Here’s Why Wired’s Former Editor Thinks 3D Printing Is More Than Just A Fad

Wired Editor Chris Anderson
Chris Anderson is an author and the former editor of Wired Magazine

The following is an excerpt from Chris Anderson’s upcoming book “Makers,” and appears here with permission, Copyright (c) Chris Anderson, 2012. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.One recent Saturday, my two youngest daughters decided they wanted to redecorate their dollhouse. They’ve been playing The Sims 3, which is a video game that’s basically a virtual dollhouse where you can make any kind of home with a dizzying array of furniture and people choices (“Sims”), and then watch them live their lives in it.

One daughter did her Sims house in modern “career girl” style, with a home gym and AV room. The other went more 1960s style, with stream- lined appliances, mod furniture, and an angular swimming pool.

Once their “screen time” was over, they wanted to continue play- ing out the theme with their real dollhouse. This is a sign of children brought up in the digital world, where anything is possible and everything is available. There are hundreds of furniture options available in The Sims. Why settle for anything less in the physical world?

But things don’t always work that way in real life. Or at least not yet.

Their first instinct, of course, was to come to me and ask me to buy new furniture for them. And my own first instinct (after saying “no” and “wait for your birthday”) was to at least find out what was avail- able. I went online and quickly realised three things: (1) dollhouse furniture is expensive; (2) there is surprisingly little variety; and (3) the stuff your kids like is invariably the wrong size for your dollhouse. Sorry, girls.

At that point, to my delight, they asked if we could make the furniture ourselves. My pleasure in their DIY spirit was slightly tem- pered, however, by memories of how projects started together with kids typically end up hours later with Dad in the workshop alone cursing broken bits of wood and X-Acto knife cuts. And even if I were to persevere, a week-long process of micro-carpentry would proba- bly end up, if history is any guide, with my clumsy bit of misshapen wood being placed in the dollhouse’s attic, unable to compete with the store-bought stuff on the other floors.

But now we have a 3-D printer, a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic, and so this quest ended differently. We went to Thingiverse, an online repository of 3-D designs that people have uploaded. And there it was, just like The Sims. Every furniture type we could want, from French Renaissance to Star Trek, was available, ready for the downloading. We grabbed some exquisite Victorian chairs and couches, resized them with a click to perfectly fit our dollhouse scale, and clicked on “build.” 20 minutes later we had our furniture. It was free, fast, and there was so much more choice than in the real world, or even on Amazon. We may never buy dollhouse furniture again.

If you’re a toy company, this story should give you chills.

As I was writing this, Kodak went into bankruptcy, a victim of the shift away from film that needed to be bought and processed to digital photography, which is free and can be printed at home on desktop inkjet printers. If you’re making cheap plastic toys today, can you see a premonition of your future in that?

Of course, physical objects are more complex than 2-D images. Right now we can print plastic in only a few colours on our MakerBot. The finish is not as good as injection-moulded plastic, and we can’t print colour details with nearly as fine precision as the painting ma- chines or stencils of Chinese factories.

But that’s because we’re at the dot-matrix equivalent of 3-D print- ers. Remember them, from the 1980s? They were noisy, monochrome, and crude—tiny pins hitting a black ink ribbon, little more than an automated electric typewriter. But today, just a generation later, we have cheap and silent inkjets that print in full colour with resolution almost indistinguishable from professional printing.

Now fast-forward the clock a decade or two from today’s early 3-D printers. They will be fast, silent, and able to print a wide range of materials, from plastics to wood pulp and even food. They will have multiple colour cartridges, just like your inkjet, and be able to print in as many colour combinations. They will be able to print images on the surface of an object even finer than the best toy factories today. They may even be able to print electronic circuits right into the object itself. Just add batteries.