Manufacturing on Demand: The Future Is Now

Computer and internet technology is bringing big changes to daily life: music distribution without the need for big physical production plants, electronic book publishing, and even what the continuing advances in computer technology will mean to computers themselves. All of these changes really come down to one central idea: increasingly the real product is information, not a physical object built around that information. Computers and the Internet together make it so much less expensive to transmit that information that the whole business models of many industries, like record and book publishing, are dissolving as the physical model is replaced with an information model.

Still, sometimes we need physical objects: you can't sit on an information chair, and you can't eat with the binary description of a fork. But imagine if there were some way to automatically turn that binary description of a fork into a physical object?

Now, it happens that I have on my desk a lovely little object: a model of the three-dimensional projection of the four-dimensional analogue of a dodecahedron; a four dimensional object with 120 three-dimensional dodecahedra as its faces. (Okay, so I'm a math geek. Just look at it, it's cool.) They're made by my old friend Bathsheba Grossman, a mathematical sculptor, using a 3D printing process. Imagine, just for a second, how your regular ink-jet printer works. (If you don't have an ink-jet printer, imagine how my ink-jet printer works.) The print head scans across the paper, and the platen moves the paper upward; every place the paper should be black, the print head spits a tiny dot of waxy black ink at the paper. If you keep going back and forth over the paper, you can imagine how the waxy ink would build up to be thicker and thicker.

These metal objects are "printed" in much the same way, except to make them of metal, the "ink" is a kind of resin "glue" that sticks together fine metal powder. Later, the metal objects are heated, which drives off the glue and bonds the metal, a process called "sintering." Sheba then does a few manual finishing steps, but the result is an object that really can't be made by any other method --- and it comes off the printer in a matter of hours.