As the cost of 3D printing continues to come down, more materials for 3D printing are being introduced. The changes symbolize a shift in how individuals view a technology Northeastern Professor Janos Stone has been tinkering with for the past decade, and is now working to make more accessible to the community.

Last week, Northeastern announced a 3D printing lab would be opening up in Northeastern’s Snell Library this fall, welcoming in the curious minds of creators ready to ride the latest wave of design.

“If you give all of the students at Northeastern the ability to make a 3D print, they arrive on the other side of the veil,” says Stone, referencing the mystery behind what has swiftly evolved into a “trendy” piece of manufacturing technology. “They can bring the potential of 3D printing into whatever it is they’re studying and create a new form of study; a new career.”

Stone started to focus his career on 3D printing eight or so years ago, after realizing the 3D printer was “the ultimate sculpture tool,” albeit still out of reach.

“It became totally obvious to me,” Stone remarks, reminiscing on the earlier days. “Because we live in a three-dimensional world, wouldn’t we, as humans, want to manipulate our three-dimensional world with three-dimensional tools?”

Stone first created Mecube as one of those tools. With the goal of teaching everyone to be a 3D do-it-yourself designer, Mecube launched as an easy-to-learn 3D design mobile app. Through the app, users are able to build their own creations in full color, and then print them directly from their iPhone or iPad. All desired designs are 3D printed and shipped to customers by Shapeways.

“Mecube was made to be the first door we could open to the world of 3D design,” Stone says. “It’s really supposed to break down the mystery of 3D printing, because that’s what I see all the time—[people] don’t really quite grasp some of the concepts. As soon as they’ve made a print and got it in the mail, they’re on the other side of the veil.”

The ANA project, standing for Alpha Numeric Avatars, spun out of Northeastern in 2008 while Stone was developing Mecube, initially as a studio art project. What Stone started to build was a platform that would allow users to type in their email address and turn it into a “digital portrait” of themselves. But from there, the project began to evolve as more people jumped on board, including Nathan Felde, Northeastern’s chair of Art and Design; Sia Mohammadalipoor, a mathematics PhD candidate; Hooman Javaheri, a fellow PhD candidate; and seniors Michael Godlewski and Stephen Elliott.

Together, they rallied around three central questions:

  1. What could (text) information look like as a physical object?
  2. Can (text) information simultaneously communicate data while containing esthetics?
  3. Was it possible to develop an easy-to-use DIY 3D design tool to inspire people to be creative and use 3D printing?

Over time, ANA took the shape of an interactive website driven by their algorithmic engine that transforms typed alphanumeric text into 3D printable objects.

To help acquaint students with the possibilities of 3D printing, ANA will be used once the new 3D printing lab at Northeastern is open. Stone says ANA will be used as “an enticer” for students, because it will allow them to design objects from their dorm room, and later pick them up in the lab.

“There’s going to be a lot more research done at Northeastern around 3D printing and this idea of data objects within the next year,” Stone claims.

After seeing outside projects like “3Doodler: The World’s First Printing Pen” take off and surpass $2 million on Kickstarter, it’s clear the technology is not only gaining quick popularity, but proving to become more mainstream. In the dawn of the MakerBot, 3D printers are becoming smaller, cheaper and easier to use. Other companies like Sunglass, are also trying to reel in the crowdsourcing aspect, striving to do for 3D design what Github did for source code.

“You’re seeing a much bigger group of crowdsourced creativity,” Stone says.

And he’s a large part of why that is.

For a closer look at Mecube and ANA, check out the slideshow below.