There are many who advocate 3D printers as a logical next step for public libraries.  Others (such as this notable article) argue it is a distraction.  Whatever, odds are the technology is going to play an important part in all of our futures, in libraries or not and I was therefore very happy to read this book when I was sent a copy by its author.

It’s clear from the book that 3D printers are moving out of the early adopter stage and into the realm of “I know someone who has one”. I can attest to this from personal experience. A chap came into the library I work at today and chatted to me about a 3D printer he has – he’s not wealthy, he’s not a notable mad scientist, he’s just a normal person and the library I work at is not in a big city.  He was just interested and there must be many more like him. This is not to say 3D printers are mainstream yet of course. Almost all of the other people in the library probably had no idea what they are.  But that one chap is a harbinger of things to come … and it’s possible it’s going to be big. So, it’s worthwhile knowing about it and at only $3.31 for 120 pages, this book will not be a big cost to either your pocket or your time.

There’s a whole load of uncertainty about where 3D printers are heading but the two things that are certain is that prices are going down and the capabilities are going up.  It’s also getting easier to use them. And this is where the fun starts, because when these things start to go mass market then there’s money to be made and those who guess right could be, as the author states, “the world’s first trillionaire”.  Librarians are unlikely to be in this number, of course, but may hope for some reflected glory, increased usage and bequests.

There is a danger prevalent in 3D printing of seeming to be exaggerating how wonderful they are or are going to be.  There is also, in some titles, an element of True Believer about it.  Christopher is not immune from this but does say that:

“This book is about opportunities and markets that exist right now. This is not some cyberpunk fantasy of vague speculation, but a detailed overview of everything that is relevant and important in the 3D printing industry.”

It’s something which he achieves by just being plain honest, well-informed and friendly about his subject. Some points stand out.  It’s fascinating, for instance, to see how distributed the industry (if one call it that) is.  People swap ideas on forums, post problems, solve them by making things, post the solution and let others share it free or almost-free and each person could be in a different country. Check out this quote:

“Someone in Macedonia might be optimising the software, while another in Mumbai is improving the physical extruder head, and someone else in Singapore is posting howto-build guides on Youtube.”

It’s also an easy community to get into, seeming to be quite open and enthusiastic, with a sharing ethos.  Where money is needed, it is often being crowd-sourced. The cost of the printers themselves are also getting cheaper with £1,000 getting a decent enough model.  They are available at 500 dollars but you will have to be prepared to “do all of the part sourcing and assembly yourself, including soldering the electronics” at that price.  This is 30 times cheaper than five years ago, though, with higher definition (which translates a less roughness to the feel of the made pieces) to boot.

BBC covers 3D printing – be better informed than Paxman is in this video by reading this book

3D printing is also unlikely to be stifled by big corporations.  Shockingly for those of us who think of 3D printers are cutting-edge, the key patents appear already in the public domain.  This is a revolution – like the first PCs, with which it bears many similarities – being built in garages.  It may stay that way or it may take over the world.  It’s too early to tell.

The book covers the following key area;

  • An intro to the 3D printers available, albeit with a big warning saying the information is likely to be instantly out of date with some companies apt to disappear without trace.
  • Explains how 3D printers and scanners work. By the way, scanners are not the same as printers.  So, if you want to reproduce a physical object rather than design something from scratch, you’ll need two machines, not just one. However, software is staring to become available that means using a digital cameral at different angles is doing the job to some extent already. In addition, Micosoft has produced Kinect for Windows that can do the job as well.
  • As well as printers and scanners, the book also surveys the modelling software available and what to look out for. Again, although this can be very complicated, the author is sure things will get easier in a very short time.
  • It also looks at the websites available for purchasing and selling 3D printed items and designs. There’s even sites (such as Fiverr) where 3D printing experts offer their services.
  • Looks at options for products that can be made by it.  Notes that some things can be made from 3D printers now (such as an “orange juice squeezer”) that can save money.  Miniatures are being quite commonly used but, of course, they would be – the cheaper machines can only make smaller items. Action figures appear popular. It’s also great if you need stuff for your doll’s house
  • Looks at designers – possibly better to be called artists – who have used the machines.

There are a lot of wow moments in the book, of which the following is just a small sample:

  • Printing of a fully working bicycle.
  • Printing a new beak for an Alaskan bald eagle.
  • There may be no need for spares any more.  The 3D printer could make them for you – costs too much to replace that small part so you need a new one?  Not any more.
  • 3D printed false teeth are already on the market.
  • Houses are being printed at, it is claimed, one half current cost.
  • A project is in existence to create a 3D printed gun, using the Defense Distributed brand to create an open-source schematic for a”WIKIWEP A,” handgun that anyone can download.”.
  • Third World 3D printers that produce specially printed shoes for those with deformed feet due to jigger fly infestation

If a few of those didn’t shock you then you’re either unshockable or suffering from a severe lack of imagination.

You get so much for so little from this book that it seems a little bit churlish to complain but I do need to include that some of the information looks like it has been copied and pasted, notably the listing of different things were statements like “At Inspirtech we understand …” are included in the text.

There’s also a lot of extras in the book that may appear like padding to the uncharitable but I found interesting.  Related ideas that that the author would like to see come into reality are very interesting but perhaps not essential. There is also a fair amoutn of suggested “further reading”, including magazines and, fiction.

Throughout it all, though, the author’s interest and enthusiasm for his subject shines through.  He tries hard to explain what is needed and how things work and clearly has a broad interest in the subject.  He succeeds in explaining things in an easy-going and almost casual style that endears him and the book to you. As such, he is as good a tour guide in this as he is in his other work and being his biography says “He is currently exploring the spectacular Opium Trails of North West Guangxi for a forthcoming hiking guide” that’s a fair amount of praise.

3D Printing: The Next Technology Gold Rush – Future Factories and How to Capitalize on Distributed Manufacturing by Christopher D Winnan (2013) is available via Amazon for $3.31 inc. VAT.