And it draws from an epiphany that Allen says he had while playing with Legos at age 7: "We should build things by extruding them from a moving robot nozzle."

In his view, the machine explosion began a couple of years ago, when all the people who would normally be soldering floats for Burning Man suddenly glommed onto the idea of manufacturing plastic goods. The first wave of 3D printing was entirely engineer-driven, steered by people who wanted to make functional things like car engines, or guns, or a cheaper form of mass production.

But Smith and Allen saw in 3D printing its artistic potential.

EFF attorney Julie Samuels is leading a fight against restrictive 3D print patents.
Juan Pardo
EFF attorney Julie Samuels is leading a fight against restrictive 3D print patents.
Andrew Rutter and R. Miloh Alexander of Type A Machines.
Mike Koozmin
Andrew Rutter and R. Miloh Alexander of Type A Machines.

After graduating from UC Berkeley, the pair moved to a warehouse district just east of Lake Merritt, bought several 3D printers, and began configuring big structures from interlocking pieces of PLA. They finished the Echoviren in August, then began making a wall from hundreds of 3-D printed pentagons. They'll exhibit at the Interface Gallery in Oakland this month.

To Allen, these installations befit an aesthetic movement that's ascending in the 3D-print world right now. It's not "the next Industrial Revolution," he insists; rather, it's the first "Design Revolution."

"We have a very specific agenda with 3D printers," Allen says. By harnessing desktop 3D printers to make large-scale architecture, he and Smith hope to disabuse people of the notion that 3D printing is a technology fad with no substance — that all the media hype is just gloss for a few hackers who found a cool way to make trinkets. While everyone else is converging on the manufacturing side, Allen is thinking of aesthetic possibilities. He awaits the day when ordinary folks can print their own headboards and faucets and wall partitions. (It was Allen who coined the phrase "Printed Plastic Shit Syndrome" and posted the sign at Type A.)

Rutter, too, sees far beyond plastic cups and busts. He sees in 3D printing the triumph of the independent mom-and-pops over the conglomerated Rockefellers and Carnegies. Rutter foresees a world in which boutique-style car manufacturers will supplant the assembly line factories. You'll be able to walk into one, he says, and select from a variety of bodies, interiors, and engines. A clerk will print out the non-metallic parts using a large future version of today's printers, add the engine, and have a customized vehicle ready on the spot.

Once the technology catches on, he says, we'll have a new kind of production system that one single company, or patent-holder, can't easily commandeer.

EFF attorney Julie Samuels would rejoice as much as anyone if that romanticized 3D print utopia came to fruition. But, she cautions, it would be extremely atypical for a high-tech industry. The thrust of Silicon Valley is toward acquisition and consolidation; Apple started as a hacker company and, 30 years later, it's a titan of Silicon Valley, protective of its innovations and embroiled in the biggest patent arms race in the world.

"What's really dangerous is this pervasive culture where innovation is measured by the number of patents you get," Samuels says. That already happened in the 3D print industry during the '80s. Now that the old patents are expiring the 3D print market is finally starting to mushroom, and scores of new enterprises are popping up where before there were just a few. But if the original inventors return to assert their patents, they could erase all that progress. We could be jerked righ back to the '80s, when a few powerful firms had a virtual 3D print monopoly. The cost of a 3D printer could shoot up to $20,000; the "revolution" could once again be confined to engineering departments in universities or well-heeled architecture firms. It would be neither plastic shit nor space food.


The notion of patent squatting has generated a knot of complicated emotions at Type A, which Rutter admits has begun filing patents. In the back room, designers squabble about what purpose a patent serves anyway. Is it a tool to protect property, a means to encourage innovation, or a blunt instrument for companies who have no other product? Is it a thing that once had meaning, but that has now become its own form of virtual currency?

Rutter takes the rather hard-line view that patents stifle new industries, and yet he grudgingly participates in the system. Patents are a way to attract investors, he says, and raise enough money to expand the company. They're also a shield in the event that Stratasys comes along and sues.

But even as Type A outgrows its DIY stage and opens an 8,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in San Leandro to accommodate its new production demands (20 machines a week, to start), Rutter maintains an open-source ethos. He's not turning Type A into a closed system but, rather, an "accessible source" business — meaning its design files aren't open for the general public to copy, but the founders allow tinkerers to mess with those designs.

Whatever potential there is for ready-made houses or fabricated food, it hangs on the balance of a healthy industry. Mid-level companies like Type A, which emerged with all the bright-eyed idealism of the open source movement, now have to solidify their place in the market. That means keeping up the pace of innovation while trying not to be sued, or devoured. It also means protecting their meager patent assets.

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4 comments
sfreptile
sfreptile

This is really not the next big thing.  Building a clay model or prototype is still faster.  A milling machine can take a block of say aluminum and make an engine.  Try that with plastic.  This is a tinker toy.  And why shouldn't there be some patent protection if it is such a great idea? 

microcapfun
microcapfun

<<That mentality prevailed in the '80s, when people like S. Scott Crump — the co-founder of a large company called Stratasys — first developed 3D-print technology, but, for one reason or another, never brought it to the market. Instead, Crump and his colleagues designed big, gorgeous, prohibitively expensive industrial printers that they only sold to architecture firms and university engineering departments. The early 3D-print manufacturers owned and controlled a piece of mind-blowing machinery, but they kept it under wraps.>>


The author is very confused and very wrong about the history of 3d printing - and the article is ridiculously stilted against patenting inventions.


micro

kloro2006
kloro2006

@microcapfun  


property is not a god-given right. or, more concretely, society is not obliged to protect any individual's rights, unless reason itself demands that it do so for its welfare. i suspect this rains on yr parade, pal. sorry 'bout that. (and yes "its own welfare" can be a slippery slope, but one for which the notion of God-given rights and similar do not provide relief.)

please respond to this if you think it might further discussion of a very important topic.

 

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