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Welcome to Talk Universe I'm your host Sir Charles Shults. This is the show for Wednesday, July 27th, 2016. Our show tonight is focused on a great subject: how is 3d printing changing your life?
We've seen the growth of 3d printing over the last few years and it has reached the point where it's part of all of our lives now. It's hard for us to imagine a world before cheap printers, and I can tell you before they existed, you had a tough time getting a document printed without somebody literally typing it out manually or writing it by hand.
Copy machines were expensive and not always available. Think for a moment about how much we take for granted in the form of instant communications anywhere in the world. Your cell phone can text from New York to New Delhi and you get an instant answer back in seconds. Printing is the same. Not so long ago it was difficult to get documents - you had to fax things and it only worked if your contact on the other side had a fax machine. But we see how quickly - explosively really - that printers came onto the scene. My first printer was a dot matrix with ribbon in it. 3d printers are going through the same phase now where all you can make is limited pretty much by the plastic or powder that your particular machine can use. But we'll see now that just about anything you can imagine can be printed and that's one of the things we're going to cover in detail tonight of the show. We're going to look at the state of 3d printing and what it's about to become and that's something a lot of listeners might not have considered yet. We're already moving from the primitive stages of the art to something far richer and more capable.
So let's take a little journey here and cover some of the best and most surprising advancements in the field. Also I'm going to introduce somebody tonight to the show that I've known for years and work with. His name is Ed Minchau and he's going to be co-hosting the show on some occasions and he's going to provide a lot of interesting content. He's an engineer and does a lot of science and physics work and he's great in robotics and engineering things. So let's prepare for a show that's going to expand your imagination a little and explore some of the possibilities of 3d printing and let's see what it's doing to your life right now.
So what is 3d printing? Basically it's just taking an idea such as a computer design and putting it in a machine that can extrude or put together an object. In other words you can have an idea you can design it on the computer or you can get a blueprint from someone and you put it in your 3d printer and just like printing a copy of a document or a picture it does the same thing, only that it prints a solid object, and that object can be made of many many different materials. Home 3d printers pretty much work with plastic and that's pretty much the range of it because it's an easy material to get and it's an easy material to work. But, there are disadvantages. For one, you're generally limited to pretty slow printing. It often takes anywhere from 20 minutes to five or six hours to print a part, depending on the complexity. And the other thing is resolution. 3d printers aren't known for great resolution - they generally have pretty large sized dots to make up the objects. And so whenever you do print an object is very grainy in most cases. And the plastic is another issue. It usually comes in a (single) color.
It was a joke back at the beginning of the 20th century, around 1910, somebody asked what color Henry Ford's cars were available in - he said "any color you like as long as it's black". 3d printing sort of suffers that shortcoming right now. If you buy a roll of green plastic or a roll of blue plastic you're going to print things out of green plaster your blue plastic. Most of them do not allow you to change the color of the material as you're printing it because every time you change a color it means you'd have to have a different printhead. So there are some machines available now though for pretty reasonable prices that have numerous print heads that print different types of plastic and different colors of plastic so it can be done. And the newer machines are actually reaching the point where they can print some fascinating things in full-color. Hewlett Packard just invented a device they put on the market called the voxel. Now this isn't something you're going to be putting in your home because it costs about one hundred twenty thousand to a hundred forty five thousand dollars depending on the options you get, but voxel is a term meaning volume pixel so that sort of gives you an idea of where they're going.
The voxel printer, however, has some distinct advantages and one of them is it can print a full range of colors. It can actually blend colors so that you can make an object that has a changing color throughout its volume or surface and it can print materials that have unique properties such as being flexible. Most 3d printed plastics are solid and pretty inflexible, and if you try to stress it too far it's going to break. They actually can print materials that have a foamy consistency or flexible consistency sort of like foam rubber.
Now in the auto industry 3d printers have been used extensively in recent years because they can print prototypes of parts such as bumpers or wheel covers or even some body panels pretty quickly and test them out and see how well they're going to operate. And one of the advantages of this is you actually can print a part and do some destructive testing on it - and realize that the material is printed out of is probably not going to be as strong as let's say an injection molded part or a stamped part - but it does allow you to figure out where the stress points are where it's likely to fail and so you can do a little testing on it and you can know in advance. So there's some advantages to 3d printing in that regime. Later on after you've got your design right you go to an injection molding or steel stamping stage where you actually make the fabricated part and we're not actually to the stage where a lot of 3d printing is used to mass-produce, and there are reasons for that too. One of them is the speed; it isn't a real fast technology right now. You're almost growing a part in a lot of cases.
And we're not limited to just plastics or metals, although metal printing has become a big thing recently. There are a number of tool companies that will knock off a tool for you very quickly, and in the past this was done by milling or machining something or in some cases actually making a mold and casting it. Foundries made a lot of work making millions and millions of copies of things like the lid for the sewer or the lid for your water meter or the housing for a gear box or a crank case.
What they would do is they would produce a part that was cast out of material such as bronze or aluminum or steel, and then later it would go through a finishing stage where they take it to a milling machine and they would mill the precision surfaces on it and thread it and put inserts in or whatever, and you have a finished part fairly rapidly. 3d printing has reached a stage now where they can produce solid metal objects that actually have very good properties, and they can be finished and machined or do whatever you want afterwards.
