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.

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.
Type A printers labor on slow-growth cups.
Mike Koozmin
Type A printers labor on slow-growth cups.
Mike Koozmin
Bryan Allen and Stephanie Smith are designing future houses in the woods.
Juan Pardo
Bryan Allen and Stephanie Smith are designing future houses in the woods.
The Echoviren is the largest edifice ever printed by desktop machines.
Courtesy of SmithAllen Studio
The Echoviren is the largest edifice ever printed by desktop machines.

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.

In other words, the machines that make today's slow-growing cups are distant cousins of the machines that will transform the food industry, undercut the factory system, and make space exploration possible. We might only be 10 or 20 years away from all this future amazement. It basically means modifying the existing technique (squirting out a product, one drop at a time) and replacing the liquid substrate with edible protein, or sugar, or ceramic. Enthusiasts say the sweep of this technology could be boundless.

Unless, of course, it gets choked off, right as it's starting to bloom.


It turns out the story of 3D printing is actually about two tech culture sensibilities being locked in combat. On one side you have the open-source inventors who want to make all their designs accessible to the public, so that everyone can help improve them and all can benefit from them. On the other side, you have the more traditional inventors who want to patent their ideas so that others can't steal them. 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. (Crump declined to be interviewed for this article.)Only in the last few years did a peculiar convergence of factors — the rise of Silicon Valley start-up culture, the popularity of do-it-yourself "maker" craftsmanship, and the expiration of certain key patents — allow the industry to blossom. Because San Francisco is the current epicenter of tech entrepreneurship and the open-source Internet community, it stands to be the locus of this next design revolution as well.

That's why 3D printmakers in the Bay Area shuddered when they heard that Stratasys, based in Minnesota, had filed a patent complaint against a younger, rising competitor. It seemed the grandfathers of the industry had come back to reclaim technology they thought was rightfully theirs.

And Stratasys has a powerful weapon at its disposal. Its lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in November, lays claim on five patents for "extrusion of materials in additive layers to form 3D objects" — which is, essentially, the foundation of 3D printing. If those patents mean what Stratasys says they mean — that anyone who uses squirt-and-layer technology is essentially stealing from S. Scott Crump — then the entire industry could be imperiled, says Michael Weinberg, vice president of the D.C.-based digital advocacy group Public Knowledge.

"I don't want to sound alarmist about it," Weinberg says. "But if you take the complaint on its face, then the patents seem to read onto every desktop 3D printer that uses that technology." Meaning, basically, all of them. If Stratasys' idea is to kill a whole bumper crop of potential competitors at once, then this is certainly the way to do it.

Alexander admits he's scared for the industry. If Stratasys manages to lay claim on this technology, it could levy a tax on any company that wants to use it. That would raise the cost of 3D printers, inhibit regular people from buying them, and strangle the bedroom-manufacturing revolution that Alexander and his colleagues envision. The post-post-industrial future would be ruined by one of history's oldest businesses: the protection racket.

The founders of Type A are determined not to let that happen. If need be, they'll beat patent-holders at their own game.


Walk down the long corridors of any Silicon Valley semiconductor company and you might see wall upon wall of polished picture frames, each containing a paper signed and stamped by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This is "the patent gauntlet," and insiders say they enshrine the most fatuous part of the high-tech industry: the owning of rights to ideas. Companies treat patents as legal tender in a world where ideas are currency, bedecking their halls with recipes for software systems, or blown-up photos of silicon chips, or signed deeds for computer systems that have long been shelved. At the Sunnyvale headquarters of Rambus, Inc. — a company that specializes in suing other companies, but manufactures no actual products — the patent gauntlet seems to stretch on for miles. It contains some 1,700 framed plaques, each representing a separate piece of technology that Rambus somehow acquired.

Since 3D printing spawned from that same high-tech ecosystem, some industry watchdogs worry that it, too, will get subsumed by the patent trade — that licensing companies will buy the rights to each new innovation, and then extort smaller entrepreneurs for profit.

"That's what happens in a lot of industries as they mature," Julie Samuels, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explains. "We saw it with semiconductors, with software, with smartphones. The technologies develop, and then people try to make more money out of them, and then one party [gets] the right to all the patents and goes after everyone."

In fact, many of the early 3D-print machine inventors opted to carve out their intellectual property rights long before they'd even commercialized any products. These were guys who envisioned the current print revolution long before they had the computer technology to produce it. Many of them are now CEOs of big companies, watching younger rivals build off their ideas. In many senses, they laid the foundation for an industry that's now trying to upstage them.

