A low, mechanical thrum creates an ever-present soundtrack at Type A Machines, a 3D-printing company on the third floor of San Francisco's TechShop, in SOMA. Big and drafty and sunlit with exposed pipes on the ceiling, it's a modern iteration of an old textile mill. On the ground floor, flannel-shirted workers sit hunched over welding equipment, sweat bubbling over their plastic goggles. Upstairs, their colleagues peck at laptops, designing blueprints for new objects with all the exacting detail of a draftsman using pen and paper. In a far corner, Type A's line of Series 1 2013 printers sits arranged in a row — big, wood-paneled, and creaky, each equipped with a wiring harness attached to an electrical spindle. One of them is spooling coils of purple plastic onto a glass platform. In several hours, it will be a cup.
At one point, someone tacked a sign to the office wall, which read like many such warnings in factories across the world — the ones that warn against accidents, or caution people not to stick their hands near the equipment. This one was cheekier. "Avoid PPSS — Printed Plastic Shit Syndrome."
And yet, the shelves of Type A Machines, the city's largest manufacturer of 3D printers, are lined with plastic shit, examples of the products Type A's true product can produce. Some of it looks inspired: the bust of a Greek emperor, a blocky action figure, a leaning Tower of Pisa, a piece of costume jewelry cast in pewter, six chess pieces, an anatomical model of a human brain copied from medical scans. Other stuff looks sturdy and utilitarian: a water wheel with rotating gears, a propeller with asymmetrical blades, a hammer. Still other pieces — say, the model ballerina or the cup with undulating ridges — look like the type of bric-a-brac you'd find in your grandmother's china cabinet.
Each of these objects required hours or days of production. All were designed on a computer, which was tethered to a large plywood machine, which spooled ropy strands of biodegradable cornstarch-based plastic (PLA, or polylactic acid) through a tube as thin as a pipe cleaner, and squirted them out, one blob at a time.
This is the new industrial revolution we keep hearing about. It's the line of almost affordable ($1,700 to $2,300 a pop) consumer-grade machines that hackers use to produce a lot of really esoteric, really plastic shit based on designs they swap online. It seems at a glance to be one more insular corner of tech culture — though, once upon a time, so did the Internet.
Strange as it is, 3D printing may ultimately allow us to print pizzas and organs (biological or musical), household appliances, and houses themselves. Given a few years of unchecked growth, it could disrupt not just the food industry or the furniture industry or the desktop curio industry, but our entire system of mass production.
"It's where the Internet was in the '80s," Type A designer and architect Bryan Allen explains, "back when nobody understood what they were dealing with yet."
For all their self-consciousness about plastic shit, the engineers at Type A see themselves as shepherds of the industry. They've helped create all manner of products, from architecture models to prototypes for a medical device that will help detect trace amounts of glucose in a drop of blood. Type A's Brooklyn-based competitor, MakerBot, unveiled the first 3D-printed hardback book cover in January, the same month that 30 new models of desktop 3D printers appeared at the international Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, including one that mints objects from sugar and chocolate. A Sunnyvale start-up called 3D Babies provoked an Internet firestorm in October when it began offering lifelike simulacra of ultrasound scans: For just $600, an expecting mother can now 3D print her unborn fetus.
But the novelty products are just garnish for what could ultimately become an additive manufacturing sector ("additive" because the machines layer particles on top of each other until they've produced a solid object). To enthusiasts, 3D printing promises a future of personalized factories.
Type A Machines co-founder Ronald Miloh Alexander is so besotted with the idea that he equates the rickety desktop machines with other inventions that spawned epochs: the cotton gin, the printing press, the Internet. Just as Netscape and Microsoft transformed the mechanics of communication, 3D printing will change our system of mass production, Alexander says.
"The disruption comes from more people having the machines and the tools."
To Alexander, the possibilities for DIY invention seem endless. A tinkerer could fabricate a new car engine in his bedroom and bring it right to market; he'd no longer have to persuade a big company to do the work for him. New medical devices could be 3D-printed in a laboratory, obviating whole swaths of the research and development. Plastic body parts 3D-printed from scans could be used to diagnose illness. College students could print new furniture for their dorm rooms. When Alexander brought a few Type A printers to a Science Hack Day at the California Academy of Sciences in September, one team used them to 3D-print parts of a motion sensor to detect life on Mars. Another created a plastic sea slug mold modeled from a scanned photograph, so that she could study the chemicals released from its ridged body, chemicals that could be used to combat disease. "Say I'm a scientist, and I decide I want to make a bio-monitor wrist-wrap that checks your heart rate," Alexander says. "I could do it from scratch."
Recently, scientists figured out how to 3D-print delicacies from chocolate, keeping the fats from separating after the ingredients were liquefied and squirted from a nozzle. That opened the door for wild culinary engineering, Type A founder Andrew Rutter says. We'll create a future in which people can bulk-buy enough food particles to last a year, stick them in the freezer, and then 3D-print all their own meals. Decades from now, Rutter says, we'll send an expedition to Mars with three days' worth of provisions, and through 3D printing, allow them to convert their own feces back into food. This is the sort of optimism that pervades the 3D-printing movement right now, and the future it posits is as ridiculous as it is wonderful, one in which shit can become space food.