Sunday, June 23, 2013

Home Server Build - Part 2: Operating System(s)

When I started this project, I had some ideas on how to set up the server operating system(s) and configure it/them. Although I am technically inclined and good at many IT subjects, business servers and networking are still quite new to me. It's been two weeks since I finished building the hardware and I've already learned a lot. I've also learned I have a long way to go. The subject of servers can be described as at least two ecosystems of knowledge: Server types and systems, and Networking, which is inextricably linked to servers.

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy - Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

My goal is to learn as much as possible, especially for the first 180 days. Why 180 days? Microsoft has a "try before you buy" system for Windows Server 2012. You can download their latest server OS here and use it for 180 days before you need to either purchase a license or remove it. My first plan was to install Windows server as a host, running several virtual machines as in the drawing below.
Original Plan
There's a few problems with this.

  • It seems that parents don't inherit from children. In this case, the VM server running Active Directory (AD) doesn't control the host, so you can't log into the host as a user set up under AD.
  • My copy of Windows XP turned out to be the XP Home Edition, which lacks the ability to attach to a domain. There are hacks that allow you to do this, but most of the websites say to use a program that I can't find - it's an old hack.
  • It used to be that Linux and Windows didn't mix. That is not the case any more; you can attach a Linux machine to a Windows Domain, according to a few websites such as these two:

Now the setup looks more like this:
Plan B
I left the child Server settings alone, it doesn't seem to mind (yet?) and added AD/DNS to the roles of the host server. Now I can theoretically add all the VMs to the host's domain. So far I can log into the child server as a user set up under the host's directory, but haven't had time to hack the Linux systems to do the same. I added a second hard drive, but there is a conflict between how the drives are formatted and Windows is ignoring the larger drive. Learn about MBR and GPT formats. 


It seems a paltry amount to have learned in two weeks, but I've gained some valuable resources as well. A few things to take away:
  • The more you install operating systems, the easier it gets - practice makes perfect!
  • Start with a plan, but be flexible. Change according to new knowledge so you don't get stuck and frustrated.
  • Break it down. This is a lot to learn and it's easy to get overwhelmed. Take a breath, do one thing, then do the next.
  • You will make mistakes, so what? Mistakes are a great way to learn. Find a safe place to learn. I built this machine so I could break things without negative consequences. You can build your own, find a mentor, take a class - whatever it takes.
  • Teach what you learn. You will learn more this way because it forces you to think about the subject in a different way.


  • - It's the best place to start!
  • - Communities dedicated to a subject are filled with people who love to help. This is one of the good ones.
  • - You can't beat free classes. This is a paradigm shift from old school philosophies on the economics of knowledge. The transition from knowledge as a commodity that is bought and sold to knowledge as a community benefit that needs to be shared as efficiently as possible is a subject that deserves its own book.
  • - Portal to free operating systems, their community, and the training to do whatever you need.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Home Server Build - Part 1: Hardware

Book learning is great, but will only get you so far. Experience is needed for a working knowledge of any subject. Last week, I finally bought the parts to build my own server.

Why do I need a server? I don't - but I do need the experience. We have servers at work that I help manage, but they are already set up. If one was to die, I probably would be scrambling to figure out what to do. So, build my own, make mistakes that could have terrible consequences at work but do no harm on my home system, and learn in the process.

Here's the starting material:

Everything important here is dead, so the kids had fun taking the mobo apart. :-)
Dead guts

 It's a hand-me-down case with blown PSU (Power Supply) and dead motherboard.
There are plenty of bays for media drives and hard drives, roomy inside so it's rather large on the outside as well. The biggest drawback is the lack of ceiling ventilation - I'll get back to that later.


Sure it looks good, but it's what inside that counts.

At this point in the process, there's nothing inside.

It's a gigantic paperweight!

Planning with Purpose:

With a blank slate like this, it's important to begin with the end in mind. My goal is to build as powerful a system as possible, keeping to a $600 - $700 budget.