In many cases you don't have to do any finish work, you actually can print a solid part out of some fairly dense metals these days. It's done generally by using a metal powder and then using a laser to sinter together - not entirely melt but fuse together - the particles to produce a solid part. And so it's sort of like a sand process - we have a layer of sand and you draw something in the sand it sticks together and then you put another layer of sand on it you do it again and you keep doing that until it builds up.
The reason is you need to have some sort of scaffold to hold up a part that isn't attached at a lower level but might be in an upper. So, imagine you're making a statue and the arms are hanging down the sides and you start to draw the statue from the bottom up. Well you get up to about the top of the legs or the top of the knee, you have to start drawing the fingertips and then the fingers and then the hand and they're not joined to the body yet so what holds it in place while the printing is happening and the answer is whatever your material is you're building it out of - whether it's metal powder or plastic powder - that acts as a scaffold to hold those pieces stationary until they join up with the rest of the structure farther on up the arm to the shoulder.
So that's just an example of some of the limitations. Big inroads were made in biology - 3d printing limbs - and back as early as 2006 there were places in Brazil where they were fabricating wind pipes out of human cartilage from the person who was going to receive the transplant. And, they were making the wind pipe knitting it together in a chemical bath and then implanting it in the recipient. So if you had a cancer of the throat or the windpipe they actually could make a replacement for you and implanted in early 2006. In this country in the USA they just recently released a report saying that it may be feasible to use stem cells to print replacement organs, and I thought this is almost insulting because there are third world countries that have already been doing this for over a decade. So it seems that we're actually a little bit behind in the 3d printing and biological materials and organs here.
But don't worry that's about to turn around and we're going to see a near-term future where they're going to be printing hearts and kidneys and lungs. Now, one issue if you're printing living material is the printing of neurons. Neural tissue is specialized and it's more or less the wiring. Well, it is exactly it's the wiring inside your hardware. And to print the neurons you would have to actually be printing individual cells' pieces. And so that is an issue, that's a problem.
Of course we do have methods of making neurons grow where we want them to today, and wiring up just as they would in a living organism. So I think it's going to take a little advancement, but pretty soon we'll be seeing entire organs and possibly even limbs grown for replacement. So that is a bright spot in our future in 3d printing.
Now one of the other things to consider is that you have a specialized printer for a specialized job, and each type of printer produces something different. There are some printers that make food items, there are some printers that make plastic or metal items or tools, and some that can produce tissues and organs. And I think where this is going is the Star Trek replicator concept. Everybody is pretty much familiar with the Star Trek series how they would simply order up something it would appear. The replicator was a device a fictional device that could produce any food or any artifact they needed on demand. And we are getting there. We're getting to the point where very soon we'll be able to order up anything and have it made in our home and this is very disruptive to the typical economy of manufacturing and this is one of the reasons there's been some real resistance to the inclusion of 3d printing in industry. Because if you can have a machine at home that can make anything you want, then it short circuits the design manufacture storage transport delivery sale that sort of cycle. It takes a huge chunk out of the economy of things. And it means that there'd be a radical shift in how we perceive commerce as well as manufacturing. I mean as it is, when you need a prototype of a tool or a machine made you call a designer or a machine shop or all of the above and they get together and they work out your tool and then they cut a mold or they cut it out of a block of metal or whatever and it is they design build and then deliver the tool to you. And usually it's a process of some weeks.
And anybody who does machine tool work or machine shop work understands that cycle. When you get to the stage where you can tell your computer with a mouse and some hand gestures, "I need something like this", and then within an hour so that finished part is delivered right there in your living room it does change the way that things are done. So traditional machine shops in many senses may be on their way out with 3d printing.
And traditional medical technologies are being turned on their ear. It's going to change absolutely everything. Now a lot of the foods that you're eating today are still the same foods you had 20-30 years ago if you were around there and you remember that, but 3d printing is reaching a stage where it is making inroads into the snack food industries and other places. So there are places you can call and have custom candies or cakes or pastries or foods made or if you really have the money for it you can buy your own 3d printer and make custom food items.
So this is not so far out of reach, The replicator box is not far away. Now one thing I'd like to point out is again, as I stated earlier, you generally have different machines for different jobs. We don't want to have a box a single box that makes everything for the simple fact that you might be able to squeamish about printing your ham sandwich in the box and then printing some parts for the car or some lights for the house and then printing a kidney. I don't think anybody would really want to do that with the same box.
Now just recently, to show the other end of the scale, there's a Chinese company called Gio Dau company and what they have done is Gio Dau group is they develop a form of 3d printing to make homes. And what's unique about theirs is they come up with a new material for the printing process that makes them very sturdy, and they say that these homes are capable of withstanding an earthquake with a 9.0 rating. So a 9.0 Richter earthquake not taking down your house, that's a significant thing. That's a big thing.
And there are a lot of places in the world where you see a lot of earthquakes and earth movement happening right now so this is an ability to produce a modular home with a 3d printing process. Now they don't print the house on site like you might expect - the modules are 3d printed in a factory and then they're carried out and assembled. They point out that they can put together a 500 square metre villa in 15 days. Well the time isn't so impressive to me. I mean 15 days with good construction crew you could have that done anyway with traditional materials. But the earthquake resistance is a big thing and they have filed 22 different patents just recently on their materials and their processes. So it looks like the ability to print houses out of just about whatever materials you need using 3d technology is here. And you can imagine that it's going to expand very rapidly. I'm hoping to do an interview with a friend of mine, Joe Lacey in the near future, where I cover a machine that he is building for 3d printing buildings and structures. He's a quite an interesting fellow and entrepreneur, and he has engineered some materials that are like concrete but foamy. They're fireproof and very lightweight, so that would be a wonderful ideal material to build a lot of things out of. You could print this stuff up in any form you want and literally put your building together in like three hours out of the panels and the pieces.
