The List

Printing Innovation

Seven 3D-printable objects that will change the world.

This is not the world science fiction has promised us -- a world of jet packs and space tourism for the masses are still more fantasy than fact. But the future is coming, and 3D printing will be a part of it. Though still decades, if not more, from the replicators on Star Trek, these increasingly affordable desktop devices can create -- usually in plastic, but in other materials as well -- intricate designs. Acolytes of the technology foresee a world where 3D printers are a household necessity, like a microwave. The battery cover of your remote control broke the way it always does? Just search an online database for the part and print a new one.

Or you could make a new product of your own. The proliferation of 3D printing has the potential to democratize the process of design, production, and manufacture of small commercial goods. And as 3D printers become more ubiquitous, this will present new challenges. When people can make just about anything in their homes, how will governments regulate the things they create? Here are some of the items that are already being made on desktops and in garage hobby shops, and some things that might be printable soon.


Ancient Art

Sure, you can buy a model of Rodin's The Thinker in some catalogs, or a figurine of Michelangelo's David at any souvenir shop in Florence, but aside from the most famous works, art replicas are hard to come by and even then can be expensive. That has the potential to change with 3D printing. With digital cameras and some specialized software, designers can map and catalog sculptures with extreme precision and recreate them on demand. While 3D printers are still a long ways off from perpetrating the next big forged art fraud, there are some immediate applications for printed artwork. In countries that lack large-scale manufacturing infrastructure, affordable table-top 3D printers could provide a small-scale alternative. Consider columist Thomas Friedman's observation of the "Made in China" stickers on Egyptian souvenirs -- with 3D printers, those same King Tut ashtrays could be produced locally at low cost.


Vehicles of the Future

NASA has caught a glimpse of the future of 3D printing, and it likes what it sees. Its next orbital booster, the Space Launch System (SLS), will use a 3D printing technique called selective laser melting to make rocket components. "Since we're not welding parts together," says Andy Hardin, the integration hardware lead for the SLS, "the parts are structurally stronger and more reliable, which creates an overall safer vehicle." And without the infrastructure necessary for large-scale production, it saves money, too. The SLS is still years from completion, though. Maybe a bit more grounded in reality is the Areion, a zippy electric racecar with a 3D printed body.

No one is 3D printing a Saturn V or Tesla Roadster in their garage yet, but 3D printed vehicles are out there now. Thingiverse, a database of downloadable plans for home 3D printers, has plans for a functioning air engine, model planes, and quadcopters on their site.

NASA/MSFC/Andy Hardin


It was probably inevitable that someone would 3D print a gun. The plastic used in most 3D printers isn't the best for guns, but already there have been some instances of people printing out parts, for example the plastic casing for a .22-caliber pistol or a rifle modeled on the AR-15, with store-bought parts inside. As more advanced 3D printers become more affordable, people almost certainly will start fabricating entire firearms at home. There's even a movement to promote these "wiki weapons" -- take for example Defense Distributed, a website that aspires to "become the web's printable gun wiki redoubt," supplying free 3D-printable gun designs. The legal response to open-source, homemade firearms has been equally inevitable; the designs have prompted debates about whether the homemade plans constitute a gun if the receiver isn't being homemade. Under current law, it seems the homemade firearms are legal for personal use in the United States, but hobbyists will run into trouble if they try to sell one of their wiki weapons.

HaveBlue/Michael Guslick


One of the distinct advantages of 3D printing is the ability to fabricate custom-fitted designs without going through the laborious process of making molds or machining parts. Hospitals are using 3D printers to make custom prosthetics. To assist children with muscular disorders, a children's hospital in Delaware developed a wearable exoskeleton printed to fit each child on a Stratasys 3D printer (incidentally, the same brand of printer used to make the .22 pistol). Three-d printing is also proving to be invaluable for prosthetics that replace body parts, not just augment them. In June 2011, doctors in Belgium replaced a woman's infected lower jaw with a printed replica made of fused titanium powder with a bioceramic coating, and 3D-printed noses might be coming soon. (Similarly, but on a smaller scale, this bald eagle got a replacement beak after being shot by poachers.) At least one company has also started 3D-printing artistic limb-shaped casings (called fairings) for prosthetics, allowing amputees to express themselves through their prosthetic limbs. In time, 3D printing could ease access to custom-fitted prosthetics for people around the world.