So here's the plan:

  • CPU with as many cores as possible - Servers are capable of hosting VM's (Virtual Machines) that run under the parent OS. You need one core for the host, and at least one core for each VM.
  • Motherboard to support CPU
  • High speed RAM, but not the highest. - Top of the line hardware is very expensive, while second tier or last year's flagship model is much reduced in price.
  • HDD - I have a spare hard drive, this helps the budget. It's only 500GB which is plenty for OS's but if I want to use it as a media server I'll need to upgrade in the future.
  • Video card and DVD drive from old unit to save more money. (This didn't work for reasons that become clear later.)
  • Monitor - Whatever works. Servers are often accessed remotely so they don't need a monitor, after they're set up properly, anyway.


Intel has the best chips so I planned on getting a core i7 with as many cores as possible. (They come in different configurations.) I've been out of the hardware scene for years, so everything is new again. There is so much to learn it can be overwhelming. Better start somewhere where everything is laid out in a simple to digest manner - Wikipedia to the rescue!
Eventually I decided on the Intel Core i7-3970X which would go beautifully on an ASUS Sabertooth Z77 motherboard. A more beautiful motherboard I have never seen. Now for pricing - oof! The CPU costs more than the budget for the whole project, so back to the drawing board. There are many reviews out there comparing AMD and Intel systems. I used Tom's Hardware as my guide on this one; here and here are two good examples that helped me decide on the AMD FX-8350. While AMD's latest is only equivalent to Intel mid-range chips there were two things in its favor. First, the FX-8350 has eight cores while the i7-3970X has six. Second, the Intel chip costs $1030, but the AMD processor only set me back $200. The downsides are each core is less efficient computing the instructions, so while each core is running at 4GHz, they are the equivalent of an Intel chip running about 3.5GHz. Also, AMD's chips run hotter than Intel's so need some care in cooling, and they also use more electricity so this is definitely a deciding factor on production machines. Mine is a learning system, only running a few hours each night so power usage isn't so critical.

Buy buy buy!

So here's what I got:

Part  Cost 
AMD FX-8350 $200
ASUS Sabertooth 990FX $180
Sabertooth 16GB DDR3 1600MHz RAM $120
Raidmax 850W Modular PSU $110
LG 24" Monitor $160

Now I have another tackle box!

So after tax the total came out to $863. I'm over budget. I expected this and set the $600 - $700 as a goal, but realistically $600 was a bit small for what I intended to make. It still hurts, though.

Build build build!

Let's see what we have to work with! I should mention here that an anti-static wrist strap prevents ESD (electrostatic discharge) damage to electronic components that may not be apparent until much later on. The motherboard has ESD protection, but I'm not taking any chances. Clip strap to case, attach to arm, then start working.

The Sabertooth 990FX doesn't look quite as sweet as the Z77, but it has most of the same features, including:
  • EUFI BIOS interface which simplifies changing settings
  • Thermal Radar, a fancy name for a suite of thermometers measuring the temperature all over the board.
  • TUF Components, military standard parts for long life, or overclocking (which I don't plan on doing.)

The motherboard comes with lots of cables, connectors, an SLI bridge (for gamers who have dual video cards) and an outlet plate for all those USB ports, etc. 
Next comes the CPU.

The CPU comes in a nice black metal box. I wonder what to use the metal case for after the computer is built?

Look at all those pins! Years ago,  CPU's were inserted with a bit of force to seat the processor on the board. Now there is no force required. On this AMD board, lift the lever up all the way. Carefully line up the marked corner of the CPU with the same mark on the socket - it only fits one way! It will drop right in. Seat the CPU by pushing the lever back down until it locks.

Once this is done, it's time to add a heat sink, or other cooling system. Proper cooling is essential because without it, your CPU will overheat and die! I'm using the stock cooler that came with the CPU. If you overclock the CPU, a more powerful cooling system is required. I wanted to get a liquid cooling system like this Corsair Hydro H100i, but it's $115 I don't really need to spend and it requires a top vent in the case, which my case doesn't have. :-(

Thermal paste provides a connection between the CPU and the heat sink. It helps transfer the heat between them. This AMD stock cooler has the paste pre-applied. You can buy your own, but be prepared to wade through a dozen reviews if you want to learn which one is best.

