Monday, February 17, 2014

Why I chose to print objects at my house.

Noise of 3D printing has been buzzing around quite some time.  This 30 year old technology is much like those pesky flies around the picnic table.  I say pesky, because, even in our busy lives with so much churn in technology, 3D printing has become difficult to ignore.  I never really saw it as a bad thing, just another thing.  Maybe just another fad, but it's becoming difficult to ignore.  At least for me.  

So, I've been asking myself, is 3D printing going to stick?  Is it just for digital artists, those who know how to work with 3D software and understand how to think in polygons?  Is it just for the manufacturing industry or architects?  Where does it fit?  Who is it for?  I've come the conclusion that it's going to become very important and will disrupt the world in many ways.  Per Richard D'Aveni in the Harvard Business Review 
And yet, by enabling a machine to produce objects of any shape, on the spot and as needed, 3-D printing really is ushering in a new era.
Signe Brewster in a recent Gigaom article says,
It’s pretty easy to imagine a future where almost anything you would ever want to print has already been created and is accessible by a quick online search. 
For me, the decision to get deeper into object printing, as I'll call it, came with an epiphany as I thought about my own experiences in technology.   So, first the story and then the epiphany!  Stay with me.

Back in 1984, I was in high school and an aspiring programmer.  I had purchased a Commodore Vic20 with my lawn mowing money and connected it up to a small black and white TV.  It was here that I first learned to program, working with media and very simple graphics.  Now, my dad wanted to write a curriculum of Biblical Greek for high school students and teach it, so I whipped up a simple word processor that recoded the display to show greek characters, having mapped them to the certain keys on the keyboard.  It worked well enough, but had a couple of limitations, the main one being that we couldn't print the content.  Back then, printing was done via a daisy wheel.  You just sent the character and it typed it for you.  We looked at having a greek daisy wheel manufactured, but it was prohibitively expensive, so I stopped the project.  

Along comes March 1984 Popular Science (read it here) with an article about a new computer being released called an Apple Macintosh (page 99).  The computer, of course, was very exciting and, yep, I wanted one!  How to get one though?  It was expensive!  Then I learned about the printing.  Along with the Mac, came the ImageWriter printer.  The dot matrix technology had been around, but with this one, the computer controlled the print head allowing it to print anything the computer could send it.  I knew this was the answer - surely, it could print greek!  I convinced dad to go to a local store and look at one.  He was astute and had run his business with a computer for some time.  He believed in them, so that made it easier.  I told him that I thought this could solve the greek problem.  Once we talked to the sales people, he was sold and bought that first Mac with an ImageWriter.  Within 3 months, there was a greek font he bought and was off and writing.  

After the ImageWriter was the LaserWriter.  Kinkos came out with computers and LaserWriters waiting to allow you to come and print what you needed.  WYSIWYG printing was starting to be embraced by the masses.  It was a few years before people had all of this in their homes.  It's commonplace now and we take it for granted.   There's the epiphany - where we are today with 3D printers is similar to where were were around 1984.  The printing and technology works, but it's not quite ready for everyone.  At the same time, its growth and future is unmistakable.  Object printing shops (the Kinko's of 3D printing) are beginning to pop up all around the country.  It's only a matter of time before these printers are as prevalent or nearly as prevalent as the paper printers of today.  They may not be in every household, but most will likely need or want access to printing objects.

Back to the story for a moment.  Thanks to my dad, his vision, and the availability of the Macintosh system, I had access to technology that gave me a "leg up" in the tech world.  I used that computer all the time and learned about being productive on a computer in a way to be relevant in the business world.  Concepts learned related to writing, graphics, analytics, programming, and printing with a computer enabled me to get started and thrive in the modern world.  

This experience and my view of the future of object printing has led me to step into this new space and invest in object printing.  It's really to invest in my children to provide for them exposure to the new world that's coming.  Ok, that may be a bit of a hyperbole, but early experience with the hardware and software may provide, for them, a "leg up" in a world that will soon be changed by designing and printing objects in your home. 


  1. Excellent accuracy on your history. I've been around FDM for over 20 years and this past Christmas I finally got a MakerBot 2X for home use/business. It's just plain FUN. Printing in space is a more difficult thing than on paper and 3D modeling is more reclusive that word processing and making excel sheets. True there will be alot more home printers but they will be used by people with an engineering background or like-minded at least. Just like tape recording from reel to reel developed into cassettes and filament on a spool has migrated in some machines to cassettes. The home printers are still mostly open reels. A cost benefit will be determined by the consumers. Meanwhile, I'm back to printing in plastic.

    1. 20 years, Dave! That's fantastic. I can imagine you've seen and experienced a lot of change. I think you are right about the modeling world. I've started playing with it (and will post soon); it's challenging and likely mostly for engineers or modelers. But, I think, provided the law and business can accommodate it, printing at home will not be limited to only the modelers. Find what you need and print it out. It won't be long and I think we will be much closer to cassettes and plug and play for object prints, allowing this to become a reality. It will be interesting to see where the cost benefit hits, to be sure, and, I agree, it will ultimately determine consumer adoption. At any rate, there's a lot of potential with it and I think the kids of today will benefit from it tomorrow. Thanks for reading!

  2. In 1979 I was at Exxon Office Systems engineering an inkjet to a fax machine. These were Steve Zoltan style glass nozzles with water base ink. We hit a roadblock when the inkjet went into resonant mode and doubled it's volume output on paper. Management freaked and hired more specialists. I was then introduced to fluid resonance. I went on to design jets and moved to New Hampshire where printing fluid went to printing thermoplastics in 1985. Jets were heated to 130C and piezoelectric experts were amazed they ran at those temperatures. I was buying commodore's for my son at that time too.
    An error occurred in printing somewhere along the way and text was printed in 3D. It was nicknamed "alphabet soup" by Tom Peer who first saw it at Exxon office Systems and again at Howtek.That's the story how 2D paper printing went on to 3D model printing with DOD inkjets. The paper print went to Braille characters in 1992. But in 1989 a patent was filed for printing 3D models using a second material called 'support' which could be removed with heat or some other means. Bob Howard was the owner of Howtek at the time and the inkjets landed in Sanders Prototype, Inc where a production 3D printer was born in 1994. I now sell and service any of this technology and have small collection of most of these machines and the early prototypes for the world to see where they came from. I am as much amazed today of this technology as when I first stumbled onto inkjets in 1979. I must thank Steve Zoltan, a DOD inventor, for this remarkable way to deposit material.

    1. Jim, thanks for sharing this history! Funny how many times "errors" turn into something, as you say, remarkable! I'd love to hear more. Also, it'd be great to see the collection. Any pics? Do you have more details anywhere or a book on the subject to recommend, perhaps? Fascinating.