Bespoke Innovations


After the 3D printer, what comes next? Why not take the basic design of the 3D printer and substitute pharmaceuticals for the powdered plastics that 3D printers inject and fuse to build shapes, and instead build custom drugs? That's the idea Lee Cronin, a chemistry professor at Glasgow University, has used to build the "chemputer," the latest step in his quest for a "universal chemistry set." Using a modified commercial 3D printer, Cronin has created a prototype that uses chemical reactions to create a wide range of substances used in drugs, all within a controlled environment. The device has huge potential for both research and production. In the closed environment of the chemputer, researchers could quickly and easily run tests on isolated problems -- a cancer cell maybe, or resilient bacteria. And because it takes only a few basic chemical inputs ("inks," Cronin calls them) to create, though chemical reactions, the more complex substances in most drugs, in time the chemputer could become a small, affordable pharmacy with formulas for prescriptions available for download at scalable doses. Such a device could ease access to pharmaceuticals in rural regions where drugs are less accessible and help cut down on counterfeit drugs that dominate some developing markets, but would also require a paradigm shift in the way pharmaceutical companies approach production and distribution. The chemputer is a long way from mass production, though, and how it works in practice could be very different than Cronin's proposals. Theoretically, these chemputers could be used just as easily as low-cost, miniature narcotics labs.



Three-d printers fuse powdered plastics or metals to print their designs, and the chemputer uses some basic chemicals. Modern Meadow, a tech-startup focused on bioprinting -- yes, that's a thing now -- uses lab-grown cells as its ink. While maybe one day their bioprinting technology could lead to custom 3D-printed hearts and livers, in the near-term, they're looking at revolutionizing the way we eat. Fabricating meat in a laboratory is comparatively simple; as the company pointed out in a grant application, "meat is a post mortem tissue, the vascularization of the final product is less critical than in medical applications." In other words, scientists won't need to worry about getting arteries and nerves to work, they just need to get the texture right. The plan now is to 3D-print sheets of pig cells and then, from this base, grow muscles through electric stimulation. The result should look and taste like pork, but without the pig. The result could open new sources of protein to ethical vegetarians, allow a greener alternative to farmed produce, and provide a new source of meat production in an era when population growth is straining the world's resources. Rabbis and imams might want to start thinking: Is lab-grown pork kosher or halal?

Creative Tools/Flickr

Your Face

No, really! Though the example is more experiment than application at this point, in time 3D-printed faces could be a feature in reconstructive surgeries. This person who printed his face works in a medical-applications lab and performed the scan with a CAT scan machine. Three-d printed faces might also be a foundation for futuristic robots, like the androids of Isaac Asimov novels, and might ultimately help bridge the "uncanny valley" between robots and humans that makes androids just a bit creepy.


The List

Five Myths about the Chinese Internet

The Great Firewall is neither great, nor a firewall. Discuss.

Last week, Xi Jinping's chairmanship of the Communist Party was announced, and collectively, the Chinese Internet breathed a sigh of relief. Netizens rejoiced as the web returned to its normal speed, while censors, government officials, and Internet companies finally allowed themselves to stop fretting about making any missteps during the highly sensitive week-long, once-in-a-decade political meeting -- the 18th Party Congress -- which decided China's new leadership structure.

Within a few hours, the top trending topics on Sina Weibo, China's homegrown equivalent to Twitter, included political topics like incoming Premier Li Keqiang's resumé and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's November 15 comments that he isn't bothered by online criticism because such things are normal in a democracy. But for most of the week-long Party Congress, however, the top Weibo chatter (part censorship, part apathy) had focused mostly on Chinese pop celebs.

