creations commercial. This further increased the improvements made to such printers, as well as the amount of 3D printers on the planet. RepRappers saw opportunities to build their own RepRap machines and sell them, often turning to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to launch their projects.
Why-to use Kickstarter to launch a 3D printer line:
Kickstarter is a fundraising platform that could only exist in the Web 2.0 era, in which users, not software developers, generate internet content. By launching a project on such a crowdfunding site, project creators are able to appeal to consumers themselves for capital. The idea is that the worthiness of a campaign will be judged by a jury of the creator’s peers and only the projects that have public value (or appeal) will be funded.
In the beginning, desktop 3D printing found a lucrative source of funding on Kickstarter. When desktop fabricators were new and unique, they caught the affection of the public, eliciting so much excitement that many 3D printing projects were successful due to mere novelty. Companies like Printrbot and Form Labs were able to find ample support on the site to establish themselves as successful brands today.
Why-to seek outside investors to ensure your company’s financial success:
Other 3D printer manufacturers, like Makerbot, wound up seeking funding from venture capitalists. Large chunks of money from investors like Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, gave the company commercial clout that, in addition to good timing, launched it into the forefront of public consciousness, so that desktop 3D printing, to the uninitiated, became associated with MakerBot.
Why-to agree to a corporate acquisition:
Being acquired by a larger company may give some start-ups the resources to push their dreams even farther. That is, if the smaller firm can retain some creative control. In the case of the Sugar Lab, a Los Angeles-based developer of 3D sugar printing technology, the acquisition by 3D Systems, the original manufacturer of 3D printers, led to the production of even better sugar printers capable of printing multiple colours and flavours, including sour apple and chocolate.
Due to the success of a number of these 3D printer brands, the public awareness around the technology started to grow. Soon, 3D printing was all over the news and it wouldn’t be long before its value became apparent to everyone.
Why-to 3D print (for reasons of complexity):
It was soon discovered that constructing an object layer by layer added some very unique benefits to the design of objects that couldn’t be achieved by traditional, subtractive manufacturing. In the construction of a component through milling, for instance, it might be impossible to drill interior structures that offer design advantages because the drill cannot reach the inside of a part. By building the component layer by layer, the internal structure can be constructed at the same time that the external portion is, without adding any additional manufacturing cost in the process. For this reason, 3D printing has come to be associated with the phrase “complexity is free.”
Why-to 3D print objects with hollow interiors:
A common way that designers take advantage of this free complexity is by 3D printing hollow objects. In traditional manufacturing, as objects are often cut out from blocks of material or injection moulded, there’s no choice but to create entirely solid items, even when it’s unnecessary for design purposes. With 3D printing, however, one can fill the interior of an object only as much as is necessary for structural support. Often, objects that only require a limited amount of interior material will be printed with an internal hexagonal structure. This lattice saves a great deal of material, while simultaneously providing integrity to the overall structure of the object.
Why-to 3D print a jet engine nozzle:
GE, one of the largest manufacturers and the 26th largest conglomerate in the world, has made headlines in the past couple of years for its use of 3D metal printing in the manufacturing of its new LEAP jet engine nozzles. Formerly, jet engine nozzles would be made by combining multiple, solid components made through traditional manufacturing. The new LEAP nozzles are being produced by melting bits of metal powder together using a high-powered laser. Zapping, and, consequently, fusing, the dust together layer by layer allows GE to eliminate the need for multiple components, producing the entire nozzle as a single piece. At the same time, the part is partially hollow, which can reduce a jet’s overall weight. This weight reduction, GE believes, will cut the amount of gas necessary to fly, as well as the CO2 emissions created by burning fossil fuels, by about 15%.
Why-to cut greenhouse gas emissions:
Since the Industrial Revolution, humanity has released so many greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere that it’s taken an extensive toll on our natural environment. Over time, these gasses have become trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing the planet’s overall temperature to rise and a number of dangerous weather patterns to emerge. The rate of extreme weather incidents to occur in the last few years alone, including deadly natural disasters, are often a consequence of unstable climate changes that have resulted from these greenhouse gas emissions.
At the same time, making very modest improvements to the way your multinational conglomerate consumes energy can project an image of good stewardship to the public, which bares the brunt of climate change, without always having the power to do anything about it.
Free complexity, then, can give businesses large and small the ability to construct elaborate methods for survival in an often hostile world.
Why-to 3D print single objects:
Whereas retailers, in the present, may order a large quantity of a single item to meet the popular demands of customers, 3D printing allows for the production of single units. This on-demand capability may, one day, limit the need for maintaining stock supplies of a specific product. Rather than order 100 pairs of tennis shoes in a single size, a shoe store can print them off as needed.
Why-to 3D print (for reasons of customization):
Printing single units yields the added benefit of customizing each item produced. It would be wasteful to mass manufacture 100 pairs of shoes with the name “Michael Molitch-Hou” embedded in the soles, but a single pair from a 3D printer is definitely doable. For that reason, a wide array of businesses are emerging to offer the fabrication of customized goods using 3D printing technology. Some of these customization services include superficial options for personalizing an item, such as 3D printing a phrase or image onto a metal pendant as a Valentine’s Day gift. Other services use 3D printing for more practical purposes, such as creating items of clothing specifically made for an individual’s body.
