Monday, January 2. 2012
3D printing and additive fabrication made it onto a number of 'top lists' for 2011 and 2012. Often it was something about how in 2011 3D printing had become much cheaper and more accessible or how, in 2012, 3D printing will finally be 'going mainstream'. Based on all of the hype one might think that 3D printing is new on the scene. The reality is much different.
In 1859, a year before Abraham Lincoln was elected president, a Frenchman in Paris, François Willème began creating photosculptures of real people using techniques which, while perhaps primitive by today's standards, are really not all that different than those techniques currently used in 3D printing.
It's 1859. How Do You Build a 3D Scanner?
The first challenge in 3D printing an object is collecting the data necessary to represent the object. Today we create or collect that information either through designing in 3D on a computer (3D CAD) and/or using some form of laser or whitelight scanners to map a 'point cloud' of the surface of an existing object.
In 1859 Willème, faced with the same challenge, went to some of the hottest new technology of the day - photography - to capture the essence of his subjects, their profiles. Willème would arrange his subject on a circular platform, surrounded by 24 cameras, one every 15 degrees. He would then simultaneously photograph their silhouette from each camera. This photographic set of profiles contained the data for a complete representation of his subject in 3 dimensions, albeit with relatively coarse resolution. (Interestingly, the artist Auguste Rodin apparently used a similar technique by examining his subject from numerous angles to create a mental 'profils comparés').
Although Willème's technique was analog and chemical rather than digital and magnetic it is remarkably similar to today's 3D scanning techniques which collect and record electromagnetic radiation reflected off the surface of a subject in order to store data for later three dimensional representation and/or fabrication.
3D Printing - 1859 Style
In additive fabrication (we use the term interchangeably with '3D printing') an object is created by laying down successive layers of material. Whether it's a layer of sintered metal, melted plastic or some other material, 3D printing is a layer technology. 3D representations are virtually sliced and machines are used to fabricate each slice.
Willème had now collected layer data for his subjects in the form of 24 different photographs of their profile. To 3D print his subject he first needed to make accessible each layer's information by projecting each image onto a screen. Next, he needed to translate each image into the movements required to fabricate each layer. This was accomplished using an already 250 year old technology, a precursor of numerical control (NC), the pantograph attached to a cutter (here's a fun java virtual pantograph). Now he was able to trace each profile with one end of the pantograph while the other end cut a sheet of wood with the exact same movement. (Might we call his tracing a precursor to g-code?) The pantograph allowed the cuts to be smaller, larger or the same size as the original projection. The layers of wood were then assembled to create the photosculpture. Finally, if desired, an 'artist' could finish the work making it truly a work of art.
Again, we see that while seemingly primitive, Willème's techniques are very similar to today's 3D printing: 1)take a 3D representation of an object and slice it into layers; 2)use that slice information to fabricate material layers which are combined to make the finished object.
Combinatorial Creativity and 'Killer Apps'
So what's the big deal? First, as the hype surrounding 3D printing continues to grow, it's important to remember that, as a concept - and even as a practical technology - it's not really that new. And until a molecular assembler or similar is developed, we're perhaps being a bit over-exuberant when we talk about, for example, new paradigms for manufacturing. 3D printing is darn cool but it's not yet changing the world.
More important however is recognition of the combinatorial creativity demonstrated by François Willème's creative mashup of new and existing technologies. Maria Popova describes combinatorial creativity as:
...the idea that creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before, and that we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations.
This concept is important for 3D printing since, so far, it doesn't have it's 'killer app'; no uses for 3D printing have been created which would make all (or most) of us users. But most anyone paying attention to 3D printing agrees that there WILL be a killer app for 3D printing. The convergence of different technologies just seems too ripe for it NOT to happen.
Will it come from the marginal improvements of those already in the industry or might it come from someone outside? Perhaps an artist or maybe an engineer in an entirely unrelated field? When we understand what François Willème did in 1859 the outsider idea seems even more probable. Someone, with just the right combination of knowledge and experience to truly take 3D printing into the mainstream, is likely already out there. They might not even be aware of 3D printing, let alone use it in any practical sense. We can try to help them along by hyping 3D printing, by developing cheaper hardware and materials or by introducing children to 3D printing. In the end though, our killer app will likely arise out of a set of circumstances that in retrospect seems random but in reality represents a continuation of the combinatorial creativity that began more than 150 years ago in the studio of François Willème.
3D Additive Fabrication, Inc. (3dAddFab) is a start up company located in Colorado, USA. 3dAddFab provides high quality 3D printing that is easy to price and order, at a lower cost than existing fabricators.