Maker Faire 2012: 3D Printers All the Rage for Democratizing Creativity

3D printers have been at Maker Faire for awhile, but this year, it was different. 3D printers weren't just there... they were everywhere. No matter in which direction I turned there seemed to be another booth with a MakerBot or other printer busily whirring away creating some sort of plastic object that had been specially designed, showing that makers could get exactly the right components for any project they might be working on.

Indeed, one Maker Faire attendee did their own census: "All told I saw 55 3D printers on the fairgrounds, 23 of which were unique designs."

That's a lot of 3D printing. Thanks to MakerBot and Cubify, 3D printers are accessible to most makers, even those on a budget. And when it comes to creating customized components for a new design or hack, the 3D printer is where it's at.

3DTouch printer can print with various materials including opaque ABS plastic and translucent PLA plastic. They've also tested out materials like mashed potatoes...though the clean-up is rather cumbersome.

Cubify, an affordable printer that launched at CES earlier this year to a raving audience, is set to start shipping this month and according to the company, their presales are off the charts. Clearly, this little printer is in hot demand. So too is the MakerBot, a 3D printer you can build at home.

3D printers typically use ABS or PLA plastics to print out designs with less waste. However, they can be hacked to use other materials, including foods from mashed potatoes to chocolate. At first glance, 3D printing technology is bringing in a greener manufacturing revolution -- you create what you need when you need it, rather than relying on stocks of not-quite-right items that have been mass-produced and are sitting in warehouses. But 3D Systems Corporation, the company behind Cubify and the 3DTouch printer pictured here, is working not only to "democratize creativity" with this technology but to do so in a sustainable way.

CEO Abe Reichental told me that the company is already working to launch several sustainability programs, including a recycling program in which makers can send in their unwanted plastic 3D print-outs and get store credit that can be applied to things like refill cartridges. The company will thus help to ensure that more of the items printed by their machines stay out of landfills and keep looping through the consumer stream.

3D printed electric guitar is a real crowd-pleaser

Sustainability is a priority for the company, but so too is bringing the capabilities of the machine to the masses. Reichental told me that his grandfather was a shoemaker, during a time when you take the unique shape of your foot to the cobbler who would make a custom pair of shoes perfect for your feet. These days, we take our unique feet to a store where we hope to find a pair of already-made shoes that fits both our style tastes as well as our feet. More often than not, the comfort of our poor feet is sacrificed. It is essentially the same thing with creativity and 3D printing. We currently have to take our unique ideas and hope we can find or hack parts to build it. With today's 3D printing technology, however, we can make exactly the item we dream up. The ability to make what we need when we need it, without waste, and without relying on distant manufacturing plants, is coming back again. The potential is apparent as 3D Systems is already taking the Cubify into schools, teaching students how to craft new things and in the process encouraging design, engineering, programming, art and more important skills.

Intricate 3D-printed artworks at Maker Faire

3D printing has arrived, at least among Makers. It's clear from this year's event that it isn't an idea rustling around the fringes for those with enough money and programming skills. Instead, it is a technology that is here and being implemented all over the place. A couple years ago we thought it would be a long time before we saw a 3D printer in every home, but it's happening already. Is it far-fetched to think that soon repair businesses will have 3D printers spitting out parts on an as-needed basis? Could manufacturing be made small-scale again? Anything seems possible now.

Read more Maker Faire coverage here.

Maker Faire 2012: 3D Printers All the Rage for Democratizing Creativity
Never have I seen more 3D printers in one space than at this year's Maker Faire. There's a revolution underfoot!

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