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3-D Printing: The Great American Tchotchke Machine

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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3D Printed Object. Call me Tchotchie.

I saw an article in Time magazine a few weeks ago about a low-cost 3D printer. The machine  receives instructions from a digital computer file that instructs it to build things by depositing and fusing layers of a heated plastic.

In 1983, I remember a Time magazine “Machine of the Year” cover that proclaimed: “The Computer Moves In”…to your home.

The editors back then chose that cover story well. But I’m less certain about the prospects for “Your Personal Assembly Line” as Time called the 3D printer, relegated to page 39, an appropriate placement.

The image that jumped out of the story depicted a plastic lamp, the kind of thing, and “thing” is the term of art here, that is typically found at a no-name discount store in my Washington Heights neighborhood for maybe a dollar or two, certainly less than five.

I went to Michael Moyer and Larry Greenemeier, two Scientific American editors who often cover technology, and asked what you could possibly do with a machine that could create “baubles, knicknacks and uh….”

“You mean tchotchkes,” Michael volunteered.

“Exactly,” I said. “What I want to know is whether you can make more than low-cost “tchotchkes.”—the kind of item that might be manufactured in Asia for pennies. As an aside, tchotchkes are by no means an Asian monopoly. The word originates from Slavic languages that use it to describe toys or trinkets: цяцька (Ukranian),, цацки (Russian),  טשאַטשקע, (Yiddish),  cacka (Polish), čačka (Slovak) and now perhaps it will be listed in the Urban Dictionary as a personal 3D fabrication apparatus—or maybe just the tchotchkator.

So can you do more with the tchotchkator than build a טשאַטשקע? No doubt. Dental implants, personalized drugs. Evelyn Lamb, a Scientific American intern, wrote recently about a 4D geometrical shape reduced to an object in 3space on one of these printers. All great, with most, if not all, output coming from machines owned by businesses or academic institutions.

“But why would I want one at home?” I asked, noting the $2,200 price tag for this prosumer product (you tell me) that is intended to rope in the type of early adopter that bought the Kaypro.

“You might be able to print out a screw if the hardware store is closed,” Larry said. Hmm. A screw built of baked layers of a material? Not sure about hanging that big living room landscape painting. The ability to create the tchotchke of your choice doesn’t seem to  measure up exactly to the changes wrought at work and home by XyWrite, Visicalc or other early PC applications.

Maybe I’m missing some-chke. But let’s bring in a tangent here. In the magazine business, you can tell if a “book” is doing well by how thick it is. Despite the merciless pounding in the marketplace that most magazines have sustained because of the still ongoing transition to the digital world, the magazine Real Simple is still pretty thick. Advertisers are interested in a 30-something audience that embraces minimalism not tchotchkeland, or the thingiverse in the somewhat hipper terminology invoked by the 3D printer company MakerBot.

In its defense, MakerBot would undoubtedly direct me to the creativity unleashed by their Replicator II, perhaps showing me printer output that includes a life-size horse’s head sculpture, or emphasizing the pent-up demand for  concocting a home-made model that hints at the strange contortions of a fourth or higher dimension. Or maybe the MakerBotmeisters would point me to a Maths cookie cutter set: pi or phi cookies. Would you like a Phi-gy Newton, Isaac? I kept thinking of the report I had read of someone making a gun, though it might be more an implement for the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, as the explosive interaction of the gunpowder with the plastic might injure the shooter more than the intended victim.

In the end, Replicator 2  just doesn’t seem to capture the minimalist zeitgeist that calls for chucking as much you can, whether it be from overstuffed closets or electronic mail boxes. If you want a customized chess piece on which the face of the king looks like your son, send the digital file by e-mail to Kinko’s—or its 3D print shop equivalent—and then pick it up on your way home from work. Having a tchotchke maker in the basement workshop or the family room seems like kind of a non-starter. The world is not hankering after more hands-on access to a wonderful world of clutter.