In the 1980s, an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin patented the technology for selective laser sintering, a low-cost way to fuse plastic and metal particles into finished products. The university licensed its sintering method out to companies for decades, creating the first student-owned enterprise to be spun from a university. After those patents expire in February, the cost to make a laser sintering printer should decrease, Rutter says. Money saved at the supply end means more competition in the market, which will ultimately benefit consumers.

"It's possible for one party that owns all the right patents to squelch a whole industry," Samuels explains. "Sure, technology is feisty — especially really great, awesome technology like this — and it's going to be stronger than any single bad actor. But I do worry that abuse of intellectual property laws will slow down its development."

Samuels' beefs represent a common line of argument in the open-source community, whose members blame the early inventors of 3D printing for keeping the industry dormant.


Yet the inventors of 3D printing weren't exactly rushing to make their innovations universally accessible either. British mathematician Adrian Bowyer, who is best known for inventing a 3D printer that prints itself, says that the cheapest machines still went for about $40,000 in the early aughts — roughly 20 times what they cost now.

"There were only 12 companies selling them, and they had all the patents," Bowyer says. Because their clientele was limited to large corporations and universities, they charged what the market would bear.

It wasn't until a couple years ago, when lean start-ups like Type A Machines and MakerBot began popping up, that 3D printers actually became a viable retail product, something that the average consumer could buy and use to fabricate sculptures or toys. Bowyer created an Internet forum called RepRap, through which he and his colleagues published design specs for new machines, or software components, or extrusion methods, so that no one else could patent them. Machines that had previously belonged in large firms or universities were suddenly rendered hip and affordable.

Reading the tea leaves, it was inevitable that the forefathers would come back to reclaim their ideas, Samuels says. And if they couldn't beat the younger start-ups on creativity, they'd pursue a legal avenue. For people familiar with high-tech industries, a spate of acquisitions, followed by a rash of lawsuits, seemed virtually inevitable.

In 2012, an older-line South Carolina company called 3D Systems sued its Boston competitor, Formlabs, alleging that the younger company had filched its decades-old technology for using light beams to harden particles into solid objects. The companies are currently in settlement talks.

The Stratasys suit, which could be far more devastating, came exactly a year later — right after Stratasys acquired a younger, hipper 3D desktop company called MakerBot. The acquisition showed that Stratasys was intent on buying up properties, but it also portended a cultural shift in the industry. MakerBot had been the archetypal DIY company, with a store in downtown Manhattan, and a CEO, Bre Pettis, who decried patent squatting. After the Stratasys sale, Pettis took a 180-degree turn, and began characterizing patents as "valuable business assets."

To Alexander, it's really no accident that the suing spree coincides with the buying spree, or that these older companies are dusting off their patent portfolios right as they try to consolidate an empire.

"Once that deal with MakerBot was finalized, that's when the [Stratasys] lawsuit was filed," Alexander says. He worries that Stratasys will repurpose its suit and deploy it against other companies, thereby seizing the industry.


Brown-eyed, baby-faced, equipped with an incorrigibly good-natured British accent, Bowyer has spent much of his life barricaded in mathematics departments or engineering labs. Now retired from the University of Bath in London, he's had time to ruminate on a scientific quandary that's bedeviled him since childhood.

Namely, self-replication: a practice that's abundant in the natural world, he says, but not quite possible for a human to engineer. Bacteria do it, Bowyer points out. As do yeasts, jellyfish, aphids, bees, and fungi spores. Microbial reproduction is so quick and efficient, in fact, that a single-celled creature can spawn a billion descendants in about 10 hours. Humans subsist by repurposing their own DNA. "We replicate about 60 percent of ourselves all the time," Bowyer points out, excitedly. "We live in a planet that's been knee-deep in self-replication since the beginning."

For years, he's been fixated on the idea that a human might be able to emulate this process. That, given the right tools, and the right degree of brain power, some laboratory technician could create an artificial simulacrum of a living thing.

In Bowyer's mind, 3D printing is the closest we've come to that scientific milestone. It's allowed us to create contraptions that spin exact copies of themselves.

"I certainly find the technology fascinating," the retired math professor says, "but it was only secondary. My aim was to make a useful self-replicating machine."

