Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing

Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing

Summary: This book explores how 3D printing will revolutionise the worlds of design, materials science and manufacturing.


"Food printers have tremendous social appeal," Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman write in Fabricated, based on Lipson's experience with demonstrations. It's true. I'd rather bake than print, but nonetheless it's fun to watch a cookie build up layer by layer. Today, the process is fairly crude in terms of resolution, but tomorrow, or maybe a few years from now, the authors imagine a system that collects metabolic and health data from its owner, and then prints out a meal exactly tailored to the individual's nutritional needs. Ah, the smell of freshly printed broccoli...


Lipson is the Cornell associate professor who's into all the cool stuff: programmable materials, robots, 3D printing in chocolate. A visitor to his lab finds little bread men and fabricated robot parts jostling for space with a gripper made of coffee grounds that can throw a ping-pong ball across the room. What makes Fabricated different is that it seeks to explore the implications of this work, not just cheerlead for it. And not just Lipson's own work: Lipson and Kurman survey the field, travelling to England to interview the creator of the open-source RepRap and to Utah to investigate work on CAD for the human body. The latter, they argue, is a technology required to enable bioprinting — designing and editing living tissue and body parts. The former is a warning shot in the 3D intellectual property battles to come. Lipson's is the world of the 'voxel' — or volumetric pixel.

In general, the human imagination is incremental, even in science fiction. The Star Trek replicator produced more or less familiar foodstuffs and machine parts. Neal Stephenson's nano-assembling matter compiler could only make items that already existed. Douglas Adams' running joke in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was that an Englishman lost in space and given a robotic drinks dispenser would beg it to make a perfect cup of tea. Lipson's students, assigned the task of imagining a pencil holder to be 3D-printed, disappoint him because they fail to think radically enough.

If we can learn to print with biodegradable waste materials and not produce endless failed plastic prototypes, 3D printing can give us a much greener world.

Lipson and Kurman imagine all manner of radical departures from the limitations the manufacturing methods of the past have imposed upon us: intricate blends of multiple materials, like different colours of ink, that will create new materials with properties that have never existed before. The blockage is design software, which is both too hard to use and too limited in scope. For a counter-example, the authors turn to the virtual world Minecraft. Now add some intelligence, so that you tell the computer the functional specifications and it suggests a design. An early attempt at a tool based on this approach is at Endless Forms, created by Lipson's former student Jeff Clune. Why should a mug only have one handle?

The key point is this: the manufacturing methods we've had until now rely on taking a block of material and subtracting everything we didn't want. It's wasteful and physically limited by our tools. In 3D printing you start with a blank and add only what you need. If we can learn to print with biodegradable waste materials and not produce endless failed plastic prototypes, 3D printing can give us a much greener world. We are facing a suddenly unlimited world of new shapes made out of composites with characteristics we've never seen before. I suspect some things won't change too much: our spaces and furniture are designed around our bodies, and people seem pretty committed to the way we currently make those.

Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing
By Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman
302 pages
ISBN: 978-1-118-35063-8
£18.99 / €22.40 / $27.95

Topics: After Hours, Printers, Reviews

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  • How about Licensing?

    The files and applications needed to produce 3D objects will have to have reasonable regulation, both from a business and a public safety viewpoint.

    1) Amalgamated Widget might not object if a customer who needs a 5 cent pushbutton and pays $1.00 for the pattern (to avoid shipping delay, etc.) somehow "leaks" the pattern to a few friends, since they are not in business to sell replacement buttons, only whole widgets, BUT what if the pattern file for their key mechanism (e.g. an auto crankshaft) is leaked? Someone will have to put the hackers who reverse-engineer patented part shapes and make pirate copies of the pattern file (or the hardware) out of business, while legitimate printing apps will have to honor patents and licenses.

    2) a critical airplane part is supposed to be made of a certain metal and heat treated a certain way, so it is NOT manufactured by 3D printing. Someone scans the part and makes a dangerously unsafe printing pattern, either to fix the aircraft belonging to them or their company, or to sell as a cheap replacement to other companies with that aircraft. The 3D printed part, made of a cheaper metal without treating, causes a fatal crash ... or a series of crashes if the part is duplicated.

    3) as demonstrated on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, the critically designed part of a semiautomatic (or automatic) assault rifle, called the LOWER RECEIVER, is the part of the gun that has the serial number on it, and is registered. A gun company has already demonstrated that it is possible to duplicate the lower receiver of a gun in high strength resin AND FIRE IT SAFELY. Since the other parts are easier to machine (or 3D print) and are less critical, if the lower receiver were duplicated WITH NO SERIAL NUMBER, it would become impossible to identify the gun used in a crime, or to limit access by background checks. The illicit gun dealer would only have to sell a flash drive containing the printing application and the files, and with the proper printer and a supply of raw material, an entire illicit army could be equipped.

    4) there has been talk of 3D printing with living cells, cultured from a patient's cells, to make scaffolding to grow replacement organs in vitro. Printers for this purpose should be treated as MEDICAL DEVICES, just like hip implants and dialysis machines, and must have sterile parts isolated from parts that can remain unsterilized (not the refillable "ink" cartridge!) to avoid cross contamination.

    The time to establish laws and rules for 3D printing, and begin applying them to retailed devices and software, is BEFORE the unregulated technology becomes too widely available. The same thing happened with color printers and counterfeiting.
    • Let me Guess!

      You are probably a polititain. Why do you people always want to control everything. You try to find the scarriest part and get people to let you control it.

      One of the main reasons we don't advance science as fast as we should, is the regulations. I don't mean we should take all regulations off, but I would try to get government out of the way in the main.
  • Color printers and counterfeiting


    You provide your own solution to the problem- color printers can no longer reliably print currency, even though they have gotten much better at printing. (Google the reason, if you need to...) The same will happen with copyright, patents, dangerous medical devices, gun parts, etc. and the additive printing revolution. Technology provided a "good enough" answer then; it will do so again.

    Yes- there will be people running around with printed guns "in the wild"; yes- some companies will go out of business because they didn't react fast enough or wisely enough. Yes- we do need regulation for printers that print high explosives, new organs & nuclear weapons. However, if the regulations don't come fast or wisely enough, and if they aren't updated quickly enough, many legitimate freedoms will be lost, and govt. may be pushed into tyranny.

    That's my greatest concern regarding this topic...