So right after the break we'll get back to the show and we'll start our interview with Ed Minchau, and I think you will be fascinated about some of the things we have to say about where 3d printing is where the future of it is going.
Charles Shults: Okay I want to introduce somebody to you on the show, my very good friend I worked with him for many many years and he's quite the engineer and scientist creating robotics coding and gaming. You know, just a fun guy to know his name is Ed Minchau and he's going to be co-hosting the show on many occasions so I'd like to introduce you. Ed welcome to the show.
Ed Minchau: Thank you very much. It's good to be here.
Charles Shults: Okay so we've got an interesting project 3d printing and I know both of us with all of our background in robotics and electronics and so forth have always been fascinated with 3d printing and the potential for it tell me what you think is the most important thing about it right off the bat.
Ed Minchau: Right off the bat it's stuff that used to take an entire factory and team of people to put together now you can do by yourself at home. It democratizes manufacturing. It's... its... I think it's returning manufacturing back to a sort of a craft kind of thing. It used to be that things were made one-off. Craftsmen made things one at a time, and it's... I think we're returning to that but leveraged. You've got the leverage of all of these engineers who put in the work into being able to reproduce your work automatically. You know, you can create change and reproduce your work and just make one offs, prototypes, that used to take what like I said a factory and an entire team of people to do. So it's just a huge huge increase in the productivity of prototyping.
Charles Shults: Fantastic yeah I have to agree with you. You know a lot of us have made a gadget or a thing that might be a household tool might be an electronic device might be a part for your car and we know that you put a lot of effort into the setup getting the first thing done and a lot of times it's something that you just you can't go to the store to get it. And it could be for any number of reasons. Maybe it doesn't exist or maybe it's something you just can't afford the time to go in and do and you make it in your workshop. 3d printing in my mind really gives you a lot - you said leverage - you can draw a whole library of designs other people have made. You can tweak it you can edit in any way and make anything you want. And it fascinates me that, you know, 3d printing, really a lot of people don't know it started with the hobbyists. It really was something that the...
Ed Minchau: I think it even went further back than that, you know, I've been thinking about this and they call it, it's part of a class of manufacturing that they call additive manufacturing, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing where you like, say, Michelangelo when he was making the Statue of David. He started with a marble block and the Pope asked him you know how did you know where what to chip away? He says well I just cut away anything that isn't David. So he was subtracting from his original marble block until he ended up with that statue and it's the same when you're using a mill or a lathe or a bandsaw you know you're cutting away material to - starting with your original raw material - cutting away from it to make what you want. That's subtractive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing, which is 3d printing, I think it goes back to when we started using bricks as opposed to carving things out of stone. Like you look at - there's a site called Petra where there's a whole city that's basically carved out of the rock. You have another city in Cappadocia in what's now Turkey where it's carved out of the rock as opposed to you make an artificial rock - a brick - you make millions of them and then you can build any building you want. You don't have to carve it out of the rock. And this idea of additive manufacturing, it's really no different than laying bricks for a building, except now we're using different materials.
Charles Shults: Yeah absolutely well and the good thing about it is when you're doing subtractive manufacturing whether it's carving a statue or milling a block of aluminum into a piece for a machine if you remove too much you're hosed. You've got to rework your original block or you've got to start from scratch and I know that if you were ever carving a statue and oops that pinkie fell off it pretty much ruined the whole work and so additive manufacturing and gets around that by putting stuff back on that wasn't there in the first place. It's a great idea. And you know the original name as a matter of fact from the hobbyist standpoint was Santa Claus machines. Because the idea was you you could make anything you wished you know Santa Claus would bring it to you. And so Santa Claus machine didn't really stick, but it was an early term for it and I know in the mid 80s there were many many articles about it. In the original ones that were used in a very interesting capacity, they would take a cutting bit or a burr and they'd run it over a piece of circuit board stock and cut out the traces to make circuit boards and they would use a language called PostScript to program it and it was only later when they started melting bits of hot glue and sticking it on things and then later plastic where they actually came out with the other machines that make parts like the RepRap, an early entry into the end of the theater. All Hobbyist driven, sure.
Ed Minchau: Oh yeah because and and and that's why why it's it's so exciting for people who are doing hobbyist stuff, for people who are prototyping making things on their own is - you know this was a need that's only served by something that hobbyists themselves are making. I mean if you're if you're a big manufacturing concern, if you're Mattel, you know you're making toys you, don't want people making toys you want people buying toys from you, you know.
Charles Shults: Well you've got the mold expense and everything.
Ed Minchau: Exactly you want people buying your injection-molded stuff you don't want them buying stuff that they can make their own injection molds.if you're Mattel.
Charles Shults: Yeah but you know there's another point to look at and that is when you're doing a 3d printing job obviously it's a slow laborious sort of process the machine can take hours to make a simple thing whereas with injection molding you can knock out millions of pieces of junk in you know an hour. So there is a niche for everything. It's kind of like you wouldn't use the Volkswagen to carry a tank into a battle and you know...
