Galen Richmond had a problem. He'd found a set of vintage kitchen chairs he really liked, but quite a few of the feet were busted. And that would scratch up the kitchen floor.
Richmond, a Portlander who builds playable electrical circuits as the "band" Computer at Sea and is what you'd call a "maker," also had a solution.
"I had one of the remaining feet and I measured that with some calipers," he says. "It was just a slanted circle with one side bigger than the other. A truncated column on an angle. I took the measurements and I guessed at the angle and built it in SketchUp, then I printed out a version that wasn't quite right. So I reduced some values and then, on the second go, it really worked well. I mean, it was a pretty simple shape. Like a little hoof."
Wait. What? He printed it out?
That's right. Richmond owns and operates a MakerBot Cupcake, a 3D printer he bought in 2010 and put together himself from a kit. It can print things out about the size of a loaf of bread if you design it first in a 3D design software program like Google SketchUp (there's a free version), Blender (also free), or TinkerCAD (totally free). Or you can simply download a design from a free site like Thingiverse. Even Pirate Bay has a section for "physibles" now — that's the word for 3D designs that can be printed out.
If you've already heard of 3D printing, it's probably because of University of Texas student Cody Wilson and his 3D printed gun. Our sensationalist mainstream media has had a field day with this idea of a gun for which you can download a digital file, print out the plastic parts, and then waltz right through your standard metal detector. When Wilson and his Defense Distributed group demonstrated a working 3D printed 30-round clip last month, it got all sorts of attention.
LATEST AND GREATEST MakerBot’s Replicator 2, released in October, can make items as big as 11 by 6 by 6 inches, and retails for $2199.
3D printing is scary! We need 3D printing regulations!
Of course, no one has yet been able fire a real bullet out of a gun where every single part is 3D printed. The barrel is a pretty sticky wicket.
But projects like the WikiWeapon (as Defense Distributed calls it) will likely continue to get more sophisticated as 3D printers continue to get more sophisticated. An open-source project on Thingiverse has even created the designs for printing out every single piece of a grandfather clock. In the past five years, great leaps have been made in the number of materials you can print in (ceramics and metals, in addition to the traditional variety of plastics), the speed at which you can print, and the size of the printers.
Something like the front bumper of a car is now not a problem for the highest-end commercial printers.