Why-to 3D print goods tailored to the physical specifications of an individual:
Traditional mass manufacturing leaves customers selecting from a select range of sizes, when it comes to clothing, forcing consumers to identify themselves with singular numbers or letters, “I’m an XL,” or, “I’m a size 42 waist.” Really, every human being has a very specific body, head, or appendage shape and such broad categories of XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL, XXXL, and so on result in awkwardly fitting clothes, shoes and head scarves.
3D printing, on the other hand, opens up the possibility of clothing specifically fitted to the individual. By 3D scanning your body, objects may be printed to follow every organic contour on your mortal coil so that you make look and feel the way you always dreamed you might.
Why-to 3D print patient-tailored medical devices:
The advantages of 3D printed items tailored to the physical form of an individual become particularly relevant when it comes to medical devices. From hip transplants to glasses, 3D printing can yield objects that fit into the human body as perfectly as their natural counterparts. Doctors can translate a CT scan of a patient’s hip (or hip cavity) into a 3D model, which can then be 3D printed to create an anatomically accurate transplant.
Why-to 3D print food:
The main advantage I’ve come across to 3D printing food is the ability to tailor food specifically to the health needs of an eater. Scientists may soon be able to manufacture food that looks and tastes a particular way – think of a juicy steak – but includes the nutrients and vitamins needed by the body of an individual – now think of that steak infused with calcium, zinc, serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and blood pressure medicine.
Why-to 3D print food in space:
In the depths of space, supplies are limited severely due to the energy costs of launching heavy objects into space. NASA is currently testing the ability to 3D print food at the International Space Station so that astronauts might eat a wider variety of Earth foods, without the same range of Earth ingredients that may take up cargo space. These foods could have nutrients needed by astronauts to survive inserted into them, without spoiling their appetites.
Why-to travel to space:
Humanity has long looked to the planets and stars for answers. Their radiating beauty is a stark reminder that there may be more to life than wasting away on a gorgeous rock of blue and green.
As time up in space grows lonelier and more deranged, it may become increasingly necessary to include a variety of mood stabilizers to keep our spacial heroes happy.
By next year, one company in Germany hopes to 3D print food for elderly residents of nursing homes that no longer have the ability to swallow solid foods. The 3D printed food will have the appearance of solid chicken breasts, and the like, but without the accompanying choking hazard.
Companies are already sprouting up that promise 3D printed shoes that fit perfectly to your feet.
But, for consumers more interested in the frivolous aspects of shopping. there are already a number of options for 3D printing customizable goods that serve no other purpose than to look good and attract attention.
This saves the retailer money, potentially wasted on purchasing goods that might not sell, and the environment, by producing only what is necessary.
Why-to 3D print (for educational reasons):
Outside of prototyping and manufacturing, 3D printing has been championed as a great educational tool for young students. While the technology can inculcate users with important concepts of math, science, and engineering, it’s also a lot of fun.
So, at the same time that students may learn how electricity moves through the circuits of an Arduino to a series of servo motors, which move the printhead and extrude the plastic in order to create a three dimensional object, designed using the principles of math and creative whimsy, they also feel as though they’re not really “learning” – an activity deemed “lame” by most high schoolers these days, – but like they’re playing a game.
Why-to 3D print (for fun):
Owning a 3D printer myself, I can personally attest to the fun of using a 3D printer. I built a Bukobot 3D printer from a kit, given to me as a birthday present from my parents. Building the printer was really rewarding, but more exciting was the actual act of printing with the thing. I’ve printed my wife’s head more than a few times
Why-to marry the love of your life:
Life can be a painfully lonely experience. For the most part, human beings are trapped in their own subjectivities. As hard as you might try, you can’t escape the confines of your own skin. The closest thing to transcendence may be through the love of another.
My wife and I share such similar perspectives on the world – both being emotionally sensitive Aquariases born a week apart – that, at times, it feels as though we may share the same subjective world. This becomes especially true when we kiss, as it feels like our bodies begin to melt away and we become one.
Why-to merge with all of eternity:
Slowly, our egos melt away and we dissolve into the rest of the cosmos. And, as time and space evaporate, it’s as though all things are happening at once. All things begin to share the same location. Distinctions between objects become irrelevant and reincarnation makes a little too much sense. There’s no reason, any longer, to believe that we are different from anything else.
and I’ve even printed my friends’ heads onto the bodies of animals.
Once you’ve printed your first object successfully, you’re overcome with a feeling of elation. Suddenly, you realize that you are godlike.
Perhaps more important than the science and math taught through 3D printing activities is the problem solving skills that accompany them.
Why-to 3D print for monetary gain:
This is a tough world and, through our current economic system, it’s impossible to survive without money. As 3D printing has become a hot, new technology, inspiring wonder in the minds of onlookers, it has also served as a platform for earning some dough.
Why-to 3D-print for SEO purposes:
Due to the technology’s popularity and, again, its ‘miraculousness,’ mentioning the phrase “3D printing” on your website is sure to bring you traffic. Now that there are a number of blogs, publications, and media companies devoted to 3D printing, it’s possible that your project may even attract the attention of such publications, thus increasing the number of people who become aware of the 3D printing work that you are performing.
The field is still relatively new and, as I’ve explored a bit, there are vast opportunities to start your own business or find your own niche with which to take advantage of the current technological boom. But, before you do decide to enter the marketplace, be sure to do your research. See what’s been done and what hasn’t so that you can formulate a unique business model or product. And, most importantly, it may be vital to interrogate the purpose that your 3D printing related business serves in the grand scheme of things. When it comes down to it, a truly essential “why” may be what your customers are really looking for.
Image Source: RobTFirefly on Thingiverse