LAFAYETTE -- Imagine a machine the size of a microwave oven that can fabricate a pair of shoes you designed that morning. Then imagine you're wearing those shoes at dinner that evening.
Or, more dramatically, picture the magic box pumping out a custom titanium hip replacement joint or functional, rejection-free human liver tissue for your 85-year-old grandfather.
At the upcoming Science Cafe session at the Lafayette Library, fashion and medical miracles won't occur, but mini-marvel precursors will be on full display. Brian Palacios, co-founder of Fabricastl, Inc., will explain and demonstrate the science of 3D printing. The technology melts plastic and other materials, then extrudes them in a back-and-forth process resulting in a digital blueprint becoming a solid object.
Although additive manufacturing has been around for years, if not centuries (some industrialists point back to 18th century spinning wheels that increased yarn production), current mainstream interest in 3D printing is swelling. Shifting economics is a major reason for the soaring wave; the cheapest 1970s-era 3D printers cost upward of $20,000, placing them out-of-range as household appliances. But in the last 10 years, hacker engineers have introduced affordable models, releasing their open source designs. Like its aging counterpart the inkjet printer, 3D printer prices have plummeted; Palacios MakerBot Replicator 2X lists at $2,799; San Francisco's Type A Machines, prices its "Next Generation" model at $2,295. Staples has "The Cube" at $1,200, and more basic desktop models can be found for under $500. And long-standing 3D-printing service bureaus with Fortune 500 clients, like Oakland's Studio Fathom now offer a Kinko-equivalent, one-stop option for individual inventors.
"Even UPS is getting into the act," Palacios said, in an interview. "There's a San Diego pilot program where you can bring in a design, print it out, send it off."
Fabricastl, the San Ramon resident's company, bills itself as a multiplatform launching pad for 3D innovation, offering workshops, expert consulting and membership. Beyond creating a community, Palacios carries a passion for what he likens to the music industry's shift from analog to digital.
"People will adjust to 3D," he predicted, "once they see the convenience of digitally programming the physical environment around them."
If it sounds science-fiction-y and scary, Palacios aims to blast the shadows with informational sessions -- minus the hype. The industry, he explained, has two camps: additive-manufacturing purists who rant about interest in 3D printing "dumbing down" their field, and entrepreneurial maker-types who are blind to labels but rave about the technology's potential.
"Rapid manufacturing will be the big win," Palacios predicted, "but we're nowhere close. You can't yet get the per-unit price that you can get by going to China (to make a product)." Instead, rapid prototyping is where he said action is hot. With relatively simple software like Sketchup or Netfabb Studio Basic, a budding inventor without a printer can pay $2,000 to have a design printed by a service bureau (an $8,000 savings off the average service bureau's design and manufacturing fee.) For a small company designing a new product, the process catches early design flaws in a single prototype, potentially saving thousands of dollars.
"This empowers everyday people," Palacios insisted. "It's like publishing, where print on demand changed the industry. Individuals can make statements that are impactful. The biggest innovations will come when people unleash their creativity."
Beyond individual expression in fashion and art, 3D printing is disrupting traditional automotive, aerospace, medical, dental and product prototype manufacturing. An individually molded lattice-like cast, developed by New Zealander Jake Evill, costs $80 to replicate and allows a person to scratch and wash a broken arm while it heals. San Diego-based Organovo provides medical researchers with functional human tissue. Experiments with construction building -- using low-cost organic materials in work by Ron Rael at UC Berkeley -- could lead to architectural innovations. Even the high cost of the printers' plastic filament was toppled, by Hugh Lyman, an 83-year-old inventor whose filament extruder melts (less costly) pellets and squeezes them out in 3D-ready coils. For environmentalists, Lyman's creation introduces the 3D printer as a materials recycler: melt down a widget, make a new widget. Propelled by the surging interest and expanding capabilities -- to use titanium, wood and even waste materials -- the economics and sustainability of 3D printing are constantly in flux.
Palacios said he'll cover the common technologies currently in use and demonstrate the printing of a yet-to-be-decided object. Expect a solid Q&A, if not miracles, to follow.
When: Tuesday, Feb. 25, 7-8 p.m.
Where: Community Hall, Lafayette Library and Learning Center, 3491 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette
Reservations: email reserve@LLLCF.org; or call 925-283-6513