Here's the installed heat sink. The fan blows air over the fins, cooling them as heat is transferred from the CPU through the copper tubes to the fins. It was a little fiddly (technical term) to install. Clip one end of the retaining spring over the hook on the CPU mount, then the other on the side with the lever. Push the lever to its seated position and voila! Next up, the RAM.

Higher quality RAM comes with their own heat sinks. This is the first time I've been able to budget them in. They are more expensive than the budget version but this buys me some peace of mind, knowing that these quality components will last.

Now for the power supply. My spare PSU doesn't have enough power for the system I'm building. This 850W supply is overkill for this server, but the modular setup allows me to only install the cable I need, and none that I don't, keeping the interior of the case cleaner (important for air flow.) Also, when I upgrade the server with more drives (this holds up to eight!) the capacity will be useful.

Time for a break

I took a break here, it's not good to do this for the first time while exhausted: notice the ESD wrist strap on the right. There's a couple problems I'm encountering here as well:
Problem: The hard drive doesn't have room to go in.
Solution: I needed to unplug the motherboard power cable and remove one of the RAM sticks to move the HDD into place. Then, replace the components
Problem: My DVD drive only has an IDE (flat wide cable) connection, and the board only has SATA (thin narrow cable) ports.
Solution: I burned the OS (Windows Server 2012 evaluation) to a USB drive with ISO to USB, a utility that tricks the computer into thinking that a thumb drive is a CD. (Later I got a DVD burner with SATA)
Problem: Motherboard has no video ports, and the video card on the old system is an obsolete version (VGP) that is no one uses and doesn't fit in the PCI slot on the motherboard.
Solution: Cough up more money for an entry level video card. $Ching!$ ::sigh:: I got a Diamond brand Radeon HD 5450 which only uses 20W so doesn't need a separate power connection and also needs no fan, making it silent.

Notice the large slots, this is old technology.

Almost done!

I made a second trip to Fry's Elecronics to get the video card, and decided to get a DVD drive as well while I was at it. After connecting all the USB cables, power connectors for fans, installing the video card and the DVD drive, and replacing the side - we're ready for the smoke test. The first power on is called the "smoke test" because back in the day, if you built something wrong it might smoke, indicating something was probably wrong, parts are being destroyed, and you'd better power off quickly before there's a real fire on your hands! No smoke this time (a good sign) and the BIOS screen came up nicely, reporting fan speeds, board and CPU

temperatures, and other indications that everything was in order.

Even though I bought a DVD drive, I wanted to test booting from the USB. It worked.

Now to install and configure the OS. I installed it twice, first without the GUI (graphical user interface) which is a mistake for newbies like myself since my last experience with a line command OS was DOS 5.0.


My server is over budget, and over powered, which is perfect to learn from. I'm experimenting with different operating systems, with Server 2012 as host running another instance of Server 2012, and Kali Linux. I plan to also load Windows 8 and Ubuntu, after the VM server is configured properly to control both Windows and Linux OS's under a domain. I have no clue how to do this, yet.

Final costs

Part Cost  
AMD FX-8350
ASUS Sabertooth 990FX
Sabertooth 16GB DDR3 1600MHz RAM
Raidmax 850W Modular PSU
LG 24" Monitor
Asus 24x DVDRW
Diamond HD5450 Video card

Next up: loading the operating system(s). Installation is actually quite easy, configurations not so much.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Laptop Screen Repair

Oh No!
Last year I got a new laptop to replace the old one which developed a broken hinge. It had a good run, lasting me though my Associate's degree and most of the way through my Bachelor's. The new laptop was smaller, lighter, faster, cooler and all around just a really good machine. I declined the extended warranty to save some money (I'm on a very tight budget.)

Just over a week ago, disaster struck. There's a place between the couch and drawers that I often put the laptop. It's closed, in its bag, and in a slightly out of the way place so no one runs over it. No one did. My toddler climbed on the couch, and fell off the edge. Hugs from Mom and he was right as rain, no worries. When I opened my laptop next, I realized that the falling child shattered the screen.

