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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Rob Masek is on the board of directors at MakeIt Labs in Nashua and is a 3-D printer user.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Spooled plastic, much like grass trimmer string, is the raw material used to create the three-dimensional objects.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Spooled plastic, much like grass trimmer string, is the raw material used to create the three-dimensional objects.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    A head, moving on an X, Y, Z axis, melts the plastic in layers based on instructions from a CAD program.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Three-dimensional objects take shape in layers as the head moves in a pattern based on CAD software instructions. The completed piece is snapped clean from its supports and is ready for use.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Science Cafe on 3-D printing: The next Industrial Revolution or just a geeky fad?

(This is my Telegraph column today; I figured I'd post it here - see you at the Science Cafe on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Killarney's pub, Northeastern Blvd.)

Much to my annoyance, nobody sells the little plastic clips that hold hiking poles together when they’re being carried on your backpack.

I constantly lose them, reducing me to fudging things with Velcro or string, which separate at inopportune times and send my poles rattling down the hillside.

But maybe, thanks to the miracle of 3-D printing, I don’t have to wait for some company to make and sell these clips.

Maybe I can manufacture them myself!

Rob Masek, one of the do-it-yourself geeks at MakeIt Labs in Nashua, gives me hope.

“I used it to make an adapter for my drill battery,” he said, in a recent discussion about the new 3-D printer – a Replicator2 – available for members to use at MakeIt Labs.

The Replicator2 melts plastic string that looks like it came off a Weed-wacker, then, operating much like a laser printer, deposits dribbles of this plastic in very thin, complicated layers according to computerized instructions, slowly building up, layer by a layer, almost any object you can think of.

Folks at MakeIt Labs, the state’s first “hackerspace” or open-source engineering club, have even used the Replicator2 to create parts for the Replicator2 itself, a self-referential loop that sounds like a first step to the robot apocalypse.

In Masek’s case, he went online, found a computer design for his Makita drill and a computer design for his Craftsman battery, combined the two, then used the resulting CAD (computer-aided design) file to guide a 3-D printer to build a battery adapter.

Sounds pretty straightforward, if not easy. Nobody has created a CAD file for the exact clips I need, so I would have to learn how to adjust files – ugh.

But at least it’s possible, which wasn’t the case until relatively cheap, accessible 3-D printing became a reality within the past year or two. This has fueled an Internet community to share designs, creating a critical mass that has some people talking about the next Industrial Revolution, an equivalent to the first blossoming of home computers or desktop publishing.

There is even speculation that 3-D printing and other types of “additive manufacturing,” which use various technologies to build up an item from nothing, rather than doing it by filling a mold or by removing excess material, can revolutionize manufacturing to the point that jobs will return to high-wage places like the U.S.

Masek has a way to measure the field’s sudden popularity, using the ever-popular Mom Scale.

“A few months ago, my mom asked me: What do you know about 3-D printing?” he marveled. “Her investment group was looking at 3-D Systems as a stock, and they wanted to know about it.”

Yes, there are publicly traded 3-D printing companies. Despite the relative novelty of the field for most of us – I only wrote my first Telegraph article about it in late 2011 – 3-D printing has been around for a decade or more, creating prototoypes for industrial applications.

It’s a real, live industry. Locally, Solid-Scape of Merrimack makes 3-D printers, in its case for jewelry and dental offices, while Nashua’s Paperless Parts (Masek’s employer) sells and services various such devices for commercial and industrial clients.

What’s novel is 3-D printing’s entry into the home workshop, courtesy of the open-source community, lower cost (a Replicator2 is cheaper than a nice TV), and the rise of the “maker” or do-it-yourself movement.

It has fueled much talk about “the Internet of things” and new paradigms, which is why Science Cafe New Hampshire is tackling the subject for its first event since moving to Nashua, on Wednesday from 6-8 p.m. in Killarney’s Irish Pub. Free, of course.

Masek and other MakeIt Labs folks will be there, demonstrating the Replicator2, and a Solid-Scape vice president will also be a panelist. They’re ready to answer all questions about this incredibly interesting technology, amid food and drink.

As for me, I might just bring a clip or two and see where it leads me.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.