In 2004, he built the first RepRap printer, a maze of metal rods and plastic clasps that resembles a toy jungle gym, with a wood platform at the top, and a spindle attached to a hornet's nest of wires. Bowyer christened it "Darwin"; "RepRap" stands for "Replicating Rapid Prototype." The finished RepRap 1.0 could repurpose about 50 percent of itself; Bowyer posted designs for the remaining electronic parts, so that anyone could order them. Bowyer shunned patents, partly for pragmatic reasons — "If you want something to copy successfully, you don't put walls in front of its ability to copy," he says — and partly because they didn't mesh with his ideology. Bowyer wants to give everyone in the world access to engineering tools. He wants to turn 3D printing into a social virus.

Type A founder Andrew Rutter is quick to spread the gospel.

"Put it this way," he says. "You give all the people in Africa an Internet connection, and suddenly they're all on Facebook." Alternatively, if you give them the tools to make a self-replicating printer, then suddenly everyone has a home factory. Not to mention everyone's socialized to be an engineer. Anyone with a RepRap can spread the means of production among all his friends, so that in time, all of them can print their own objects. And that, Rutter says, is what's going to solve the world's problems.

RepRap spawned an Internet community whose members all coalesced around the idea of open-source technology. They began publishing new designs for 3D printers online, including ideas that were purely speculative, Bowyer says, as a way to forestall other people from patenting them. As the open-source ethos caught on, the axis of power began shifting in the 3D-print industry — well beyond Bowyer's home base outside of Bristol. Open-source marked a conscious shift from the early days of patent mongering — a general redistribution of ideas and blueprints so that anyone could adapt them. And now, both attitudes are at war in Silicon Valley, and in tech culture at large.

By the mid-2000s, any regular garage tinkerer could make his own 3D printer. What had previously been a tightly controlled, well-insulated industry became the domain of funky start-ups and artists.

"Sculptors took up RepRap," Bowyer recalls, beaming. "Chefs began making machines so they could 3D-print their own food."

With the cost of materials reduced, a whole DIY infrastructure has sprung up around 3D printing over the last few years. In 2009, a San Francisco-based orthopedic surgeon founded Bespoke Innovations, a company that 3D prints prosthetic limbs. (It's now a 3D Systems subsidiary.) Last May, a 25-year-old Texas gunsmith named Cody Wilson crafted the world's first 3D printed gun; it fired 14 rounds before failing. In April, Canadian engineer Jim Kor announced plans to drive across the U.S. in a 3D-printed car with a metal engine and chassis — using only 10 gallons of fuel. He'll complete the trip in 2016.

Once the open-source movement changed the contours of the industry, San Francisco became a hub for 3D printing start-ups.

In some ways, it isn't the ideal habitat, Rutter says. The rents are too high, there's a paucity of manufacturing space, not to mention it's hard for a young start-up with an indeterminate future to negotiate with landlords who want long-term leases. But the culture here is replete with the type of people who want to dabble in risky industries, Rutter insists. With its own little nexus of maker fairs, hacker hostels, and workshops, San Francisco tends to engender small companies like Type A Machines, which began moving its operations to the East Bay when it outgrew the small workshop in SOMA.

"The reason manufacturing companies are springing up in San Francisco is just because the people who start them all live here," Rutter says, calling the industry a byproduct of high-tech, hacker-driven maker culture. Businesses like Bespoke, Type A, Autodesk, and the architecture firm Rael San Fratello all wanted to apply an assembly-line ethos to small-batch manufacturing. They were interested in creating efficiencies, but equally concerned about making art.


Last summer, Bryan Allen and his collaborator, Stephanie Smith, used nine Type A printers to make the Echoviren, a 10 foot by 10 foot by 8 foot edifice that they installed in a redwood grove in Mendocino. Big enough for two people to stand in, with chinks to let in sunlight and rain, the Echoviren should last between 30 and 50 years, they say — until its PLA structure rots away. It is the largest structure ever fabricated by desktop 3D print machine. It points to a future in which architects will create ginger-breaded, turreted, livable houses from their garages at home.

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.

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.

Yet Allen believes that the Type A staff shouldn't live in fear of a lawsuit. "Product cycles last about six months in 3D printing," he says, explaining that at least two new types of print machine will hit the market each year. That's faster than smartphones, which are already far too fast for the courts to keep up with; Apple and Samsung are still squabbling over products that have long since gone off the market.

It's just not that easy to forestall a high-tech revolution. Particularly one that can copy itself.

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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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