Futurist Mark Pesce on 3D printing

Mark Pesce

Futurist Mark Pesce.

Futurist, inventor (co-inventor of VRML), writer, entrepreneur, educator and broadcaster Mark Pesce, recently made an appearance on the 702 ABC Sydney affiliate’s “Mornings with Tim Holt” show. In this short interview, he explains to radio show host Tim Holt and the audience what 3D printing is, and how it could change the future.

Following the audio is a transcription we’ve created of the interview.

Bonus: Go to end of article for a great TEDx talk by Pesce.



Interviewer: Mark, this is an amazing piece of technology. Tell us about how this developed.

Mark Pesce: Well, it basically came out of the idea of being able to fabricate things rather than by carving them out. Which is-, for instance, when making an engine block, you’ll drill it out, right, and you lose a lot of metal along the way. People said, well, wait a second, what if we turn that process around, rather than drilling it out, what if we take it and build things up layer by layer. So, if you think about-, most of us have printers attached to our computers. We put a piece of paper in, and inside of the printer, there’s a little jet that sprays ink onto the page. And it comes out and there, the page has been printed on. Now, that ink actually has a certain thickness. Very thin, so it looks like it’s almost flat, but it actually has a certain thickness. Now if you put the page back into the printer and had it print the same page over again, and then did it again, and then did it again, you’d be-, you’d have some thickness there. And that’s essentially what a 3D printer does, although it’s doing it at a bigger scale. What it does, it has a stage and it puts material down, quite often that’s plastic on the stage one layer at a time. So rather than carving something out one layer at a time, it’s literally building it up one layer at a time.

Interviewer: Let’s then look at the potential of this, and the potential not of-. take it to the manufacturing areas first. Is it being widely used in manufacturing at this point of time, commercial manufacturing of goods?

Mark Pesce: Well, they do in fact find that it’s a really an effective way to make certain types of parts, for instance, for airplanes. So, a lot of parts on airplanes have to be made out of titanium, particularly if they’re in the jet engine. They need a lot of sheath capacity, and they also need to be very light. Titanium, of course, is a very, very strong metal, and so they would normally start with a big block of titanium, and they drill it out and they lose about 80 or 90% of the material. Now, what they actually got is a 3D printer that uses lasers, and it uses titanium dust. And the laser flash melts the titanium dust, and adds it. It builds it up layer by layer by layer. So now you have a finished product that actually uses less titanium, that doesn’t waste titanium, and it’s designed exactly to be the right component for the plane.

Interviewer: Now this has got to have a huge potential then in the manufacturing industry, commercial manufacturing of a whole range of products.

Mark Pesce: Yeah, it’s not clear what we won’t be able to make with a 3D printer. You know, we’re still figuring out everything that we can do. But it is becoming more and more clear that a lot of the stuff that we would outsource to a different level in the production chain can often be done in-house using a 3D printer. Now there’s always a trade off here. If you go out, and someone’s mass producing it, mass production is normally always going to be cheaper, but it’s going to be slower. An so, when people are doing things that maybe have an overnight turnaround, or have to be done right away, machinery that just broke and you have to replace a critical part in it, that’s when they’ll turn to the 3D printer.

Interviewer: Now, let’s bring it down to the household level, because this is where it’s starting to get really interesting. You know, these devices were starting out, and, you know, I’d imagine the one we’re talking about to build titanium parts for jet engines would be an incredibly expensive piece of equipment. But, uh, using plastics, and these printers are now available, you can buy one and have in your home. And as I understand it, for instance, you buy a new washing machine or other white good or other product, the chances are that down the track, that what will come along with that is a little digital file that you’ll be able to stick in your 3D printer, so that when a plastic part or some part breaks or needs replacing, you’ll just-, you’ll just press the button.

Mark Pesce: [Laughs.] You would hope that that is actually going to be part of the warranty. When you get that packet of materials…

Interviewer: Yes [laughs]. Yep.

Mark Pesce: …with the washing machine, there will be maybe a USB key or something that has the file on it. And yes, you’ll have your little home 3D printer. Right now, those printers cost about $1000USD, so there are not very expensive. They don’t do really big objects yet, so you’re not going to print your car in one. But you can print the washer that will fix your washing machine, um, the bolt, the little things that can fix that. And of course, if you don’t have access to a bigger one, well, you know, we go to the printer when we need to make 100 copies of something. So you’ll be able to go to the local print shop with your little design, and you’ll come out with a new barrel for your washing machine, or the new carburetor for your car. Who knows what it’s going to be?

Interviewer: I mean, essentially, you can take a digital image of something, can’t you, and virtually download that into the printer, and this is what you’re going to end up with. There’s a process there.

Mark Pesce: Yes, there’s a process there. I mean, it’s going to get to the point where we’ll be able to take a look at something with our mobiles, and shoot it from a couple different directions, and the mobile will be able to figure out how to actually extract that into a model and send it to the printer, and ‘Bambo!’, it will pop out the printer.

Interviewer: Where do you see this going? Is this the 3rd Industrial Revolution, as it’s being described?

Mark Pesce: Oh yes, there’s no question. You got to think, the hardware store of the mid-21st century, let’s say 20-30 years from now, is a website that has the designs for everything that used to be in a physical hardware store. Now that won’t be true for absolutely everything. There’s some materials that will probably be very fiddly, maybe lamps that have a lot of circuits in them. But for a lots of things that we use regularly in our lives, it will be really easy to simply print them.

Interviewer: I mean, plastic is basically what being-, what we’re talking about here. But is plastic a durable enough material to make all these things?

Mark Pesce: Well, plastic is one material, but, I mean, we’re also seeing titanium. And you got to remember that medical researchers are also working with things that can print body tissues…

Interviewer: Jesus. [Laughs.]

Mark Pesce: …So it may very well be that when you need a new kidney-, and that they really are doing this right now, that they’re actually building machinery that can start to do this. A big problem is how exact it is, how you get the blood into the tissue. But we understand the theory of it, so printing is going to be a general thing across the culture. It’s not going to be just something for household gadgets, or for engines and industrial appliances.

Interviewer: And do you think this will develop fairly rapidly, Mark Pesce?

Mark Pesce: Well, I saw my first 3D printer 20 years ago, and it was quite big, it was at a university, and it cost several hundred thousand dollars. So I think pretty much where we are now in 2012, is where we were when I saw my first personal computer in 1978. And it cost, back then, about $300 or about $1000 today, and there were a few hobbyists who had them, and they were doing all sorts fun of things. But it hadn’t blown into the mass culture. And I think we’re just on that cusp now. So that, you know, when we’re having this conversation 5 years from now, we’ll be talking about, you know, the neighbor just got a 3D printer, I went over there and played with it, the same way you would get around to the first people in the neighborhood to get a home computer.

Interviewer: Thank God for this conversation, I’ll need to go and print myself a new brain. [Laughs.] Lovely to catch up with you.

Mark Pesce: Thank you very much.

Interviewer: It’s Mark Pesce, futurist. It is fascinating, isn’t it? What is the future going to bring? There you go.


Bonus: If you find Mark Pesce interesting, you can watch giving a presentation at a TEDx conference. It’s got nothing to do with 3D printing; it’s about talks to us about connectedness, maternal instinct, love, life, death, intimacy, technology obsession and being present to our fellow humans.