I verified the date of purchase (less than a year old!) and called HP Tech Support. The rep, Akash, was very helpful and polite. Sadly, it seems everything is covered under warranty except physical damage! I got a quote of $329, about a third the purchase price, to have them repair the laptop. Initially, I was going to go for it, but did some research and found similar screens for less than $100. The great thing about Google+ is that after venting a bit online, one of my contacts put me in touch with an expert he knew, and they convinced me I could do it myself. Thank you, Jose, for helping me in that Google Hangout. The repair was easier than I expected!

My laptop is an HP, your mileage may vary, but here's how I did it:

First locate the rubber nubbins on the bezel.

Remove the nubbins to expose the screws.

Remove the bezel by inserting a flat screwdriver and pop free the tabs holding it onto the screen.

Remove the screws around the edges and take care to mind where they came from! Jose's trick is to print out a picture of the project and place the screws on the picture where they came from. I use little cups to keep track of them.

After separating the screen assembly from the back, and removing some tiny screws holding the screen to the metal frame, it's time to disconnect the electronics.

Carefully lift the tape and remove the cable

 There are lots of numbers and labels on the back of the screen. In this case, HP has a sticker denoting the proper replacement. Type this into a reputable vendor such as eBay or Amazon and find the replacement part. My replacement came from HighTechParts on Amazon for $63 including shipping. This was much better for me than paying $329!

I waited in breathless anticipation for it to arrive, tracking its progress from New Hampshire to Massachusetts to Illinois to ... Why is it not moving? I wanted it by Friday so I could send the wife and kids to the zoo Saturday and repair in peace. No such luck. It finally came Monday afternoon. All things considered, we are well and truly spoiled by our technology, industry, and superb infrastructure.

The packaging showed consideration and forethought. The bubble-wrap went both ways around the inner cardboard sleeve...

Which opened up to a plastic sleeve holding a beautiful new screen!

The replacement screen appears to be the same in everything except the labeling on the back, which includes a warning "Don't touch!" in English and Chinese.

Now to replace the screen.

I made a small mistake in leaving the protective plastic on the screen until after I had screwed it onto the frame. The plastic was held on by tape, now secured between the screen and metal frame. There's no way I'm undoing the work just done to remove a bit of tape, so I just carefully ripped it free, leaving as little tape as possible.

Notice how some holes have a little triangle arrow pointing to them labeled "SNR-R" while the one on the far right has no arrow?

That hole on the right is last one filled - after the bezel is replaced.

'Tis a thing of joy and beauty to behold!

A brand new screen with nary a fingerprint on it.
(That'll change soon.)

But... Does it work?

Final thoughts: Replacing your own screen is not for everyone. Popping that bezel off is a bit nerve-wracking. Additionally, it is imperative that you get an exact replacement. However, if you are dexterous, careful, and have some skill with small tools, doing this can easily save you almost $300.

Friday, October 28, 2011


It's been a busy week, but I wanted to share the news - I are edumacated now! Yes, I've finally accomplished what I once thought was impossible. While working full time to support my family, I also went to school full time and kept up my grades to graduate summa cum laude with a Bachelors of Science in Technical Management from DeVry University. There were many ups and downs, and my friends think I was nuts to work during school, but I now know something about myself I didn't before.

My wife, lovely artist that she is, made a smilebox commemorating the event:
Click to play this Smilebox greeting
Create your own greeting - Powered by Smilebox
This digital greeting generated with Smilebox

My youngest had no idea who the strange fellow holding him was! I had to take off my cap so he could recognize me.