Ed Minchau: Right, you'd use a flatbed truck. Right. But exactly. So the point I think we're both kind of getting here is that it's application is very important here. I mean if you're building some, if you're making something that you want to sell two million units of you're not going to be doing that on your home 3d printer and making them one at a time. You might make the mold from which you injection mold two million units you know if you're prototyping something you make - okay - you make your prototyp,e then you might make the mold itself with your 3d printer, and then you can get a production house to do the million units that you need.
Charles Shults: And you know that's a very good point that's an excellent point sometimes you use a 3d printer to leverage your job so you'll use a 3d printer which is a little slower and might not have the resolution you want to manufacture a part or a mold or something that's critical to going on to making thousands or millions of copies perhaps.
Ed Minchau: Yeah and okay so there is that if you're prototyping, we've gotten to that, but there's also one sector where you use these 3d printers for things that just cannot be made any other way and I was, in my research here on this topic, I was looking at SpaceX, the launch company in particular. They've got their manned launch vehicle that they're hopefully going to be flying in the next couple of years - they've got a launch escape system called the super Draco thrusters. This is also doubling as a soft landing system if it's not used as launch escape. And the engines that they're using are all 3d printed out of inconel, which is a high-strength nickel-iron alloy and very hard to work with once it's cast. It's very very strong, so they 3d print it by - they lay a layer of powder down on the table and then pass a laser over it which sinters the nano - these tiny particles of inconel together, and then lay another layer of powder, another pass with the laser until they've their engine built up with channels through the walls that carry cold fuel through to keep the engine cool while its operating. You really can't mill those channels that are buried inside the inconel you have to print them it's the only way to make that engine.
Charles Shults: Well yeah okay there's an excellent point and think about how clever people had to be in the past to make parts like that. I know that when we did a lot of the aerospace and defense stuff and we we would have like say a specialty radar unit that had waveguides and it looked like rectangular pipes running all around inside it and the wave guides are all made of copper but they couldn't mill the interior of the pipes and they couldn't be cut and welded they had to be precise so what they would do is they would mill an aluminum piece that was the channel, the hole inside the pipe, and then they would plate it up they'd electroform it in a tank until they had a solid copper piece and then they would use a chemical that would eat the aluminum out of the middle of the pipe and leave a nice clean hollow pathway through the pipe. And then they'd machine the exterior of it down so it looked like...
Ed Minchau: That's a combination - yeah composite manufacturing - that's a combination of both additive and subtractive manufacturing. The plating of the copper is your additive process and then etching away the substrate is your subtractive process. So anyway I think we're getting now to a point - like you said it started with the hobbyists - but now we're getting to a point where the hobbyists have refined things and they found out what works, what doesn't, what's... certain standards have also evolved in the industry especially when you're talking about plastic. The home 3d plastic printers, they almost all use PLA type of plastic. They've standardized to two standards of sizes of plastic 1.75 millimeter and 3 millimeter so you can get the two different size extruder heads which melt the plastic and as your head is moving over the layer and precise patterns like - it just occurred to me we've never really explain how it's actually done today.
Charles Shults: That's true that's true we just kind of assumed that everybody knows that. Well if you want to give it a shot please.
Ed Minchau: Okay yeah basically the the modern plastic printers you've got three axes which are controlled by stepper motors usually. They precisely position your part in an X and Y plane - that's basically along the surface of your table - and there's a head that moves up and down, and the head as it starts off low on the table and lays down your first layer and then it raises up and then lays down the second layer and it just builds up layer by layer and it has to the head has to melt the plastic just a little bit so that it sticks to the layer below, and then the plastic has to cool right away so that it holds its form and basically that's all it does. The computer guides those three motors to move the table and the head, building up the part layer by layer, until you've got a completed part. That's basically it. It's simple to say in like one minute but in practice...
Charles Shults: Well yes getting a nice stable XYZ platform getting your lead screws to work properly and everything - fortunately like I mentioned the RepRap a little earlier. That was an effort where somebody, a group of hobbyists and hackers got together, came out with a machine and the theory was not only could have print anything you wanted within certain limits it could also print its own parts and the idea was it really goes back to something called the von Neumann machine that you know each resources makes copies of itself. Recently a joke emerged a couple years ago where a fellow says yeah I went to Walmart and I bought one of your 3d printers and I'm bringing it back because I just - I printed a printer with it and I don't need it anymore. Of course it doesn't work that easily because you can't print the electronics in the same way but that's another thing they're making inroads in that. They can actually print some semiconductors now. It takes a special cartridge of materials to do in a special printer but but it can be done. Now what fascinates me the most is that the people who played with the technology and came up with interesting applications have actually made inroads printing foods that was ...
Ed Minchau: Food?
Charles Shults: Yeah they were it was a joke to start with an art project that happened in New York and they made a 3d printer print food and so they would put like a little bit of pureed meat in an injector and a little bit of a celery and an injector and different materials and they would squirt out pastry dough meat celery whatever and they would make structures in it and 3d print specialty foods in forms that never existed before. And it was a novelty but it actually is catching on and now you can actually buy 3d food printers to make specialty objects.
