- If You Print It, They Will ComeAndrew Chastain shares the future of 3-D printing
On April 1, 2014, Andrew Chastain joined Jack Hitt onstage at the Institute Library in New Haven, Connecticut, as part of the ongoing series “Amateur Hour,” in which various tinkerers, zealots, and collectors discuss their obsessions. Chastain, whose day job is R&D Manager at an ink and printer manufacturer, is also a member of a New Haven hackerspace known as MakeHaven, which hosts various projects in mechanics, biology, electronics, digital art, and other disciplines. The conversation that follows was recorded live and has been edited for brevity and meaning.
Jack Hitt: Like a lot of people, I’d heard of 3-D printing and thought it was sort of neat. Then I met Andrew, and every time we talk there’s something astonishing and bizarre happening in 3-D printing. So I want to start off with something fresh in the 3-D-printing world. Tell us what we’re looking at in this video.
This is a giant 3-D printer that prints houses. It was developed by a professor at the University of Southern California who is using this fiber-reinforced, quick-drying cement and is able to print full walls. Using this in the case of, say, a disaster recovery or if you have an artistic streak and you want to design your house from scratch, this technology would allow you to take a computer-based plan, the raw material, and build the house essentially from scratch.
How long would it take to put up this house?
The numbers that the inventor came up with suggest that you could put together a 2,500-square-foot house in about twenty hours. So we’re talking about in a day you could have a new two-story house.
So have they built an actual house?
They’ve done portions of one. I don’t think they’ve finished a full structure. But they did just get a grant from NASA, because they’re also looking at how this technology would be excellent for building structures for the moon, or Mars, or any other interstellar travel where you don’t want to take a prefab unit up there because you’d have to carry all of it. Even better—let’s say, in the case of the moon—you take the rock and gravel and material already on the surface, use a binder and a 3-D printer, and send a robot to go print it before you even get there.
Tell us why we call it 3-D printing.
It’s not necessarily the best term. A broader one is “additive manufacturing.” The idea is that you could take a digital representation of an object and print it out layer by layer, building up its [End Page 12] structure. So there are a few different technologies. One 3-D printer uses what’s called fused filament fabrication, where it takes a spool of plastic and melts it. It’s really like a very fancy hot glue gun, where it will trace and extrude this hot plastic, which then cools very quickly and makes that structure. And by building it layer by layer as you move the platform down, you are able to create a full three-dimensional object.
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This is something that was first developed in the mid-1980s, but it’s been primarily used in rapid prototyping for larger groups that want to make a new steering wheel or a new gear and don’t want to have to send it off to be fully manufactured. But those printers would cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the past four or five years, you’ve seen that price really drop. Now you can get one of these units in the $2,000 range. People are getting ones now that are a thousand or five hundred. There’s been this big shift from rapid prototyping in an engineering firm to something that you...