“There is no man living who isn't capable of doing more than he thinks he can do.” - Henry Ford

What's next? After a short break to figure my life out, I plan to start my Master's program in May. Wish me luck?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Shopping for Laptops - Belated conclusion

I finally decided to get the laptop through the HP website, and experienced several benefits by doing so. For about $150 less than the Toshiba, I got the HP Pavilion dv6t, Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit with everything I wanted: 15" screen, numeric keyboard, 6GB RAM, a full terabyte HDD (the new terabytes have less memory than they used to, sadly. This is because the old memory was measured in powers of 2: 1TB=1024GB. Now they round off to the decimal, so 1TB=1000GB.) over-sized battery, and dual core Intel core i5. With the free XBOX360 it came to less than $800.00. Oh, it also plays Blu-Ray. Or it would if I had any. :-) It is nice to know I have a system that is compatible with all the latest hardware and software and can still communicate with my old laptop.
Speaking of, I have a largish collection of books, movies, and music on my old system. To transfer, I decided to create an ad hoc network. It turned out to be rather simple to do, once I figured it out. First, set up the network on one computer, then connect to that network with the other computer. Voila! Now share the documents folder and start copying. It's rather slow, since the 802.11g and 11.n do not have ad hoc standards required, so manufacturers didn't go the extra mile and put them in. 802.11b is how they talk at a whopping 500 - 600kB/s. 8 hours for my music to copy... and so on. Slow, but it does the job.
I've had some time to get used to it and do some minor customization. For example, the scrolling was very choppy. I hated it. Then I realized that there's a setting for that. Set the scroll from 3 lines to 1 line, and it scrolls much better now. I'm still getting used to the two finger scroll technique. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. I've loaded MS Project 2010, and Office 2010 so I can do my schoolwork on it. The 2010 version seems to be easier to use than the ribbon used by the 2007 version. I've installed the PDF reader and upgraded the flash, and that's really it, so far.
The best thing about this laptop, in my opinion, is the boot up time. Minimal. I usually just close the lid to put it to sleep, and when I open it up it's ready to go almost immediately. The integrated fingerprint reader makes logging in to the computer much faster as well. It also saves time when going to my favourite websites. My last laptop lasted through the last few years of my AAS and my BS (about 4 years.) If this one lasts that long I shall be very happy.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Shopping for Laptops

I'm in the market for a new laptop, considering my current one has a broken hinge and turns itself on at random. My HP Pavilion dv9000 I bought for school has served me well, but it's finally time to retire it. ::sigh:: It lasted me for my AAS in EET and my BSTM. I need something durable, about 15", with 10keypad, a largish HDD and enough RAM to last through my masters program.
I went to the Microsoft Store in Scottsdale. Wow. They sure know how to supply the eye candy! There were two laptops that caught my eye and had the features I need. The white one was $699 and you get a free XBOX360 with it! Woot! Sadly, it is made by Sony. Due to their questionable ethics and propensity to sue their customers, I will not give any money to them.
That leaves the $949 Toshiba Satellite with more RAM (6GB) and larger HDD (750GB) (it has other features as well, but I'm not interested in Blu-ray and WiDi ATM.) It also includes the XBOX360. The laptop itself stretches my budget, and I'd be getting the Kinect with it so the kids can get exercise playing games so there's another $150 to add on. I'm not sure I want to spend the money, but I need a new portable computer.
Hmm. Decisions, decisions. The free XBOX offer ends Saturday, so I have some time to decide.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Triops are dead: Long live the Triops

So the last Triops died the other day. It was a good run for them and fun for the kids to watch something grow. No eggs were laid this time, perhaps because there was no sand to lay them in? I still have more sand from the batch last year. Maybe I'll grow them again next year. It was a fun experiment for summer vacation. They may not live very long, and they are very sensitive to environmental changes and pollution, but as a species they are quite successful. Long live the Triops!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Triops continued

Today is one week since I poured water over sand to see if anything would grow. My Triops have hatched, grown rapidly, and now range in size from 1/4" to 1/2". The largest is one that I transferred into a separate fish tank. I'm guessing it grows faster due to the higher oxygen content since there is a bubbler in the fish tank and none in the makeshift aquarium the others are in. I counted approximately a dozen Triops total. They're hard to count since they move around so quickly. The kids love watching them and I have to remind Martin that he can not touch them because I want them to live a bit longer this time! has some lovely pictures and great references on the different species and growing habits.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Triops: Living dinosaur, Exciting pet