Ed Minchau: Yeah I do know that cake decorators have gotten into 3d printing with chocolate and because it's actually a pretty good structure for for making you know light delicate things on a cake you can actually print in chocolate now and...
Charles Shults: Of course we all see you look at the disasters where you go to the the place that does the digital cakes and you get your cake back and it says [insert name here] instead of... somebody didn't fill a field out of the software. I hope that, you know, hope that doesn't happen they start making organs widespread.
Ed Minchau: Okay - organs - that's another one that I found this morning. They've started making replacement bone for facial reconstructive surgery. They used to take just like a chunk of leg bone that's not heavily load-bearing and then try and carve it up and then make that okay replacement for part of your jaw or whatever. Now - this was Johns Hopkins University - they take a 30%... a mixture of 30% powdered bone and they mix it with a plastic called polycaprolactone. It's a biodegradable polyester. And then they use the 3d printer to print that into the shape of like a jawbone and a little lower... like a mandible. And so it's - it can be the patient's own bone and you know their own stem cells and stuff and then they they just have it in this this structure they can replace a patient's entire jaw and it's... it's... instead of trying to make like a curve out of a straight bone there they're making like a perfect replacement jaw.
Charles Shults: Right. Yeah. Absolutely. Well and that's the thing, when you get into printing materials like bone there's a good reason for that and one of them is in the past replacement bone and medical applications had to be made from cadaver bone and, you know, you couldn't obviously donate your leg bone to fixing your face - you need your leg. But you know then the medical applications with the stem cells and bone cells - one of the things a lot of people miss is you have to have a scaffold material to hold up the structure you're making. Because, let's say you have a piece of sticks out of midair what do you attach it to when being drawn? So scaffolding plays a big part in medical 3d printing and making organs. I think the one thing that they're really having issues with right now is printing neural tissue inside medical structures. That's one of the things. I mean you can you can make cartilage you can make skin cells, cardiac muscle, you can make almost anything but getting it to knit together, like the bone you mentioned, the plastic serves to help knit the bone together in in other applications.
Ed Minchau: Yeah in this in this particular case it's it's basically it keeps those bone powder - which has all these proteins these growth factors for making new bone keeps them proximal where they need to be, and then your own stem cells take over from there and then grow a complete new jaw inside and over time the plastic is subsumed by the actual - the patient's own bone. At the end, at the end but you know it is the patient's jaw, it's got the same DNA it's the same it is your jaw. It's just you know rebuilt kind of thing.
Charles Shults: You know we have a buddy we have a common friend Joe Lacey we met out in New Mexico who was yes work on very lightweight fluffy concrete material, he would add fly ash and waste materials and it raised up like bread dough and then baked it and they could make this wonderful fireproof lightweight panel.
Ed Minchau: Yeah.
Charles Shults: He is - we spoke recently - he's building a 3d house printing system right now and we're gonna try and get him on the show. We talked briefly about getting an interview with him and he seems uh he seems ready to do that so we'll have him on some point in the future I believe.
Ed Minchau: Okay there is a hotel in the Philippines - I've got it written down somewhere..
Charles Shults: Well you know the Chinese are printing houses now that earthquake-proof with 3D printers.
Ed Minchau: Ah here we are... the Louis Grand Hotel in the Philippines they - they're building a extension onto the hotel and it's all 3d printed in concrete. And the guy who's doing it, he just started in his garage he came up with the method for 3d printing concrete and he made his kid castle in the backyard and that caught the attention of this entrepreneur the Philippines and so now he's 3d printing this extension on this hotel. I guess we can I can save all these links and then we can leave the links associated with the podcast later so...
Charles Shults: Sure I like to put them up on the page.
Ed Minchau: Okay. Anyway it's... it's pretty impressive looking. He's got some twisting concrete structures here. It's a huge thing and it's and... it's all going together like in one solid piece.
Charles Shults: Well that's - structurally that's a great thing the only thing that I see in the - in printed concrete that I - that I do worry a little about is there is no method of strengthening the concrete as you would if you say - let's say put fibers in it or something. I know that strengthening your concrete is a big thing because concrete has great compression strength but it has no tensile strength and that's why ...
Ed Minchau: That's why they put rebar in.
Charles Shults: Rebar, exactly. But I know you and I had worked with putting those plastic bone-shaped fibers and stuff and some of the stuff we did out in New Mexico and that was actually very helpful. It'd be great if we could get them to get those plastic fibers into the concrete as it is being printed in some way so that would all stick together and be a lot stronger.
Ed Minchau: Well, yeah sure... and I'm just sort of marveling at some of these pictures right now actually. This thing, it looks like he's got about the first floor just about finished on this thing, and it includes a concrete Jacuzzi.
Charles Shults: Yeah, I know you and I have had the experience of having concrete or stone or tile tubs. They're cold - they get cold really really fast. I think that's something we have to... we may not want a concrete jacuzzi.
Ed Minchau: This one looks double walled.
Charles Shults: Well now that's a good start that's a good start. If you blow some foam insulation in that probably work very well.
Ed Minchau: Probably.
Charles Shults: I think what, you know, what really fascinates me is a thought that we can put 3d printers in a spacecraft and have them assemble objects in space now. Tell me what you think about that.
Ed Minchau: I think there's one on the ISS right now.