Source: – PackshotCreator -  Lisebergskanin

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. evelynjlamb 3:36 pm 11/7/2012

    When I have long-term plans to stay in one place, I want to get a 3-d printer. I would mostly use it to make mathematical models. I want to be able to do that because they will be pretty and help me visualize and understand mathematical structures better. The MakerBot isn’t as versatile as the super-expensive ones, but it would still be cool to have the instant gratification of writing a program and immediately getting an output, then tweaking the program and seeing how the output changes. Being able to design my own line of dishes or utensils would be cool too.

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  2. 2. GeekStatus 3:58 pm 11/7/2012

    While it may not yet be obviously useful to you it has a long way to go. In the future it could be used to make electronics. You could even use a 3d printer to replicate itself. Maybe you would need to order a motherboard or maybe sometime far enough in the future you could make it all in one go.

    Right now I think it is possible to make a gun with a 3d printer.

    Dont have a metric socket or whatever you need in your toolbox? Download and make one in your garage. Sink trap leaking? Make a new one.

    Its useful because it has the power to make almost anything. Your imagination is the limitation, not the device.

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  3. 3. GeekStatus 4:03 pm 11/7/2012

    I should have mentioned the economic importance. Imagine if all the tools, utensils, parts and whatnot that you usually purchase at big box stores could be made for the cost of some powder.

    What if Joe the plumber could print out all his plumbing fittings instead of paying a 300% markup on all of them? There are certain demonstrable economic benefits.

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  4. 4. tharriss 5:15 pm 11/7/2012

    At first, I happily geeked out over the makerbot and wouldn’t complain if one appeared in my house, but in the end I wouldn’t buy one, mainly because I just couldn’t think of enough stuff I’d possibly make with one to justify the price.

    After you make a few little toys and novelty items,(unless you are a designer of some sort by profession or hobby of course), there really isn’t much to make. Yes, if your sink trap is leaking you can make one… or just run over to home depot/lowes and buy one (probably takes less time, and definitely is cheaper to buy one).

    I actually spent a little time walking around my house thinking about what I could possibly want/need to make and the list was amazingly short. I just don’t want cheap looking plastic junk all over the house, especially if I can’t trust it to be strong and functional enough.

    All that being said, it is a really cool technology, and given time and development it could be really useful. It would need to be able to make items that don’t seem so cheap, that have complexity (ability to make actual tech items would be a win) and strength (who wants a plastic hinge for a door, for example, or a picture hanger that you can’t trust to hold the weight)…

    The material needs to be able to look and behave like more traditional materials… metal, wood, etc… even if it stays as only plastic, it needs the strength and appearance factor to improve a lot.

    I’m pretty confident this tech will keep on improving, and if it lives up to it’s promise, it won’t be too long before it actually will be useful for people in their regular lives. I look forward to it!

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  5. 5. toxonix 5:26 pm 11/7/2012

    I’m skeptical of the magic of 3D printing as well. I’ve seen quite a few of the white nylon adjustable wrenches and other not very useful objects printed from these.
    However, I think there are some valid applications that are not taken care of by other methods of fabrication.
    Shapes with complex and precise inner hulls are difficult to produce unless you have a wire EDM machine. Shapes that are interlocked necessarily and can’t be welded or otherwise joined from pieces.
    One of the best uses I’ve seen is for creating very difficult to produce shapes in wax for mold making. This is probably what I’d use it for.
    What they’re not good for is:
    Duplicating objects which require high tensile strength. Screws, sockets, tools, etc. If you have some application where nylon screws are useful (license plate holder?) then perhaps.
    You could make SOME parts of a gun, but not the breach, barrel or firing pin. A nylon frame isn’t unheard of, but injection molding or hot stamping plastic produces stronger parts in the same way that forging steel vs. casting it does.
    3D printers have the power to make almost any SHAPE, but you can’t print forged and heat treated steel.

