As a reminder, the only other expo I’ve been to was a videogame conference that took place in Chicago when I was nine years old, about twenty years ago. So going into the Inside 3D Printing event in San Jose by Mediabistro, I was nervous about meeting all of the 3D printing gods and heroes that I look up to so tremendously now. Mustering up the courage to talk to these people was like introducing myself to Sonic and Tails a couple decades back; although far more nerve racking, considering that I am now a semi-self aware adult shaking hands with the geniuses who, 30 years ago, created the technology that I am just now beginning to (try) to understand.
Everyone I approached, however, was as warm and inviting as those teenagers in mascot suits from my first expo experience. And I think that the reason for this is that the 3D printing community is one based on a shared sense of collaboration, knowing that, only through connecting with others can we truly achieve the impossible. And the impossible is what my fiancé, Danielle, and I saw.
For instance, one company, netfabb, makes software that allows users to reinvent the way that we think of material science. Billed as a talk about how we can pattern man made objects after those found in nature, Danielle prefaced the lecture with, “If it’s about a 3D-printed chair, I’m going to be pretty bummed.” So, I could feel Danielle’s eyes in mid-roll as Ulf Lindhe, the company’s Business Development Manager, pulled up a picture of a 3D-printed chair designed to mimic organic patterns.
But we soon learned that the talk was actually about much more than chairs with cool designs inspired by trees. In it, Lindhe explained that, just by changing the way that the building blocks of a structure are configured, one can create whole new material properties. So, while you may make an object from plastic, you can change the shape of that object’s constituent parts to alter the way that it behaves. Plastic printed in fine layers can resemble fur, for instance, or you can see how the interlocking plastic links that Danielle is playing with have a fluidity not possible in any other configuration:
The most obvious feat of the impossible we saw was that achieved by Organovo. We left the talk given by CEO Keith Murphy more inspired than we should have, considering how little of the actual science we understood. Murphy used the most accessible terminology possible to describe the company’s printing of living tissue and, based off of that, we concluded that what makes the tissue samples produced by Organovo viable is their 3D structure. Using a 3D platform, they’re able to lay down living cells in a way that is far more effective than manipulating them on a flat surface, like in a petri dish. This 3D layering more closely resembles the natural environment of a developing cell, making it more conducive to growth. This, ultimately, results in the forming of stronger, longer-lasting tissue. In this way, researchers at Organovo are able to build cells outside of the body that will still behave as though they’re inside of the body, paving the way for drug-testing trials with human tissue and, much farther down the road, 3d printing organ transplants. We’re hoping that the conference gave them a slew of new investors so that they could keep researching this technology because we feel confident that it’s one of the biggest medical advancements we’ll get to see in our lifetimes.
With such ideas floating around, all in one venue, it’s not surprising that the feeling of people connecting was palpable. I’m not just referring to the business networking, though people were definitely there for that, too. What I mean is that there were attendees who were just excited about talking to other people and sharing ideas.
Take Swami, for instance. A Global Product Manager atApplied Materials in Sunnyvale, California, Swami seemed to be really pumped up by the expo, even before visiting the exhibition hall booths. Though he wasn’t sure exactly how the technology could be applied to his company’s production of semiconductors, he was a sponge, open to the possibilities and every bit of information that the speakers had to give him. He exuded enthusiasm as he discussed 5 basic concepts necessary for a new technology to take hold in a society, a lesson he learned from (as he called him, due to their age gap, “the kid”) speaker Lane Roney ofAdditiveHabitat. The idea is that, with compatibility, observability, relative advantage, simplicity, and trialability, 3D printing will be adopted by the mainstream. In other words, when a technology is compatible with already perceived norms of behavior, when it can be observed in practice, when it is simple and can be tested with ease, and, obviously, when it improves upon existing circumstances, people will feel okay using it. Here’s a pic of his notes, in case you want to copy:
Swami said that, just because he had witnessed Roney demonstrate the ease of using a Printrbot Jr. and saw how compatible it already was to his way of thinking, he had decided to buy one for his kid right then and there.