Some time ago, about a year past, I bought a Triops kit from Hobby Lobby. To describe them, think of three eyed freshwater shrimp. This is actually where they get their name as "Triops" means "three eyes." Triops are a form of crustacean that have survived virtually unchanged for millions of years, outlasting the dinosaurs. Their habitat is in ephemeral ponds. These are short lived pools of water so the life cycle of the Triops is very short - 20 to 90 days, in fact. They bury their eggs in the mud and when the pools dry up, the adults die, leaving eggs that enter a form of suspended animation known as diapause. In diapause, virtually all cellular activity stops, which allows the eggs to survive until it rains or they are blown by the wind into a pool of water and the cycle starts again. Sales of Triops from support the Diapause Foundation, an organization that studies this unique ability. After my own Triops died a year ago from Martin-itis (curious toddler likes to catch them) I saved the sand from the aquarium in a tin, after drying it out. It's been a year, and I wondered if there were any eggs. Yes, I save everything. ::sigh::
I poured a portion of sand into a cup and added bottled water. (Tap water doesn't work, even after letting it sit. The reason for this is of a technical nature I found interesting, but then, I am a geek so I'll spare you the details, yes?) Some tiny bits floated. I decanted the floating bits off into an improvised aquarium - any shallow container ought to do.
I checked the container in the morning. Much to my surprise, not only were those floating bits viable eggs, but they had hatched already! I added one pellet of Triops food.
They're bigger. And there are many of them. I would say their parents had lots of fun, but many species of Triops reproduce asexually - no males required. We have a fish tank that has a lone plecostemus in it so I transferred several juvenile Triops into that tank, just to see what would happen. One more food pellet.
Triops can double in size every day after hatching, and these seem to be doing just that. I added more bottled water to give them more room to swim around. They seem to be finishing off their pellets in short order so I gave them another pellet to eat. Triops are omnivorous and cannibalistic when resources are scarce.
At least two Triops in the fish tank have survived and seem to be happy noshing on whatever they find in the water. My main concern is them being sucked up into the filter, but so far they are OK. My originals are also growing nicely and I am considering separating a few to keep at my desk at work. They are fascinating to watch swimming around and eating.
What are they good for?
Someone asked me what they are good for. From what I have researched, Triops: are a good food supply for certain birds (not for humans: lots of chitin 'shell' and not much protein 'meat'), make an excellent lesson source to teach children about life cycles since they complete theirs in less three months, they supposedly eat mosquito larvae, can be used to test water quality, and are under study to see if the Triops' ability of diapause can be used to treat cancer, slow aging, or many other things.
Also, I think they are a cool pet to amaze your friends. "Three eyed shrimp, yeah!"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rapid Prototypers, 3D Printers: an Exciting Invention

