The Future Is Here: Nothing Queers Printing Like 3D Printing

Welcome to the twenty-first installment of Queer Your Tech with Fun, Autostraddle’s nerdy new tech column. Not everything we cover will be queer per se, but it will be about customizing this awesome technology you’ve got. Having it our way, expressing our appy selves just like we do with our identities. Here we can talk about anything from app recommendations to choosing a wireless printer to web sites you have to favorite to any other fun shit we can do with technology.

Header by Rory Midhani

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feature image via Engadget

See this espresso cup?

rocket espresso cup via Isohedral on Shapeways

rocket espresso cup via Isohedral on Shapeways

That cup was printed out. Like that’s how it came into existence. A printer.

I can’t remember when I first heard about 3D printing. I can’t remember what brought the topic up or what was being printed. But I do remember my mind being blown. Print media has traditionally been two dimensional and now you’re telling me printers can make objects that we can hold in our hands? WTF, the future is now! Despite my fascination, I haven’t really followed the 3D printing process or done much research because it seemed simply so out of reach for me, personally. I mean, I will most likely never own a 3D printer because I am not a gazillionaire, nor would I have much use for one as a writer. But then my girlfriend emailed me something and asked me to explain it because it looks like aliens:

Yup, now a great many humans can take advantage of the magic that’s 3D printing. Shapeways is a 3D printing company that allows you to upload your own designs and get them printed in plastics, metals, etc. You can use a bunch of different softwares to make your 3D designs: some easy, with no 3D modeling experience required, like turning words into a vase or turning your child’s crayon drawings into 3D figurines. Some are a little more difficult and require a bit of cussing and practice: you can get Sculptris, Blender and Sketchup for free (there are actually a ton of apps and webapps that work with Shapeways, fyi). It also supports a host of CAD programs for the professionals out there.

But how does it all work? Our lovely Gabrielle put me in contact with Melissa Tapper Goldman of mtg3d, her Etsy shop specializing in digital designs that are lazer cut and 3D printed to perfection. Melissa uses 3D printing on a very regular basis, so I asked her to help explain the process. She responded, “There are a few different techniques for 3d printing depending on the machine. Often, though, it involves a laser moving across some powder and zapping it into hardened layers, building them up one by one.” She recommended watching some really awesome videos. I found this one where the Mythbusters cast member and hottie Kari explains it to us.

And Melissa recommends you watch the one on the Shapeways website to see the magic at work:

I asked Melissa what you need to get started with 3D printing:

All you need in order to make something in real life is 3d modeling software, some time to play, and a few bucks.  I’m exaggerating, but that’s fundamentally it. The 3d modeling part is not super easy, but it can definitely be learned quickly if you commit yourself to being fearless with your technology, using google a lot, and accepting that frustration is part of the process!… Many people like Google Sketchup. I’m personally more comfortable with Rhino which offers a Mac beta version for free and an extraordinary version for Windows… And be prepared to prototype. That is, start by making a small version in a cheap material, because the first one you make is almost definitely going to come out weird.  Getting the result you want will take a few iterations and redesigns.  It’s part of the process, and you should factor it into your expected process and cost.  3d printing can be relatively inexpensive for small items, but larger objects can be cost prohibitive because it takes the machines a long time and a significant amount of material to build up large items.

I asked her to talk about some 3D printing services – while she personally uses Shapeways and has had a positive experience with them, she also mentioned three other services to keep an eye on. Ponoko works with 3d printing and laser cutting, another digital fabrication technique. Kraftwurx and i.Materialise both have really unique materials, but are a little pricer.

When I asked her how she felt about the future being now, she replied:

I’m waiting for it [3D printing] to explode and there to be tons of designers working in this medium, but so far it seems to be mostly the nerds.  But as the software gets easier and there are more programs and apps to simplify designing, I have no doubt that everybody will be making their own stuff soon. The future is indeed now. But honestly, the substance of the design process is imagining things that don’t yet exist. So once you’re in that frame of mind, it’s not so surprising to find the future in the present. That invisibility cloak is the one that still gets me! 3d printing is fantastic, but there are still many limitations in terms of materials, cost, and the actual physical process.

Even with the limitations of 3D printing, there are some pretty amazing things being done – yes, there’s the fun stuff, like this ring from Melissa’s shop. And this CAD program that purports to be easy enough for children (we are entering an age where children are going to design their own toys and print them out, which is the coolest). There’s of course the TED talk about printing organs for people in need of transplants. We featured this one in our TED Talk Roundup, but I really feel like it needs a reprise here:

And of course this, about the WREX and the impact it has had on this beautiful child. This video will probably make you cry.

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Freelance writer and fiction author, Geekery Editor for Autostraddle.com and Fiction Editor for qu.ee/r Magazine. Keep up with her at her website.

Ali has written 277 articles for us.

15 Comments

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    I find the idea of 3D printers both incredibly exciting and terrifying. I mean, the positive aspects are obvious – from everyday people making their own custom furniture and stuff to doctors making cheap and fast medical equipment, or even huge medical machines that usually cost an arm and a leg. Hell, we could even send robots in space along with a bunch of raw materials and have them print more robots once there or build a base or something – and if something breaks it can just print out a new piece right there, malfunction wouldn’t be a threat to spacial missions anymore.

    But the first drawback that comes to my mind is : if we have machines able to print and make anything, we won’t need people to do that anymore. Literally millions of jobs would be on the line. Sure, you’d need people to operate maintenance and build the printers and all (at least the first ones), but I doubt that would be enough to compensate. I was reading about this on another forum, and a guy there built his own 3D printer and uses it to print *other* 3D printers and sell them – that’s crazy.

    Also, this : http://defensedistributed.com/

    Just what the fuck is wrong with people. A new great technology just came out, and the first thing that comes to some people’s minds is “oh we could use that to kill each other!”. Sometimes it’s hard to keep faith in humanity.

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    I find the idea of 3D printers both incredibly exciting and terrifying. I mean, the positive aspects are obvious – from everyday people printing their own furniture and stuff to doctors making cheap and fast medical equipment, or even huge medical machines that usually cost an arm and a leg. Hell, we could even send robots in space along with a bunch of raw materials and have them print more robots once there or build a base or something. And if something breaks, it could just print out a new piece – technical malfunctions would be much less of a threat to spacial missions.

    But OTOH, the first thing that comes to my mind is : if soon we’ll have machines able to print and make anything, we won’t need people to do that anymore, and literally millions of jobs would be on the line. Sure, we’d need people to operate the printers and perform maintenance and build them (at least the first ones), but I doubt that would be enough to compensate. I was reading about it on another forum and a guy there built his own 3D printer and uses it to print *other* printers and sell them, that’s crazy.

    Also, this : http://defensedistributed.com/

    Just what the fuck is wrong with people. New, ground-breaking technology offering endless possibilities just invented? We could use that to kill each other! I’m trying to keep faith in humanity but it’s becoming increasingly hard.

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    We have a 3D printer at work. The material it comes out with is really flimsy and brittle, but that might just be the printer.

    One of my coworkers hacked his son’s train set using the 3D printer, though. That was pretty cool.

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      There are quite a few current designs for *ahem* toys floating about and quite a few are decently intricate. Only thing is the materials are inflexible and fairly rigid. But this could make some really nice art-dildos like available glass or steel models. :)

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    If you would like to learn more about this fascinating technology, then I would like to introduce:
    3D Printing: The Next Technology Gold Rush – Future Factories and How to Capitalize on Distributed Manufacturing [Kindle Edition]

    Only $3.49 but filled with over 300 pages of tightly crammed information on this must read topic.

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