CCR: Mr. Lipson, you claim that 3D printing will revolutionize the way we live our lives. Why do you and other people think the additive manufacturing business is triggering a second industrial revolution?
Lipson: There are many ways in which 3D printing is transforming the way we think about manufacturing. The first industrial revolution happened when the cost of one of the major bottle necks of manufacturing went close to zero and that was the cost of power. Similarly additive manufacturing is driving the cost of complexity near zero. If you want to make a very complicated part with lots of features, it won’t take any more time with 3D printing than making a simpler part. In fact, it is sometimes cheaper to print a more complex part. Printing a block with a hole in it takes less time than printing a solid block. That, I think, will change manufacturing and the way we consume products in a profound way. It will affect the type of product that we are able to make, who can design products and where they can be made. It will allow everything to be customized. Those changes might still take a decade or two to play out, but we will see them down the road.
CCR: That would still be a fairly short time frame considering that the technique has been around for about 30 years by now?
Lipson: It is following very much the track that computers did. Mainframes were around for two decades and people notoriously couldn’t anticipate why anybody would need a computer at home. But the advent of the personal computer in the late 70’s changed that. Something similar is happening here: The technology has been around very much like mainframes: very expensive machines, with very narrow applications. But now we are beginning to see low end 3D printers coming out − the personal 3D printers are already here. We are in the early 80’s of computers and if you follow this analogy I think that we will see more unfolding in the next few years. I tell my students that they will have a hard time telling their grandchildren how they lived without a 3D printer at home.
CCR: From your point of view what do manufacturing companies have to do to prepare themselves for that revolution?
Lipson: It is very difficult to speculate, but here are some of my thoughts on that. We will see companies that will try to resist that change and we will see those that embrace the change and try to capitalize on it. One way to embrace this change is through a process called ‘user led innovation’, a term coined by Eric von Hippel at MIT. It means companies will allow their customers to participate in the design process to improve the product and change the ways that products are used. This will involve open-sourcing more the designs. There are a few studies showing that this is already happening. Eric von Hippel for example has great examples for that ranging from kite surfing equipment to sports drinking systems or Lego robotics kits. Other companies will use these flexible manufacturing techniques to make their supply chain more resilient. We are also seeing a separation between designers and manufacturers. There are a lot of new opportunities in the area of mass customization. We are used to having products mass produced – three sizes fit all. Companies that will embrace the possibilities of making much smaller quantities with much more versatile customization and a much finer market segmentation will be more successful. Few companies do it right now but there are huge opportunities.
CCR: What will happen to companies resisting this change?
Lipson: They will face more severe competition and reduced market share. When people can manufacture things all over the world, there are going to be intellectual property challenges, and faster moving competition – it will be a different world. The question is: Do you use these new tools to make the same things in a new way, or do you start making new things you couldn’t make before.
CCR: How can they guard their intellectual property rights, though?
Lipson: There might be a need to have something in between copyright and a patent that will allow people to protect their physical designs on one hand, but on the other hand something that will be open enough to allow innovation. It is a very tough balance to achieve. There are also issues with quality assurance, safety, and product liability when manufacturing is so distributed.
CCR: Your main research areas are Artificial Intelligence (AI) and evolutionary robotics. How did you get involved with 3D printing?
Lipson: I came to the area of 3D printing as a user trying to make new kinds of robots, and more generally looking at the issue of creativity. We asked how can we make machines more creative from an AI point of few. One of the things that happened was that the machines created objects that were very difficult to manufacture using conventional methods. The only way to realize those ideas was to use 3D printing. We quickly realized that the manufacturing was actually the bottle neck of the creative process. So the question became: How can we unleash more creativity by making an even more versatile manufacturing process? The design got entangled with the manufacturing, something any engineer is familiar with. The more you can manufacture the more creative space you unleash in the design.
CCR: How did you become so popular for it that you were even chosen to co-author a report on the effects of 3D printing for the US government?
Lipson: Both government and industry are realizing that the implication of this technology are going to be profound, but are not sure which way to go. Government is looking for policy advice, and industry is looking for strategic advice.
CCR: And you found a way to 3D print not only with one material but with multiple functional materials at the same time?
Lipson: I think we were possibly the first to print with multiple materials, in particular with focus on printing with active materials – conductors and semiconductors and so forth. We can shape the internal structure of materials. For example if you print hard and soft materials in particular patterns, you can create materials that expand laterally when pulled longitudinally. Our goal is to move from printing passive parts to printing active systems.
CCR: You engineered your own 3D printers for this task?
Lipson: Since 2003 we built our own printer that can print with multiple different materials, some of them conductive, some actuating materials, and some sensors. We are really trying to push the limits of what can be fabricated on a printer, although our multiple material parts are still in the research stage. There is a huge range of materials you can print with. In 2006 we open-sourced the blueprints online as Fab@Home. The necessary parts can be bought anywhere. There are other do-it-yourself (DIY) printers like Makerbot which comes as a kit, however they are still restricted to one material. People are still mainly tinkering with the technology on these DIY printers, mainly for art and entertainment, a little bit like the early computers in the 70’s and 80’s. Industrial applications, to my knowledge, still require the precision and material quality that right now only the commercial printers offer. But the gap is closing: The commercial printers are becoming cheaper and the DIY ones are improving in quality, so I think within a few years the gap will close and virtually anyone can have a reliable printer for no more than the cost of a computer.
CCR: Are any of the 3D printer manufacturers interested in your work?
Lipson: Manufacturers are interested in more of our advanced work on using printers for bio-printing, food-printing and design tools. As far as materials and inks, we have described everything in papers for other people to look at. Most of the industry is focusing on passive materials. No one I know of has looked into the commercial printing of active parts like actuators, sensors, and batteries, which is what we are looking at.
CCR: Which materials you have worked with hold the most promise for the future from your point of view?
Lipson: I find biomaterials and food materials most fascinating. There is a whole relatively unexplored frontier in those two places. Biomaterials might be used for tissue engineering – printing a new tissue with several different cell types, devices for biological testing, implants, for surgery planning or surgery training. And the other area is food: We printed with anything from chocolate to peanut butter, cheese, pesto – anything you can push through a syringe. We call it digital cooking. We have made cookies with two or three different kinds of dough and a very complex shape that would normally require quite a bit of skill to make. But with a machine like this you can design it at the computer and print it without mastering the actual technical skills. We have printed a cake that looks like a normal cake but when you cut it there is text inside. We had students from the culinary school here play around with materials with very variable textures. It is a world of new possibilities. I think food printing is for 3D printing what gaming was for early computers. Nobody thought of it initially as an application for computers but it turned out to be a very big market.
CCR: What other areas might undergo a revolution thanks to 3D printing?
Lipson: I think education. 3D printing within the education is opening up lots of new possibilities in the way we teach engineering and especially young kids what engineering is. We help them realize their ideas. We have seen it happening at schools, kids printing with play dough. It really engages kids in a way that few technologies do.
CCR: Hod, thanks a lot for your time.
Monika Corban, freie Mitarbeiterin, CAD-CAM REPORT