As an entrepreneur, engineer, educator, and international speaker with a PhD in nanoscience and a TV host, there are things I do pretty well. I'm a great problem-solver. I can understand, design, and manage complicated high-tech projects. I can inspire a room full of Japanese teenage girls to study science. I can find good sushi anywhere in the world. I can inspire people to reallocate and change the world.
Sadly, this also means I'm not very good at anticipating holidays. In fact, when a typical month involves trips to multiple states or even countries, I'm lucky if I know what time it is, much less how many shopping days until Christmas I have left.
The month leading up to Christmas, I took business trips to Paris, Lithuania, London, and Mexico before once again boarding a plane bound for the Bay. Exhausted and disoriented, I took a shuttle from the airport back to my San Francisco loft, eager to relax.
And then I saw the calendar. It was Christmas Eve? It had snuck up on me again? I was due to have dinner with my parents in a few hours, and if I didn't do something, I was going to show up empty-handed. What's worse, my brother, thanks in no small part to his wife and two kids, would surely arrive the next morning with a tower of gifts he'd been accumulating for weeks.
I had only three options.
1. I could leave immediately for my parents' house and be the ass who showed up with no presents.
2. I could find a chain store that was still open, buy a bunch of impersonal gifts, and be the ass who showed up late to dinner.
3. I could be creative, and not be an ass at all.
I love and respect my family too much to show up empty-handed or late. It was going to have to be Number Three.
Without time to really think things through, I instinctively drove to my office, grabbed a Cubify 3D printer (cubify.com) that had been generously donated to my non-profit ReAllocate by 3D Systems, and headed north to Sonoma. An hour later, I was greeting Dad at the door with a hug and a handshake, Mom with a hug and a kiss. I had nothing but a Mission Workshop bag in one hand and the Cube in the other. My mom eyed the Cube.
"What is it?" She asked.
I offered to show her. If a picture's worth a thousand words, I figured, a 3D print must be worth at least a million.
Minutes later, we were designing a reindeer ornament embossed with my mom's name. Then I plugged in the printer and set it in motion. My parents were mesmerized as the extruder head zipped to and fro, my mom comparing the printing noises to music. As we took a break to finish cooking the Christmas Eve meal, I realized no one seemed to notice I hadn't brought any paper-wrapped boxes with festive bows.
So far so good.
Mom's ornament was ready before the food was done cooking. Thrilled with her truly unique creation, she immediately hung it on the tree. As she returned to the kitchen, I noticed a nearby ornament that had clearly become a sentimental treasure: a yarn-framed picture of me I'd made for her when I was 7, which gave me the idea for a truly personal gift. Thanks to the Cube, an hour later I presented my mom with another ornament: a custom-designed framed photo of me now. She was thrilled and touched. And I was relieved. My 3D printer had saved Christmas Eve!
The next morning, as my brother's family arrived, I showed the Cube to my nephew. Not only could I distract everyone from the gifts I hadn't bought or brought them, but, I figured, I might even be able to save my parents from the special kind of havoc a 7-year-old boy with a new skateboard can wreak.
My nephew had heard of 3D printers from his cool, older neighbor – who I'd made an ambassador for my toy company Nukotoys – and was eager to prove he already knew how to use it. I set him up on Cubify's online creation tool and he designed a skull-and-crossbones shaped dog tag personalized with his initials and reliefs of lightning bolts and daggers.
My 5-year-old niece found us mid-process, reminding her brother about his limited daily screen time. I explained that this was different from playing Angry Birds or watching YouTube videos. We were using this technology to create something. Then I helped her design and print a pair of butterfly earrings. As she watched her new jewelry come into being, layer by layer, her skepticism melted away.
At that moment, I realized I had underestimated the printer. I've explored its potential to revolutionize prototype design, disaster relief, and architectural modeling. But I'd never thought about its potential to revolutionize the way we interact with the people we love.
I'd brought it to save my ass, merely a way to produce tangible and personal gifts without braving the crowds at Target. But however much my family loved the unique, personalized objects I helped them print, the real gift seemed to be the experience we were sharing: creative, inspiring, and truly interactive time that none of us will soon forget.
Mike North, PhD, is an expert in design, rapid prototyping, and biomimetics. He is currently a host of the Science Channel show Outrageous Acts of Science and was host of the Discovery Channel show Prototype This! Mike runs his own design and rapid prototyping firm North Design Labs, LLC.; is the founder of ReAllocate, a nonprofit that uses technology, innovation, and social entrepreneurship to address quality of life issues globally; and speaks internationally about innovation, technology, and community-building.