It’s 201X and you find yourself stuck in the middle of a new dark age. life is nasty, brutish and short. With a little know how and a lot of scrap, though, you’ve managed to work your way up to having a reliable source of power from sustainable solutions. An aging computer was luckly saved from scrap, which provides you with adequate computational power for whatever software you’ll have over the next few decades, if not centuries. As you settle into this new dark age, you start to wonder, what next?
Why, a 3d printer, of course.
It’s not as far fetched as you would imagine, you say to your bemused post apocalyptic friends. Old style printers have all the stepper motors, gears, belts, pulleys, and optoswitches you’ll ever need! Heating elements can be found in any number of household items – toasters, hair driers, soldering irons, etc. Plastic can be recycled. Biodegradable plastics might even be manufactured if you’re clever enough. Projects like wolfstrap have existed for some time which describe how to make the structure from wood. We’ll have to assume for the project here that you have stepper drivers and a microcontroller, true, but hey, if you’re setting out to build a 3d printer, chances are you already have some parts laying around from before the apocalypse.
Alright, now back to reality. It’s January of 2013 and I find myself with some time on my hands and a modest carpenter’s workshop. Interested in a 3d printer but wary of costs, I start working up what I foresee to be a grand technology tree with the aim to homebrew as much as I possibly could. I build off a simple thought experiment – if this were the collapse of civilization, what technology will be remembered? What technology would be lost? Would older generations be able to perpetuate the technology they remember before memory fades and tools are broken? Could we simplify, making it easier to produce what we see as high technology from cottage industry alone? Could we rework technology, making it sustainable for the civilizations after us? Would there even be hope for such a civilization?
3D printing lends itself nicely to this thought experiment. It’s a relatively new technology, just recently made accessible to the general public, and with it you could make any number of other useful machines to improve quality of life. You’d think if something like this were able to survive then society would have things pretty well sorted out. Physically, though, these things are little more complex than an ordinary paper printer. Seriously, it’s just one more axis to consider. As such, these things are easily self replicated and are quickly making their way into homebrew operations. The computer that runs a printer stands to be the most difficult to source after the collapse of civilization. If printing becomes sufficiently advanced, though, even these devices may not be out of reach, albeit perhaps only of sufficient power to drive the printer in turn.
My background could be described as working at the intersection between computers and environmental science. I have a masters in ecology from the University of Illinois and currently work as a software developer in applications towards plant biology.
In the context of 3d printing, I’ve largely adopted an environmentalist mindset. To me, ubiquitous 3d printing is a critical step towards a sustainable society and can be reached largely out from the waste of the paper printer market. Progress in this field means little if the technology is not robust enough to survive the long term in a world with finite resources. Fortunately enough, this is made easier if the machine is capable of reproduction.