On a recent weekday in a sunny, computer-strewn classroom at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs, one of teacher Nicholas Seward's printers was busily whirring out a squirrel. Not a picture of a squirrel. Not a drawing of a squirrel. An actual, three-dimensional toy squirrel: bright orange, plastic, tough enough that when the reporter managed to drop a similar piece on the hard concrete, it simply bounced with a bright, ping-pong ball clink.
The machine — called "Simpson" after the scientist George Gaylord Simpson, who came up with the idea that when animals evolve, they do so abruptly — is about the size of a beer keg. Seward designed it. To his knowledge, it's one of the first 3D printers in the world that doesn't use linear rails, polished steel guide rods that require expensive bearings and machining.
Watching the printer work is a mechanical ballet: three articulated arms that allow a heated tip to float over a polished printing surface. As the computer-controlled arms move, the tip liquefies a plastic filament about the size of a pencil lead, extruding the melted plastic in layers, an object slowly sprouting in its wake. As impressive is the fact that Seward printed most of the parts used to build the printer on yet another printer.
Into 3D printing for less than a year, Seward has already managed to move the ball in 3D printer design, giving his plans away for free on the Internet and developing even more advanced designs that can print in curves or on top of existing objects. He's using his printer designs to teach a generation of young Arkansas geniuses to think about a future where we won't buy things, we'll print them.
Seward said his involvement in 3D printing has progressed very quickly. A Fayetteville native with a degree in physics who grew up in Gentry, Seward said his wife gave him a 3D printer kit last March. As he was putting it together, he said, "I was cursing it, saying: 'Oh, I would have done that different, or this different.' "
Though the printer was fun at first, that itch to improve the design soon got the best of him. "I did some squirrels and some owls and I got bored," he said. "I started feeling guilty, actually, for using this awesome piece of technology for silly things, so I started building things for around the house. Eventually, it was like: Oh, I'm going to build a 3D printer — I'll try it."
Soon after setting out to design and build his own printer, he heard about a competition that offered $20,000 to the person who could make a 3D printer that was the most self-replicating — that is: with the most parts that could be 3D printed, and the least amount of bearings and rails and springs and wires. Seward built his first version of a rail-less 3D printer in just 15 days, and managed to come in second in the competition. By contrast, the person who won, a builder he's since been collaborating with on new designs, had been working on his printer for two years, Seward said.
Seward has since published his designs online for free, and there are more than 40 people currently building printers from those plans that he knows of. His philosophy on why he gives away what could be sold squares with the "open source" ethos of online programming and design culture.
"I like the idea that if I can give it to somebody else and I don't have to physically put myself out, then I should," he said. "If I produce something that can benefit society, then everybody can use it. People come back and say: 'Well, how are you going to make money off this?' You can change your business model. It doesn't necessarily work for everyone, but I can definitely figure out how it works for me."
For example, Seward said that if he wanted to, he could publish a new, free printer design every week on his website, conceptforge.org, and then have an online store where he sold the "vitamins" — the bearings and motors and wiring to complete the printer design.
Seward said that 3D printing is full of too many programming and technical "gotchas" right now for there to be a consumer-model 3D printer coming to your local Best Buy any time soon, but that day is coming. More amazing is that Seward said there are technologies out there allowing parts to be printed in metal, systems that liquefy alloy powders with lasers or electrons to create objects in steel or aluminum, layer by layer. That could lead to a world, Seward said, where you don't order a part for your washing machine or car, you order a print, and pick up the finished piece, ready to be installed, in a few hours from the local "printery."
Since beginning his work in 3D printing, Seward has brought the technology into his classroom at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, where students in his classes are building 3D printers and helping to refine designs and programming. One of those students is 17-year-old senior Alex Jaeger from Leslie, who first learned about 3D printing in Seward's Modern Manufacturing class.
Right now, for his Fundamentals and Research Methods project, Jaeger is working on a design for a robot for the Hot Springs Police Department that carries audio and camera equipment, and which will be able to go places that are too hazardous for officers. Twenty-five to 35 percent of the robot will be 3D printed plastic. It's the tip of the iceberg for the future Jaeger will help shape.
"In the future, I think there will be small, compact 3D printers for desktop applications, and then there will be large scale printers for industry," Jaeger said. "Right now, computer parts are extremely expensive. If 3D printing can take on computer parts, it can really decrease the price."
While Seward says that 3D printing is bound to be a "disruptive technology" that will change the manufacturing and consumer landscape, companies will "adapt and move" or be pushed aside. It's going to be a whole different world than he grew up in, one that he believes will allow his students to dream bigger.
"Whenever I was growing up, everything was shrouded in a little mystery: How does it work?" he said. "You could take it apart and kind of get an idea of it, but actually making your own? That's out of the question. You couldn't even think about it. But now, if [3D printers] are everywhere, now if you want to do something, it's no longer impossible. ... Now you can actually start messing around with it and I think that's pretty phenomenal. Now it's: 'Let's go print something out. Let's do it.' "