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  6. 6. Tim May 8:06 pm 11/7/2012

    Don’t count on anything in the foreseeable future being able to “make electronics.” For one thing, chips currently use a variety of high-temperature processes, exotic implantation of trace elements, and lithography that is currently defining structures on the order of 20 nm (20 x 10_-9 meters) in width, and much, much thinner in terms of insulating layers. They are very, very far from being the kind of plastic or resin too-dads that forseeable machines can make.

    (I was a device physicist for Intel in its early years.)

    Also, the idea of a replicating machine that could make a copy of itself, then produce 4, then 8, and so on, is also nowhere on the foreseeable horizon. Even if the machine were to be limited to just CHON (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen), plus a few trace elements, as feedstock, such a machine does not appear foreseeably on the horizon.

    To be sure, we know such machines exist. Yeast is one example. But the programming is unknown. Evidence is that the logical “depth” of such programming will be large.

    I used to attend the Homebrew Computer Club meetings at SLAC in the mid- to late-1970s. Real excitement in the air. Many of us made our own computers. Real things could be done. But the real revolution came when companies started selling these things; in a very real way, they were just the next stage in the minicomputer and small computer era, so having a $2000 “personal computer” at home (I had Processor Tech SOL which I built, then an IBM PC, then a Mac Plus, and so on) was not really as surprising as it’s often made out to be. And people did things with them that were fairly predictable: music, text authoring, drawing, CAD, accounting (spreadsheets), etc.

    I hope the 3D printing gizmos produce a similar result, but I’m not holding my breath. Mainly because they just won’t be able to make items made up of many exotic, precisely-defined components, as in the chip example I started with. Tchotchkes is an apt description.

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  7. 7. Jabberwocky99999 4:56 am 11/8/2012

    I think that this article will someday be compared to articles describing the computer as “merely an interesting toy.” To continue the computer example, the author is reviewing the 3D printing equivalent of Pong, and comparing it to industrial computing machines of the same era. Of course they were more impressive… and yet, PCs now rule the day.

    Give home 3D printers more time, and a few more generations of product, and you will see manufacturing change indeed – especially as or when home 3D metal printers, and/or 3D home printers capable of layering different types of material in the same machine, become available and inexpensive. Boom – suddenly, the idea of a 3D printed gun is no longer so laughable. Neither is the idea of creating a replacement car part, or a circuit board (as another poster mentioned), or any number of other devices. I think home 3D printing will ultimately result in a major democratization and individualization of manufacturing. I could see 3D home printing supplying economies of precision – exactly what is needed, in exactly the quantities needed, exactly when they are needed – in a way that could supplement or partially supplant economies of scale.

    Even while dismissing home 3D printing as tchochtke, the author admits that it may become very convenient to print something at the 3D-printing equivalent of Kinko’s. Ironically, home printers – of the paper and PC variety – radically changed the small printing industry. Wasn’t Kinko’s just acquired by FedEx? If 3D printing has value in a print shop, why should it not have value in the home? And, in that case, as prices for 3D printers fall and capabilities rise, why wouldn’t home 3D printing supplant 3D printing shops?

    Give home 3D printing time… and don’t judge the future of PCs by the possibilities of Pong.

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  8. 8. peterkienle 10:02 am 11/9/2012

    I have been using a MakerBot for the past 2.5 years. It’s great fun and I have printed some replacement parts for various devices around my house plus some “exotic” presents for people. Otherwise I have spent more time tinkering with the machine and the software than actually printing something useful. I am having a hard time seeing a 3D printer as useful as a household appliance any time soon.

    (Yes, all the misprints ad to the clutter).

    At the same time hacking hardware and software is fun and I wish more people knew how their gadgets work…..

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  9. 9. cccampbell38 3:37 pm 11/10/2012

    This article reminds me of a reprint that I once read about some useless new invention that was for the amusement of a few who had nothing better to do. The article pointed out, in great detail, just why there was no real, practical use for this invention and thus no marketing prospects for it’s inventors.

    As I remember, the invention was called “The Wright Brothers Flyer”. What ever happened to that, by the way?

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