Though the blocks varied, terms censored on Weibo throughout the Congress period included the names of numerous Communist Party politicians; shiba da, the Chinese abbreviation for the Party Congress; several unrelated homophones of shiba da; the word "Sparta" (which sounds like shibada in Chinese); the euphemistic phrase "area of political importance" (the meeting was held at Beijing's Great Hall of the People, which lies close to Tiananmen Square); and words pertaining to taxis and windows (due to much-ridiculed rules directing Beijing taxi drivers to remove their rear window cranks during this period, apparently to prevent protestors from throwing ping-pong balls containing political messages).

Few people remain unaware that the Internet is censored for China's 538 million users, but misperceptions persist about how it works. Here are five of the most common myths about Chinese online censorship, debunked.

1. Censorship means the Chinese are left in the dark.

Nope. While China chatter is rife with stories of people who today still have no idea, say, that Beijing massacred civilians on Tiananmen Square, for the most part, Chinese Internet users are cosmopolitan, educated, and informed. Many use, or at least know they can use, circumvention technology like VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to access blocked content. (These will always thrive, if nothing else, in order to access porn.)

Chinese netizens are aware of what they're missing, in part because the censorship apparatus makes little attempt to hide itself. Attempts to visit blocked sites sometimes return responses that make them indistinguishable from genuine technical issues, but most return messages such as "Sorry, the host you were looking for does not exist, has been deleted, or is being investigated." Until the beginning of November, searching for blocked terms on Sina Weibo returned the message "Due to relevant laws and regulations, results are not displayed." Now though, the message reads "Sorry, unable to find [keyword] related results." Sometimes the blocked messages are more playful: In 2006, the Internet Surveillance Division of the city of Shenzhen's Public Security Bureau even launched two cutesy Internet police cartoon characters, named Jingjing and Chacha, who appear on websites to remind users they're being watched. Their names come from the syllables of "jingcha," Chinese for "police."  Beijing launched its own version in 2007.

Perhaps the best evidence of netizens' knowledge of their own censorship, though, is their hatred of Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and the architect of the censorship system's blocking mechanism, nicknamed "The Great Firewall."

In December 2010, Fang (who has said he has 6 VPNs on his computer) opened a microblog account on Sina Weibo. Within three hours he had attracted so many hate comments -- unlike Twitter, Sina Weibo includes a commenting feature -- that his posts, and the comments, were taken down. To add insult to injury, in May 2011, students pelted Fang with shoes and eggs when he gave a talk at Wuhan University in central China.

After both incidents, Fang's name was blocked on Sina Weibo.

2. It's the government that censors.  

This is true -- to a point. The government maintains the Great Firewall and hires  Internet police as well as wumaodang, or "50-cent party members" -- people paid to influence Internet discussion by writing social media posts extolling the government's position on issues. They're known as "50-cent" because they're selling out for cheap; the Chinese equivalent of a two-dollar whore. There are an estimated 250,000-300,000 wumaodang, who sometimes work with China's 30,000-50,000 Internet police.

But beyond this, the government has roped private companies into carrying out most of their own censoring. Companies must sign a "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for China Internet Industry" in order to get a Chinese Internet Content Provider license, and the government holds all  Internet companies operating within China, both foreign and domestic, liable for everything that appears on their sites. This includes comments on social media, and even on online chat and instant messaging. Companies deemed not in compliance can have their business license revoked and be summarily shut down.

As a result, every large Internet company employs its own censors. Charles Chao, the CEO of Sina reluctantly told Forbes in March 2011 that the company employs at least 100 "monitors," though Internet expert and activist Rebecca MacKinnon estimates the number is closer to 1,000.

The guidelines for these censors are vague, which Jason Q. Ng, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh who studies the Chinese Internet and tracks banned terms at his blog Blocked on Weibo, says is intentional. "Most of the time people at the companies are trying to suss out what's sensitive this week, and let's do this right now because otherwise the government will come back next week and say, ‘Why didn't you do this?' and punish them. This creates a culture, perhaps not of fear, but where corporations realize they need to be on their toes to stay ahead of where the government puts down the hammer next." In other words: to make sure they stay within the unstated bounds, overly cautious companies wind up censoring more than necessary.

3. No one is allowed to criticize the government.

False. The government rarely sets out explicit censorship guidelines, making it difficult to determine what gets censored and what doesn't. But, a Harvard University working paper on social media censorship, the most recent version of which was released in October, found that there is plenty of criticism of the government online.  

