3D Printing Is Awesome, Says Bill Nye, But It’s Nothing Compared to What’s Coming

Bill Nye casts his mind to the future to give us a picture of how the descendants of our current 3D printing technology will change our ways and our world.

Bill Nye: 3D printing technology is I won’t say the greatest thing ever but it’s pretty great. So the other word you’re going to start seeing a lot more of I think is additive manufacture. 3D printing is kind of a specific style where you do layers. But I think you’ll see other additive manufacturing schemes involving different fluids and materials that are buoyant in those fluids and then extracted, and shapes can be created that are not possible – impossible to create by subtractive manufacture, which is what I was brought up with as an engineer. You cut threads in a piece of metal or plastic to get a threaded fastener. You hollow something out. I often think about the astronauts' rock boxes – so they took boxes to the moon to put rocks in and bring them back to the Earth in a hermetically sealed fashion. And in order to get the boxes to be lightweight – the machinist’s term is they were "hogged" out. So they started with a piece of aluminum this big, hollowed the whole thing out with a milling machine.

Chips of aluminum just go on the shop floor to get this thin but yet very, very strong final shape. Well in the future or maybe this afternoon very few of us will manufacture objects like that subtractively. Instead this will be made additively. And it will be lighter weight, cheaper, less waste and it will enable many, many people to participate in the additive manufactured process. And then if you have a problem at home where something’s broken, pick a thing. Your toaster. You’ll go online, find a new toaster control knob, maybe a family of designs. You’ll pick the one that you like. You’ll go to the spiritual equivalent of FedEx/Kinkos and they’ll have an additive manufacturing machine there. If you need a really sophisticated you’ll call a more sophisticated additive manufacturing machine shop. And they’ll make the thing for you. And you will not waste the toaster. You will not throw it away. You will not waste nearly as much material, hardly any material if you hadn’t manufactured the new knob or a piece or a heater wire. And this will allow us to do more with less.

This is democratizing manufacture. In the same way perhaps that art is democratized. People can make music now. People can mix hundreds of musical tracks at home. People can go to the store and buy paintbrushes and paint and canvas. Or you can electronically create it. This is democratizing manufacture a more efficient way. And I think there’ll be a very near future where people from my business of mechanical engineering will look around at objects and go we used to waste all that metal and all that you just leave it on the shop floor. Oh the humanity. And so as that technology matures because there’s so – the obvious advantages are so obvious that more and more people will get into the business and it will lower the cost of everything. I have a juicer that belonged to my neighbor who died when she was 86 and the business end, the thing that really does the reaming is chipped. Man I look forward to the day when I can scan that and then additively manufacture a new one and just put it right on the old machine. I can see it. It’s probably possible now if I put in enough energy in finding the right machine shop. I could probably do it right now but I’ve got other things going on. I’ve got to do this right here for example.

If you want to see Bill Nye get worked up over a juicer, you’ve come to the right place. But he has good reason to be excited; the future shift of manufacture is in motion, and it’s been kicked off by the imagination-capturing phenomenon of 3D printing.


The reason 3D printing is so exciting isn’t necessarily because of itself, but because of all the yet unknown places where it will lead – it has flipped manufacturing on its head. Almost every commercially made object we come into contact with today is a result of subtractive manufacture. As Nye explains, this means we cut something into shape, trimming or forming an object like a sculptor, which means leaving left-over material on the workshop or factory floor. Nye gives an incredible example from NASA’s hermetically sealed aluminum sample boxes that were designed to bring moon rocks back to Earth to study. Rather than being assembled or built up, they were hollowed out from large, solid blocks of aluminum, the center completely wasted. For you and I on a more day-to-day level, the same is true: a t-shirt is made from a larger piece of fabric; a turned table leg churns its surrounding bulk into sawdust. It’s reasonable to think that in as little as 50 or 100 years, people will see our current production methods and waste levels as tragically unsophisticated.

According to Nye, our future has the opposite in store: additive manufacturing. This means using precise quantities of raw materials to build an object up from nothing, with zero waste. Things will be lighter, cheaper, and the entire process of making and creating will be democratized so the whole world can participate and invent. Rather than throwing out a perfectly good juicer because the spout is chipped, we could independently manufacture a new part. That thought makes Bill Nye extremely happy.

In Nye’s forecast of the future, we will have additive manufacture stores or hubs that are stocked with a variety of machines that will download the design of what we need and produce it on the spot. No international freighting, and no resource wastage.

Bill Nye's most recent book is Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World.

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