Rapid prototyping technology can best be explained as the latest development in the history of modern manufacturing. “Industrialization marked a shift to powered, special-purpose machinery, factories and mass production. The iron and textile industries, along with the development of the steam engine, played central roles in the Industrial Revolution, which also saw improved systems of transportation, communication and banking.” (, n.d.) Until the industrial revolution in the 1700’s, most goods were hand crafted by artisans who worked on each piece one at a time by hand. This resulted in work that was detailed, but extremely time consuming to create. Eli Whitney is commonly attributed with the invention of interchangeable parts. While this attribution is not entirely accurate, the practice of interchangeable parts introduced the concept of design tolerance. Henry Ford introduced the production line to build his Model T cars at a price that the common person could afford, including his own employees. Production lines efficiencies were improved with the introduction of robotic controls and machinery. CNC machines were created to mill out complex parts out of solid blocks of material such as aluminium. They use a computer to guide the drill, allowing complex shapes to be accurately made repeatedly. Finally, rapid prototypers were invented to be able to create new designs quickly and accurately in house. Instead of emailing a design to a manufacturer and getting the part mailed back a week or a month later, the engineer can literally create a new design and print it out in hours – reducing the innovation cycle time from weeks to hours.
There are a range of Rapid prototypers that utilize a range of printing techniques that depend on the type of material being used and the use of the design. Laser Sintering, annealed powder, photo-resist, and thermoplastic deposition are some main categories, and new types are being developed, such as cell placement for replacement organ printing. Laser sinter machines build by laying down a layer of metal powder and firing a high powered laser at the fine metal grains. This melts and fuses them together layer by layer to create a solid metal object. Annealed powder uses a similar technique only using plastic powder to make each layer and a binder to solidify the powder. The photo-resist method uses a bath of special liquid that hardens when exposed to light to build. Either lasers or a projector can be used to develop the liquid material into solid. The finished project is removed from the bath and allowed to drain, then cured. Thermoplastic deposition is similar to our familiar inkjet printers, except that it melts plastic wire and deposits it on a platter instead of ink on paper. Of recent note there is an experimental design that places living cells in a matrix that may allow us to print out replacement organs in the future. “Researchers can place liver cells on a preformed scaffold, support kidney cells with a co-printed scaffold, or form adjacent layers of epithelial and stromal soft tissue that grow into a mature tooth. Ultimately the idea would be for surgeons to have tissue on demand for various uses, and the best way to do that is get a number of bio-printers into the hands of researchers and give them the ability to make three dimensional tissues on demand,” says Keith Murphy, CEO of Organovo. (Quick, 2009) Currently, only simple veins and arteries have been able to be printed in this manner but the technique shows incredible promise for those needing organ transplants. If ever adult stem cell technology is developed, these technologies together could build replacement organs for patients with no risk of rejection.
Rapid prototypers were originally prohibitively expensive, costing well over $100,000. The high costs limited their use to large corporations and production houses that catered to engineers and architects. “Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did....Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches. ... A basic 3D printer, also known as a fabricator or “fabber”, now costs less than a laser printer did in 1985.” (The Economist, 2011) This technology has improved in several ways. Price drops have allowed it to be bought and used by more companies, small businesses, and even avid hobbyists. Currently, the base model price for a professional 3D printer is less than $15,000 from one major manufacturer. For do-it-yourselfers, the RepRap and MakerBot community provide plans and kits to make your own for around $500. “RepRap is a free desktop 3D printer capable of printing plastic objects. Since many parts of RepRap are made from plastic and RepRap can print those parts, RepRap is a self-replicating machine - one that anyone can build given time and materials. It also means that - if you've got a RepRap - you can print lots of useful stuff, and you can print another RepRap for a friend...” (RepRap, 2011) One exciting facet about the DIY approach is that as innovators develop upgrades, the printer can print out many of its own upgrades and replacement parts. Innovations in print heads and stepper controls have resulted in printers with increased resolution. These new printers can make parts with finer detail. Also, engineers and innovators are experimenting to develop printers that can use more materials, from aluminium, steel, plastic, rubber, photo-resist, and even living cells. Newer models even have multiple heads, to print in multiple colours and different materials in the same object. These improvements and cost reductions have allowed 3D printers to expand into new markets and create new businesses. One such business is making custom prosthetics for amputees. Scott Summitt, founder and CTO of Bespoke Innovations writes in one article, “Since this process has gone live, amputees have returned with requests for more parts. More chrome parts, more tattoos, wood accents, debossed text-all is fair game when the process is entirely digital. But like the person who wears it, each fairing is unique in every way. In fact, like nature, the process is fundamentally unable to create anything but unique parts. To us, this thinking treats people who come to us with respect, allowing them to showcase their unique form and treat it as the dynamic sculpture that is the human body. We hope to change their interactions with strangers, replacing the awkward stares with inspired grins, removing some of the discomfort and alienation that many face each day.” (Summitt, 2011) Projects like Summitt’s show the potential to do more than introduce a new gadget into our lives. This application can do much to improve the quality of life for amputees, helping them regain confidence and self esteem.