Charles Shults: Yes indeed they have one fabricator on the... on the space station right now that I'm aware of, but I think that if you really look at space travel, you can't send all the things you want up there. It's easier to send something they can eat normal natural resources wherever you go whether it's a lunar or an asteroid or whatever and 3d print what you want out of that.
Ed Minchau: Right. Okay, and that brings me to 3d printing on the moon.
Charles Shults: Absolutely.
Ed Minchau: There is a talk by Karsten Becker - he's part of the group called 'part-time scientists' that won the qualifying round of the Google Lunar XPrize.
Charles Shults: Yes, fascinting stuff.
Ed Minchau: And so now they've got like 11 full-time employees and they're looking to land near Apollo 17 and that's one thing, you know, just looking at the the rover that's been sitting there for 45 years and seeing how the materials have degraded over time and so forth. But their main thing is going to be testing out a 3d printing system using in-situ materials.
Charles Shults: Yeah in other words...
Ed Minchau: So there's different approaches, different approaches they're thinking of taking. One is by microwaving the dirt, the regolith.
Charles Shults: The regolith, right.
Ed Minchau: ...and that - microwaving it would melt it and turn it into a solid surface instead of a powder, and that's also very handy. You've got lots and lots of fine powder on the moon very thin layer, that's ideal for sintering.
Charles Shults: That is true. You know, I'm actually thinking you could even use focused sunlight for that, you wouldn't need anything as exotic as you know as microwaving it because, literally you have no clouds or weather, and the sunlight that you've got there is certainly powerful enough with a lens to sinter it together into a solid. But you know when you think about it it is kind of a limited resource because it is so thin on the surface if you start digging in underground - which to me makes the most sense, because the temperature would be stable year-round. So if you're going to build on the moon dig underground. You're going to get shielding from space radiation temperature differences and other things. So that's, you know, that's really important. But 3d printing on other planets, obviously you can use the raw material but if you also refine metal or whatever you've got that to work with.
Ed Minchau: Yeah they're also talking about using thermite..
Charles Shults: Thermite? (laughs)
Ed Minchau: Yeah thermite to melt it. Hey, you know, they know it'll burn!
Charles Shults: Yes, and also, we want enough things here - I know we talked about some interesting things - we want the listeners to come up with some good questions for us and so everybody who is listening, please submit some questions. Send them in on the on the forum or the email address and we'll address them live on the air. One of the things that comes to mind here when we get into construction is the structural materials aspect. Now, printing bone brought this back to me. A lot of materials we make are solid metals and yet if we could make them fluffy or bubbly like styrofoam they'd have some lightweight insulation capabilities and some nice durability. Now with the 3d printing they're capable of taking metals - and using laser sintering of course is the primary method - of making foamy, bone-like hollow structure that's extremely lightweight and this could not be done any other way. They've actually announced metals that have a structure that's so lightweight they're almost as light as air. Think about the applications of such a thing right now. What would you do if you could print you know the equivalent of styrofoam out of titanium.
Ed Minchau: Wow. Well I could tell you for one thing the Tour de France, all the records would be shattered.
Charles Shults: Yes no bicycle weight.
Ed Minchau: Oh man - bridges. Bridges built out of something like that... Yeah you know I shake my head sometimes, you know, it's like we're living in a science fiction future. You know even... even if you keep right on top of all of this stuff it's you still get a wow everyday.
Charles Shults: Oh yeah, it's just absolutely - we're getting close to the Singularity. That's another thing I like to do every show is the Singularity Watch, and some of these things would certainly qualify as entries. We're getting so close to the time where there is so much knowledge and information there's no possible way of keeping track of it all, and the advancements that come from it are just astounding. We've got an interview with a fellow who is a complexity scientist that I think everyone's going to really like and we get into that subject how complicated things are getting. Now, 3d printing in a sense is - like you said - it democratizes things, it's a unifying thing in so many ways. Any of us can have 3d printers, we can print anything we can imagine but we are kind of limited by our design ability. I think a lot of people who have 3d printers run up against 'gee how do I create the design for this particular part?' Do you know of any good software packages for designing 3d printing?
Ed Minchau: Well. I'd say first of all there's there's a repository of designs already made at Thingiverse. I believe there's a couple other ones where you could look at designs that other people have already come up with and if someone's already come up with your solution that you need you just download it and print it. And that's a part of the beauty of the hobbyist origins of the 3d market today is that so much of it is open-source, and people share their designs. You can also sell your designs, and there's people that do that and - but a lot of these designs you can just simply share and not have to do the design at all. But there are a lot of software packages out there - free ones - that let people design things that they want to later 3d print them. You can use Google Sketchup and there are ports that take that directly to G code that goes to your printer.
Charles Shults: Oh that's fantastic. Well that would also work with a small milling machines and CNC's as well. So yeah you get the best of both worlds you have additive and subtractive.
Ed Minchau: All these - yeah all these 3d printers they operate on G code just like your your CNC mills and lathes it's you know it's a standard and why reinvent the wheel? So they just use G code to operate the 3d printers too.
Charles Shults: That's ideal. That's ideal. All right so we've got - Wow we've got a - you know the half hour's just flown by here. Tell me, if you had anything in mind about 3d printing, what stands out in your mind the most? What's the most spectacular thing you can think about it? Anything?
Ed Minchau: I'm thinking about when they when they start 3d printing on the nano scale that's - that's going to be a real game-changer. If they are able to 3d print structures out of few atoms instead of, you know, big bundles of PLA and stuff - if your home printer includes like a scanning tunneling microscope tip.
Charles Shults: Right exactly. And you've had some experience with that...
Ed Minchau: A little bit... I've... I really should put my microscope together actually. It's on my one of my 'to-do projects' lists behind about seven other things.
Charles Shults: Okay well Ed, I appreciate you coming on the show for this interview and I'm hoping we can get you in front of the mic for a lot of people and a lot of other subjects in the near future here.
Ed Minchau: I'd love to.
Charles Shults: Okay fantastic. Well that was Ed Minchau, and he's a good friend of mine, and he's going to be heard a lot more on this program in the future.
So this is part of the show where we get down to our Singularity Watch and we talk about some of the things that are changing in our world. In the first and most amazing story that I see - this is a couple of weeks since it's happened, but it's still very very salient - is a new robotic stingray. And this is - it looks like a living organism. It's printed out of basically silicone and living tissue and robotics parts. It is a robotic stingray that's partly biological, a true cyborg as the term is actually defined, a cybernetic organism. And it's powered by living heart cells. It actually has heart tissue in it, and those cells make it move. Now this is an interesting step, because we've reached a stage where we can have a fusion of living and technological components and produce synthetic organisms that are like biological robots. And another fascinating, fascinating piece of news is that Google's quantum computer has successfully simulated a single hydrogen molecule. Now, this might not sound like much, but believe it or not, a hydrogen molecule is a pretty complicated thing.
And the ability to use a quantum computer to simulate that molecule is an amazing step forward, because it means that we can begin simulating more and more complicated systems using quantum computing. Technology that is so much faster than traditional computing it makes heretofore impossible tasks actually something we can do now. And a final quick note on our singularity watch is that they are now teaching bacteria how to create wiring. Now, there were some notes in the past where they had found a bacterium that eats mine tailings or metals and would cover itself in tin - the metal tin - and the dead bacteria would actually form strands that were conductive like a wire. And this bacterium had been cultured and bred to the point where they could grow mats of the bacteria with these fine wiring properties and then electroplate them with gold and make conductive electrodes for batteries that had a huge amount of surface area and therefore made very complex structures. And, these structures add so much area to the electrodes of the battery that they can source a lot more power than a battery normally would. And so bacteria are now being trained to create wiring for other things as well, and this is a trend that we're going to see where we can script organisms or redesign organisms to actually do tasks for us in the near future. And with the growth of knowledge, this is going to be an extremely common sort of phenomenon.
So the singularity is coming, and we're reaching a point where almost magical sorts of things are happening due to Science and Technology everyday in our lives. And when is the singularity suppose to happen? You know I'd be surprised if it took twenty years, because the rate of growth of our knowledge has increased so rapidly we expect that what now takes a year to learn we can learn that much in six months. And as the timespan gets shorter and the knowledge just explosively grows our ability to figure out what happens will... it just won't be there. I mean we can look at a series of drawings of neighborhoods from at 1900 and we see the same sorts of structures as cities and neighborhoods have today. From 1900 1950, no real change. I mean there were changes in utility and some layout, but neighborhoods are still neighborhoods and homes are still homes, and businesses look pretty much the same as well. Very little has changed even with the addition of automobiles - over, let's say, animals such as horses - but at the root of it all we know that the way we live is really the same we have. The same requirements. The singularity may change all of that, because there are going to be people who make modifications to their own structure, their own bodies.
Already we see some pretty outrageous piercings and surgical modifications, things none of us would have imagined a decade ago, and with the ability to create artificial limbs or organs or enhanced senses or the ability to create entirely new bodies, and perhaps even upload your mind into them, we end up with a society where even the members themselves may not look human. And that's what the future may hold for us. One of the few things that we can imagine. So we have a number of pretty interesting questions tonight. One that came in from ABI 51 is: what is the best resolution of a 3d printer? That's a great question. Most of the ones that you buy for home printing are going to run at a fraction of a millimeter not - not incredibly smooth, a little bit grainy. They'll have a granular feel to them, call it about a tenth of a millimeter. Some of the laboratory models that they've made can actually use electron beams and nano powders and can create structures so tiny they've made an Eiffel Tower complete with all the grid work and the steel work in it. Yeah on such short notice I couldn't tell you exactly who did it, but I do remember seeing about three or four years ago: a model the Eiffel Tower that was less than a millimeter tall and have been made by electron beams and metal powder.
So this was, you know, an early exploration into how fine the resolution can be for such a machine. Now keep in mind that while it can produce an incredibly fine structure, it moves so slowly that it would take significant periods of time maybe years to print something useful. But, you know, you can be sure that when extremely fine resolution so smooth you could probably polish it to a mirror.
I have one here from Ken54truth - I guess that's Ken five for truth - and he says how much are good 3d printers? Now, anybody can use Google and find them. I guess 'good' as a relative term. I've seen home models for less than $300 and better resolution and larger ones for you know under 600, so it really is going to depend on what your application is, what you're trying to make. If you're just producing prototypes or pieces for homemade machines or gadgets then you're probably going to be able to knock out a lot of things for under $300 if it's a toy or a model or something like that. If you want something that's a little more resolution, you can literally spend tens of thousands of dollars on a good machine. So, I would say spend some time online do a little searching around and find things and it's going to determine - well your needs are going to determine what you get. If you just need plastic that's fine. You can actually find machines that'll print ceramic and then you can fire it when it's done. So again do a little searching online.
Now here's a good one 'anony moose' - that's a nice play on words - why don't we have replacement limbs now instead of the robot limbs? Robot limbs that companies are making - and does it make sense to wait a couple of years to get a real limb instead of getting a prosthetic. Yes, that cuts right to the nub - and that's not meant to be a joke. What we have right now is the ability to print some basics and biology. Yes, we can print some muscle tissue and organs and simple things, but the more complex a structure gets the higher your rate of failure is going to be. When you're printing an entire limb, you have to consider that not only do you have to print a good bone, that you have to print good muscle tissue and good tendons and the attachments to the bone. And you have to print so many elements that I would imagine that printing a limb is something that, at today's state of technology, you're going to produce the components for that limb and keep them alive in a - you know in a system, it's like a respirator box - and then assemble the parts with the help of some stem cells and you know organic glue, and get the whole thing put together.
So you'd probably go so far as printing the muscles first and the tendons and attachments, and you'd print the bone and you'd have to bond it together and then you would attach all of the bits and pieces and then you'd have to get the the nervous system attachments into the muscle tissue and in a wired way, and then you have to print the skin and the connective tissue. You know, what I'm not going to say that it's not going to happen in two years, I'd put my bets closer to five - but you know I've been surprised before. For now, if you really need a limb it doesn't hurt you to get a prosthetic, because they can actually make some pretty darn good prosthetics at this time. They don't give you full range of touch or anything like that, but they can give you enough to function and earn a living and, you know, not feel like people are staring at you because you've got a limb missing. Let's face it, we still do that. It's wired into us. It's a - it's a funny thing in our brain that, when we see something different or unusual, a lot of times our innate response is revulsion and we've got to get over that. We've got to be smarter than that. You know it does no service to ourselves or to our friends who've been injured or born without a limb. So, let's get over those things. And we will be able to fix anything and everything if that's what we desire and I again I put my bets on about five years time.
Here's one that also strikes a little close to home. Melvyn 2001 writes: is it possible to print a copy of a pet, maybe a pet that died? and I know we've we had a kitten that we lost a couple of months ago been a really sore spot with us. This is something that there are actually companies cloning pets. If you have biological samples they actually clone your pet. But understand, you know, whether you clone it or you print it it's still not the pet you started with. It's going to have differences. Consider that even identical twins will not have the same fingerprints and clones of people will not have the same fingerprints. And there are mechanical reasons that, combined with your genetics that make that happen. So you're not going to find that this is the same organism. It's not the same animal. It is just a copy, and if you know that, are you willing to simply forget that, or - you know - do we want the comfort for ourselves? This is a psychological need we have.
We feel grief when a friend dies or we lose a pet or somebody close to us and the grief is really not for them, it's about us. It's about how we feel. So let's also think about what makes us human. And I know that I'm getting off the subject here, but when we get into the subject of emotion and emotional thinking rather than rational thinking we can sometimes get into some pretty murky territory. But, if it brings you comfort to have a copy of your dead pet that's been cloned or printed or replicated in some manner, then you know go for it but recognize, if you're feeling bad, not for them. If they're dead, they're not feeling anything. They - they're not in pain. the pain is within us.
Now my book recommendation this week is an old book but it's a very very good book and it's one that stands the test of time in my opinion and it is Alvin Toffler's 'Future Shock' which was written in 1970. And he was a writer and a futurist who who had a kind of a view of the coming world who looked at how we respond to huge changes in our living, in our industrial society, and how we become overwhelmed when the things that we rely on suddenly aren't there or changed so greatly that we're unable to adapt properly. And he he looked at it as shattering stress and disorientation. You know, in other words, the person that is going to be successful in the future is not the one who can learn and learn, but the one who can unlearn what they think they know and learn again. And that's just kind of a - well it's kind of a misquote of him - but I would recommend that if you want to understand how people are adapting to these times we live in, read the book Future Shock and it will give you a lot of insight into the picture.
And finally as we're getting down to the end of the show, I think it's been a really good show, and you know I can't stress enough how these changes which seem remote, actually fundamentally affect our lives. I mean, nobody expected the sorts of changes we saw with all of the computation ability that we have now. That everything in our lives would be pried into and examined in such amazing ways, and some of them not so good. But we have to always maintain hope, because the developments that we have are things that are supposed to make our lives easier. And we always have to inject the human side or the emotional side into things; logic alone doesn't get us there. We have to understand the other person's standpoint. 3d printing is one of those great equalizer technologies that allows everyone to make anything that they need, and when it's fully realized it will fundamentally change our world. We probably won't see factories and manufacturing the way we do. And that's a point that really really has to be very clearly made. Right now we depend on all of our materials for tools and industry to be made by heavy manufacturing and machining and casting, and that may be something that goes away in the near future.
But one thing that we always have to stress is that we have everything here, we simply need to apply a little wisdom and a little knowledge to get solutions to our problems. My favorite saying is we have everything we need to make everything we'll ever need. And on that note, just remember no matter how amazing that this world becomes, we all have a part in it and we can all make it better, just by doing a little bit. Have a great day. I hope you've enjoyed the show, and we have another great show coming up for you next week. This is your host Sir Charles Shults. Thank you for listening to Talk Universe.