Sometime in the early 1980’s I encountered a colleague carrying a big box into the chemistry building. What do you have there, I inquired. And a totally unexpected answer came back. “A personal computer,” he said. Why on earth would anyone want a personal computer I remember thinking. In space maybe. Need to make all sorts of calculations there. Indeed, I knew the space program, which I had carefully followed, would not have been possible without computers. And I had dabbled with the machines myself. As an undergrad we had to take courses in Fortran and has spent countless hours with punchcards to devise ways for a knight to make a tour of the chessboard landing on every square only once. But I couldn’t imagine why a chemist would want a personal computer in his office. And here I sit now typing on my desktop computer, staring at two screens, an iPad on my desk, a laptop in my bag and an iPhone in my pocket with a similar set up waiting for me at home. Working without a computer is now unimaginable.
The reason I mention all this is because this morning I combed my hair with a plastic comb that was made by a 3-D printer. Not some multimillion dollar machine, but a home 3-D printer. It’s an amzing device that is guided by a computer and lays down plastic layer by layer to make three dimensional objects. My comb was just a demonstration item. Obviously we do not need printers at home to make combs. But other uses that so far we haven’t even thought about will follow. Who, for example, would have ever thought that a duck’s foot could be made with a 3-D printer? Let me tell you about Buttercup, a duck that was born with a backwards left foot and was unable to walk properly. But a 3D printing company photographed Buttercup’s sister’s left foot and fed the digitized data into a printer that then produced a custom designed silicone foot that was attached to Buttercup’s stump with a nylon screw. The duck can now walk properly.
Of course most of us will not have to print ducks’ feet or combs. But I suspect it will not be long before 3D printers appear in households alongside our computers. And they will need to be fed plastic, mostly high density polyethylene filaments that are melted and squeezed through a nozzle to produce the three dimensional objects. This of course means there will be a demand for such plastic, much of which can be supplied by post-consumer waste such as shampoo and detergent bottles. In India where scavenging through rubbish dumps for usable materials is a common activity, pickers are being taught to separate the items that can be recycled into plastics used for 3-D printing. They will be paid far more than what they now get for haphazard collections. 3-D printers have come way down in price and some can now be had for about a thousand dollars. I’d like to have one but I’m not yet sure what use I could put it to. But I do have some plastic ducks in my collection with missing parts.