Why Apple Should Start Making a 3D Printer Right Now

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Hobbyists and tinkerers are testing out the future with a technology that you're probably going to have sooner than you think.

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The progression that computers made from IBM to your laptop has patterned the expectations for all future technologies. First, big companies create and use a very expensive set of technologies. Then, garage tinkerers start to use slightly cheaper, smaller versions of the original technology. They create a culture that makes the technology easier to use and they give it more users, which drives down its costs. Finally, when it is sufficiently cheap and easy to use, mass market consumers start to buy it. This is a condensed, reductive history of consumer electronics, but it's the mental model Silicon Valley-types have.

The latest technology that seems to be working its way along this trajectory is 3D printing. For those not in the MAKE crowd, 3D Printers are machines that produce three-dimensional objects from digital data by printing in thin layers of physical material, similar to the way an inkjet prints in two dimensions. A 3D printer outputs not words on paper, but a thing. After a couple decades of research, development, and industrial deployment, the technology appears to be on the threshold of developing a mass market. Still, it's hard to imagine what to do with such a general purpose machine sitting in one's house.

And that's what makes Brendan Dawes such an interesting early adopter. For one, he's kept meticulous records of his productions since he bought his MakerBot Thing-O-Matic from Makerbot Industries, a company that sells stripped down do-it-yourself 3D printers directly to consumers, in December 2010. Over the past year he has posted his "printings" on a tumblr called everythingimakewithmymakerbot. The site reads like a diary or sketchbook; an intimate account of a creative person interacting with a new technology.

But more to the point: Dawes seems like a normal, creative person. He's not a hardcore geek with an industrial engineering degree. In the early nineties he was a minor figure in Manchester's rave scene. He cut several 12" singles, breakbeats mostly, and even scored a record deal. More recently, he has turned his attention to the graphic arts, and with considerable success: in 2009 several works of his were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

If a former-raver and artist could find fun and value in the $1,100 machine, maybe a lot of people might. And he did. "It took me a week to assemble my Makerbot, but remember that when Jobs and Wozniak and those guys first started out, you had to make your own computer," he said. "Now they're in your pocket. That's where I think this is headed." (Are you listening, Apple?)

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The selection of things that Dawes printed in 2011.

Of course, in some ways, Dawes is ideally suited to fiddling around with a 3D printer. Last year he founded Beep Industries, a startup that manufactures an external shutter button for the iPhone. Before that, he worked as a commercial web designer, doing agency work for large media companies like Disney, Reuters, and the BBC. He knows his way around a computer.

Dawes is not alone in his obsession with the Makerbot. The machine has spawned a whole subculture of 3D printing enthusiasts. The website for Makerbot Industries features a forum called the Thingiverse, where customers can swap digital designs and post pictures of their latest creations. Because the early models of the Makerbot required a protracted and difficult home assembly, this first generation of users is an especially crafty group.

Shortly after Dawes purchased his Makerbot, he and his wife decided to remodel their kitchen. After the remodel, the couple discovered they'd misplaced their egg cup in the chaos of packing and unpacking the kitchen. Dawes' wife, who had been slow to warm to his new hobby, was craving hard-boiled eggs. He told her not to worry, he'd just print a new egg cup.  And he did, in three minutes. The Makerbot forums are full of similar anecdotes, making it easy to imagine a new model of online shopping, where consumers purchase and download digital designs from Amazon, iTunes, or wherever, and print them right on the spot.

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The three-minute egg cup.

Naturally, some are hesitant to hand such an efficient means of production to the masses. Manufacturers (and intellectual property lawyers) have taken note of the way the music and media industries have struggled with the accelerating transmission and duplication of content. When it becomes feasible for a consumer to print a complex structure like a grandfather clock or an iPhone, the stakes of preventing the dissemination of ideas are raised considerably. Already at Pirate Bay, the torrent site the L.A. Times called "one of the world's largest facilitators of illegal downloading," a new category of downloads has surfaced: objects.

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Ross Andersen is a senior editor at Aeon Magazine. He is based in California.

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