The team downloaded nearly 3.7 million posts (mainly from BBS and blog platforms, not microblogs) from 1,400 social media services over six months in 2011 (a period that included the arrest of Ai Weiwei, protests in Inner Mongolia and Zengcheng, and deadly bombings in Fuzhou). 

About 13 percent of all social media posts were censored. "We had thought certain topics would always be censored, but censorship didn't occur by topic," said Jennifer Pan, the study's co-author and a Ph.D candidate at Harvard, in an interview. Instead, censorship was focused on what the study calls posts with "high collective action potential" -- that is, posts that "represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content." MacKinnon concurs: "The censorship that takes place, it's less about trying to catch every little thing, because they can't catch every little thing. The priority is placed on people using the social networks to organize."

The Harvard paper describes several thousands of posts they found containing scathing critiques of China, the one-child policy, the country's failure to democratize, condemnation of local officials by name, and references to the 1989 Tiananmen protests, which were not deleted. By contrast, during the arrest of Ai Weiwei, the Inner Mongolia protests, and the Fuzhou bombings, 80 percent of posts alluding to those events were deleted, likely due to fears of collective action such as solidarity protests.

The government fear of organized protest also jibes with the uneasy status that NGOs have in China. They are viewed with suspicion by the government; indeed, the very phrase "non-governmental organization" reads like a description of everything the Party fears.

4. Internet censorship is carried out in a blanket fashion.

Unlikely. When the New York Times website was blocked in China in October after publishing an article on the $2.7 billion amassed by the family of then-Premier Wen Jiabao, the online chatter was uncertain as to what actually happened. This kind of confusion often occurs in discussions of China's Internet blocks because the censorship employs a variety of different methods. These include connection resetting (which returns an error message that usually occurs when a site is down or has moved to a different address); redirection to China (typing in from within China will take you to, its local partner which is subject to Chinese regulations); DNS poisoning (wherein the  Internet service provider changes the DNS record of the blocked site, taking one to a dummy web server hosting a block page, which could contain malware); throttling (severely slowing down a site in lieu of blocking it outright, often done to Gmail in China); and timing out (when the site tries to load for so long that the browser gives up; indistinguishable from a genuine technical problem).

Content providers also employ a variety of techniques. Sina Weibo users can post anything they like, and often sensitive posts will even appear in their personal feed, but the post is blocked from search results. In other words, a user might have no idea their post has been "disappeared" and their friends and other users can't see the post in their feeds. After a term has been unblocked, it quietly reappears in users' feeds and search results.

None of this means that a country-wide "kill switch" isn't possible -- there are only a few tubes into China and, though hard to imagine, it would be easy to black out the entire country very quickly. Internet in Xinjiang, China's largest region geographically, with a population of 21.8 million, was almost entirely shut down for 10 months from July 2009 to May 2010 after riots in Urumqi, the provincial capital, left what state media estimated at 197 dead. Text messaging and international calling were also blacked out for six of those months. And parts of Tibet are still currently blacked out.

5. The Internet will lead to democracy.

Dream on. In his 2007 book The China Fantasy, journalist James Mann devoted an entire chapter to refuting an idea he called "The Starbucks Fallacy" -- the belief among Westerners that exposure to icons of Western capitalism like Starbucks and McDonald's would inevitably lead to democracy.

Today, post-Arab Spring, we might be in the middle of a Facebook Fallacy. After the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, activist and Google executive Wael Ghonim said, "If you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet." But the Internet is not enough in the absence of the right political, social, and economic factors. And tools of free speech can be tools of surveillance. VPNs, so widely used to circumvent censorship, are easily blocked and monitored. "There are a lot of people in China who are signing up for random VPN services, but have no idea who's running them and what relationship they might have with what government, or what companies," said MacKinnon. "A VPN is only as secure as the people running the VPN."

In 2000, President Bill Clinton said: "There's no question China has been trying to crackdown on the Internet. Good luck! That's sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall."

But, as Ng put it, "China has the world's biggest nail gun."