The future of these prototypers is exciting even when excluding the prospect of further development. “What determines a civilization’s ability to move forward? In large measure, it is mastery over materials. The key indicators of progress— military prowess; the ability to produce goods; advances in transportation, agriculture, and the arts—all reflect the degree to which humans have been able to work with materials and put them to productive use.” (National Science Foundation, n.d.) However, there is a dark side to this, as with any technology. The unscrupulous and unethical may, and indeed probably will, use this technology for evil. While art enthusiasts may look forward to replica paintings – authentic down to the brushstroke! – art dealers will have to prepare for clever frauds. I can easily imagine shops that don’t need to keep inventories. An auto repair shop can easily print out many types of replacement parts from an online catalog so they don’t have to wait for a distributer cap, for one example. However, projectile weapons may someday be able to be printed on demand as well. Manufacturers use mostly man made materials to make shoes, so it is no stretch of the imagination to see boutique shops printing customized footwear for their customers. Mass production is not a prototyper’s forte. Mass customization is the strength and the weakness of prototypers: while they allow for rapid adjustments to structure, form and function of the finished part, there can be no replacement for quality design. When a single manufacturer produces a million pairs of shoes, they can control the quality in house. When a thousand boutique manufacturers can make custom shoes (or any other parts) on the fly, quality of design will vary greatly from one company to the next. If the customer’s shoes fall apart the second day of wearing, they will be understandably upset. If the customer’s car falls apart on the freeway, they will be understandably dead.
One final concern is of a legal nature. One accessory to rapid prototypers is the 3D scanner. 3D scanners work by taking images of an object placed on a rotating base and stitching those scanned images together into a virtual object. This virtual object can then be printed out using a rapid prototyper. While this can be useful in legal applications, like making a scaled or even a life sized bust of yourself – and who wouldn’t want one of those in their library? – it very easily can copy designs that were invented by another. The media is full of stories about the fight between music labels and file sharers. Think then, if this were extended to everything you own. Is your chair authentic? What about your toaster? We have cheap knockoff handbags and clothes that are copies of luxury brands. Soon, you may be able to get cheaply printed jewelry, furniture, and even car parts. While knockoff consumer electronics may cause the inventor to lose revenue, a poorly printed safety device could result in loss of limb or life if it were to fail. Clearly, a set of guidelines that details the limitations of printed parts would be useful, if only as a guide for the purchaser in regards to caveat emptor.
Innovations are limited by the imagination of the inventor, and the tools and raw materials available. As our understanding of materials sciences improves, so does our ability to manipulate the elements around us. Stores today offer devices that would be worth millions just a few decades ago, and they are sold as cheap disposable toys! (Miniature R/C helicopter, anyone?) The end goal of rapid prototype technology is the holy grail of manufacturing: molecular assembly. One of the few hard science fiction concepts that have yet to be attained is the ability to build atom by atom. With this technology, it may be possible to actually copy a live person, with his memory and personality intact. This presents an even bigger conundrum than cloning. Cloning will result in an individual with identical DNA as the host, but with their own memories and personality. If our memories are molecular in nature an atomic copy will result in two individuals with identical memories as well. If you copy the CEO of a corporation, who does his job? How do you prosecute a murderer if he has a copy and you cannot tell which one did the deed? Finally, if one could copy himself, what are the ethical responsibilities to the copy? If a person copies themselves, then kills the copy, is it murder – or suicide? The positives of this technology will, I am sure, outweigh the risks, however. In the future we will be able to assemble exotic chimeras of materials that can be made no other way. Molecular assemblers could be used to construct a space elevator, or replacement organs and limbs. The standards of quality will have a paradigm shift. No longer will we accept something that is off by millimeters when we can get it accurate to the atom. How this will help us as a society is a question that can only be answered by the people that make up our civilization. Our humanity will be the defining author when whatever we imagine can be realized in fact. Let us hope that kindness, charity, and compassion define our humanity.

Works Cited (n.d.). Industrial Revolution. Retrieved April 11, 2011, from History:
National Science Foundation. (n.d.). Advanced Materials. Retrieved April 12, 2011, from
Quick, D. (2009, December 15). 3D Bio-printer to create arteries and organs. Retrieved April 11, 2011, from
RepRap. (2011, February 19). Main Page. Retrieved April 13, 2011, from RepRap Wiki:
Summitt, S. (2011, January 5). Because One Size Doesn't Fit All: Using RTAM to Profoundly Enhance Prosthetics. Retrieved April 14, 2011, from Time Compression:
The Economist. (2011, February 10). Print me a Stradivarius. Retrieved April 13, 2011, from The Economist: