Dispatches from SXSW: The Future of 3D Printing

Makerbot, SXSW | BCBusiness
Vancouver manufacturers, pay attention: 3D printing is going more mainstream and could change your business.

Vancouver manufacturers, take note: 3D printing is going mainstream with more advanced and less expensive technology

If you’re crazy enough to have joined the thousands of digital creatives who made the pilgrimage to an unusually rainy Austin, Texas for the 2013 South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival, you’ll likely go home with a sore liver, a suitcase stuffed with free T-shirts, a deceased smartphone battery and a head bursting with revolutionary ideas on all things tech.
The Austin Convention Center and dozens of surrounding venues (a pedicab/shuttle ride away) are crawling with biohackers, data manipulators, inventors, Al Gore, roboticists, peacocking hipsters, Sarah Silverman, holograms, Shaquille O’Neal, wearable computers, and legions of entrepreneurs pitching investors and service providers wooing enterprise clients.
An unforgettable theme to emerge from the pandemonium so far – listen up Vancouver manufacturers and would-be manufacturers – is the growing mainstream acceptance of 3D printing. The technology has existed in rudimentary forms since the 1980s, but even since it blew up a few years ago, it’s largely been used by hobbyists and avant garde artists to print gorgeous (but ultimately useless) octagonal prisms and stellated dodecahedra. Today, proponents are selling it as a powerful manufacturing tool, with 3D printers capable of creating everything from robohands and implantable cartilage to architectural models and nylon polymer bikinis.
They’re by no means the only game in town, but one of the emerging leaders of the 3D printing movement is Brooklyn’s MakerBot, whose latest desktop model uses biodegradable polymer filaments and – most importantly – retails for just US $2,199, a bargain considering you can even print the parts you need to assemble another 3D printer. MakerBot founder and SXSW keynote speaker Bre Pettis says his biggest clients include NASA, Ford and seven of the top 10 U.S. architecture forms. And since the company’s affiliated Thingiverse databank already hosts some 40,000 digital designs, you don’t have to be an engineer to get started.
The technology is poised to reform manufacturing, but why stop there? 3D printing evangelists are also preaching the revolution to teachers, prosthetists, orthotists, designers, researchers and prototyping engineers. Scientists are even experimenting with 3D printed meat, but lucky for you grossed out gourmands, the end result still costs thousands of dollars a pound, so your food carts are safe, at least for now. 


More dispatches to come from Vancouver journalist Luke Brocki, currently in a meat coma after too much Texas style barbecue brisket (the regular cruel kind that once went “Moo!”).