This brings me to the guys at 3DPrintLife, Joel Rush and Jeff Stevens, who want to make the technology seem as easy as possible to work with. While it doesn’t seem like there are many things that Joel Rush isn’t excited about, I could see genuine excitement in Jeff Stevens’s eyes as the two told me about 3DPrintLife as a 3D printing retailer that is intent on making what should be an easy to understand technology intelligible to everyday people. Though they started with developing a 3D model repository that would satisfy the needs of the open source community and those with commercial interests, they’ve since expanded to selling five of the top desktop 3D printers, including Afinia, Type A, and Printrbot plug-n-play machines. Their goal is to have people take out a 3D printer and start having fun with it right away. So, not only do they limit their sales to fully-assembled devices at this point, but they’re heavily focused on education. With their pop-ups all across LA, they plan to demonstrate how fun and easy their printers can be, while teaching people how to use them. Joel understands the importance of a user-friendly experience, which he applies to his sales technique, too:
I think that Melba Kurman, co-author of Fabricated, also understood the importance of a user-friendly experience. Her lecture, “The Ten Principles of 3D Printing”, wasn’t one we had planned to sit in on, but we decided to attend so as not to miss the following talk on Contour Crafting. We’re lucky we did because it ended up being one of the most entertaining talks of the day.
Although a lot of the topics she covered weren’t as fascinating on paper as something like bioprinting, she was such a compelling speaker and so engaging that we stayed for the entire thing. She had clear and concise examples of each of her principles, sharing with us lots of fun facts and quirky innovations. Surprisingly enough, she was the first presenter to pull up a pie chart of which industries are using 3D printing, which is something you’d expect to see during the first talk of the day. In fact, she’d be a great keynote speaker to kick off the event because sitting in on her talk was like 3D printing 101 with a really fun, cool professor. After trying to get a picture with her all day, Danielle finally got the nerve to go up and ask her:
In the exhibit hall, I was actually introduced to all of this technology and all of these printed materials that I’d only gotten familiar with through writing for 3DPI. I got to see the Mcor Iris aggressively punch around its stack of paper, as well as its stunningly full-color prints.
I met the people at Leopoly, who I had written about a few months back, and got to try out their Leonar3Do 3D modeling kit.
And, never having seen a stereolithography machine in person, I finally got to handle a high-resolution print made from UV curable resin. It sounds kind of dorky, but this really was like going to Disneyland for us and meeting all of our favorite characters. At times, I was, literally, a kid in a candy shop, eating the sweet and delicate 3D printed sugar cubes from 3D Systems’ recently acquired SugarLab.
Eating 3D-printed food can leave you hungry for more. So, one lecture that we had wished would have run longer was the talk “Robots Will Make Your Food” by Pablos Holman, literally about developing technology that could possibly, 30-40 years from now, make your dinner for the evening. Holman proposes that, by using “food ink”, essentially a liquid form of food made from hydrocolloids, we would have the ability to base a meal off of all of your likes, dislikes, deficiencies, and allergies, all while eliminating the waste found in current food production processes, as well as rendering the slaughter and inhumane treatment of animals obsolete. We wished that he had been able to go into more depth about how the actual food printing would work, but, at the current stage, it seems as though he is rehydrating dehydrated food and extruding it into textures that are palatable to the human tongue. He mentioned smoothies and energy bars as examples of two foods that he’s been successful with. Another idea that peaked our interest was that Holman believes that, along with the technology of 3D printing food, we’ll be able to track our dietary input and personal physiological needs so well that we’ll be able to tailor our food to our specific bodies. If we need more protein, for instance, but enjoy the taste of pie, we might be able to print portions of protein in pie flavors, simply by putting a “flavor filter” in our food printing program.
Both Danielle and I are enamored with the revolutionary possibilities of 3D food printing. Because sustenance is at the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, fundamental to human survival, any innovation in the way we manufacture food will cause waves of change in human society. As Holman pointed out, the US wastes about 40% of its food. People in industrialized nations purchase way more than is necessary and discard the rest. If we could change this one aspect of our society, we would see changes in every other aspect of our lives
Going along with the theme of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was a talk by Behrokh Khoshnevis on the additive manufacturing of buildings. Knowing that he’d cover things like printing habitats on Mars and housing in the most impoverished areas, we’d expected Khoshnevis to be bursting with exuberance. Although I don’t doubt how much he cares about the topic because of what he’s already accomplished, his dry delivery may have made it difficult for some people to digest the information. Still, the process of contour crafting was mind-blowing. Khoshnevis has 3D printed large, concrete walls using a combination extruder and trowel printhead. The extruder releases the concrete while the trowel keeps it in place so that the material maintains its shape as each layer is built up from the ground. Khoshnevis proposes that this method, using 3D printers attached to large machines (among many other possibilities), we can construct entire buildings over the course of a day, while simultaneously inserting things like plumbing and wiring throughout the whole process.
Lectures about such far out uses for 3D printing got us so psyched about the future of all of these companies, so much so that, walking through the exhibit hall, we made a game of trying to predict where they were headed in 5-10 years. We also made a game of asking the companies what their plans were, but, naturally, they didn’t feel comfortable divulging that information. If I had to guess, based on what I gathered at their booth, Stratasys will probably work within its current realm of expertise, researching new materials, without venturing too far from the safety of their base technologies. 3D Systems, on the other hand, seems to have made a point of stepping outside of familiar territory. It may sound strange, but, I think that, in the not too distant future, we may not even look at them as a 3D printing company anymore, as they make their way further and further away from where they started. I don’t want to elaborate too much more, as I’m still sort of kicking the idea around in the ol’ noggin.
Danielle suffers from a bit of face blindness and an undiagnosed case of ADD, so she, actually, can’t remember what Scott Crump looked like or anything he said. Abe Reichental, on the other hand, will leave a lasting impression on her and on both of us really.
After watching Abe Reichental’s keynote on the second day, Danielle and I were so inspired by his enthusiasm and faith in the younger generations that we wanted a chance to even shake his hand. When we approached him for a picture, we expected that he’d be too busy for anything more, but we were surprised that he asked to see the picture after it was taken. So we showed it to him, he smiled, and we thought he’d leave for more important tasks. Instead, he waited for us to engage him in conversation. And he continued to initiate dialogue until we realized that we were actually allowed to talk to the CEO of 3D Systems. So, when I asked him what legacy he’d like to ultimately leave behind, I could actually believe him when he said: 1.) That he wanted everyone to be able to use 3D printers, to “democratize” it, as the 3D Systems tagline goes. And 2.) he wanted to inspire young people to believe in themselves, to harness their already awesome knowledge of technology and to apply it to genuinely creative efforts. There’d be a new type of literacy that would allow them to translate their ideas into the real world with 3D printing. As cynical as I can be, I actually think, as Abe told us, that the he “reminds himself everyday that he still has a lot to learn”.
The man’s enthusiasm and personability reflected the entire feel of the event. In this nascent stage of 3D printing, there’s an excitement in the eyes of everyone involved with the technology, novices and experts alike, because, all of us are entering a new era together. As Hod Lipson outlined in his talk “The Future of 3D Printing”, we’re only in episode 1 now, printing in whatever form and shape we can imagine. But, up next, we’ll be printing new materials, complex and active objects, and moving from the analog to the digital. There will be food, houses, and organs. When the interface between humans and machines becomes more user-friendly, we will be seamlessly manufacturing directly from our thoughts. It won’t be about business anymore, consumers and producers and prosumers, or profit margins. We’ll have learned to utilize technology to live happily, sustainably, and harmoniously on this planet. In other words, to achieve the impossible. And that idea alone is good enough to bring people together.
For more pics of the conference, check out the gallery below. All of the good ones were taken by Danielle and all of the bad ones were taken by me:[nggallery id=106]