By Teresa Esser
Some people think outside the box. Tim Anderson likes to think outside the dumpster. When trying to decide what components he should use to build his next project whether a robot, a boat, a 3-D printer, or a mechanical sculpture Anderson enjoys nothing more than rummaging through a dumpster for still-functional mechanical objects recently transformed into trash. "An art museum has the ability to turn an ordinary object into art, and a dumpster has the ability to turn an ordinary object into garbage," he says. "I see things for what they are, regardless of whether they're in a dumpster or an art museum."
Anderson learned to be resourceful growing up in the Midwest. Raised in Minnesota, he went to college at St. Cloud State. He came to Cambridge, Massachusetts after college to visit his sister and found a slew of interesting people hanging around MIT. After a few weeks of talking to folks about various new technologies and noticing the vast array of still-usable electronics equipment being thrown out regularly he decided to stay.
Anderson recalls meeting an MIT mechanical engineering professor while looking for still-functional objects marked with signs saying "Free" or "Please Take!" in the hallway outside the professor's office. The meeting was fortuitous: upon learning Anderson was hoping to build a robot that would paint by spraying water onto specially treated paper, the professor offered Anderson a job in his lab. The professor wanted Anderson to build a machine that would sculpt new parts by spraying wet cement through a tiny nozzle. "It was a tough job," Anderson remembers, "because the liquid was under pressure and the droplets were breaking off. We had these high-voltage electrodes, water, and this wet cement stuff colloid silica squirting past it. It was just a recipe for something very difficult to do."
In his spare time, Anderson and his friend Jim Bredt decided to build a "fun machine" without the problems they encountered during their day job. "For my fun machine, I thought I would take a head that I knew was going to work, and use ink I knew was going to come through it," Anderson recalls. A graduate student lent him an old Hewlett-Packard ink-jet printer, and he observed how the machine could shoot ink effortlessly out of a tiny head. He wondered how he could use the printer to sculpt objects in three dimensions.
One evening, while hanging out at MIT's 24-hour coffee house, Anderson performed some phase-change experiments on sugar crystals. He put various sweeteners into the microwave and observed how the tiny solid particles would transform from solids into liquids and then back into solids again. Later, he experimented with dripping water onto crystals of various sweeteners to observe how the powdery sweeteners formed solid clumps.
Inspired by the ease with which he could build sugary solids, Anderson decided to perform an experiment in precision sculpting. He borrowed an old ink-jet printer that printed by shooting ink straight down, put some sugar on an index card, and put the card inside the printer. When the printer had finished spraying ink onto the pile of sugar, Anderson took the index card out of the printer and lifted up the newly-formed 3-dimensional letters. Just as he had suspected, the act of applying ink to sugar crystals transformed the crystals into precisely sculpted solid objects.
Pleased with these results, Anderson and Bredt set out to build a machine to take advantage of this breakthrough in "3-D printing." The first machine included parts from an old ink-jet printer and an abandoned wafer-transfer machine.
When the machine was finished and Bredt had written some software to control the its movements, the partners took their invention to MIT's technology licensing office (TLO) in hopes of obtaining a license to use the professor's patented technology for squirting liquid onto powder. The partners tried to convince the TLO to give them a simple license so that they could build 3-D printing machines in their garages, but the licensing officers had other ideas. "I guess our demo was a little bit too convincing, because by that time you could bring the part, show the part, hit print, and the thing would run. While the person was sitting there it could finish the part, and you could pull the part and show it to them." Anderson recalls the TLO representative saying, "This thing is huge! You have to do this right! You need management, you need money. You need seven million dollars, and I'm going to help you get it."
After that, Anderson and Bredt were introduced to a number of prominent businesspeople and shown how to create a profitable, successful high-tech business. He recalls, "I didn't know the first thing about how to run a company, how to do my taxes very well, or business things in general. It wasn't obvious to me that starting a company was such a good idea in the first place. It's just that the technology we developed was so obviously ready for commercialization that they advised/suggested/recommended/required us to go about it in a certain way."
The licensing officers helped Anderson and Bredt team up with some high-level managers, who helped them start a 3-D printing company named Z Corporation. A few years later, when Z Corp. was selling the machines to the likes of Sony, Fisher-Price, NASA, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Adidas, Ford, Daimler Chrysler, Clorox, United Technologies, and Disney, Anderson stepped away to pursue other interests.
When I spoke with the free-thinking Anderson later, he was spending time on another innovative engineering problem: figuring out how to build single-outrigger sailing vessels, or proas, based on designs perfected by the original inhabitants of the Marshall Islands. Anderson's research revealed that the original Marshall Islanders used ancient proa-building tools called adzes to build their boats. But as Anderson proceeded with his hands-on experimentation, he learned why only a few people still use adzes today. When you swing an adze, you stand a good chance of bringing the metal blade down on your big toe and giving yourself a nasty gash.
Anderson swung the adze hard and it came down wrong and it sliced a gash in his big toe. But rather than waste time going to the emergency room, he hobbled from his workbench over to his computer and did some research. Anderson's findings told him the best way to fix a bleeding toe was to use a combination of gauze and super glue. So he super-glued his toe back together and wrapped it in gauze.
Looking back at the situation more than a year later, Anderson is older and maybe wiser -- but just as eccentric. "For what I had, they would've given me stitches," he says. "If it happens again, I think I'll give myself stitches."
As Anderson finishes relating this story, our conversation is interrupted by a knock on his office door. A moment later, the door swings open and thirteen-year-old Laughlin walks in. Laughlin has heard about Anderson's reputation for finding usable electronics equipment in dumpsters and hallways around the Institute, and he's interested in getting his hands on some cool stuff. "I just like putting things together and messing around with them," Laughlin says. He tells Anderson that he has already built a computer and an electrical mousetrap, and he's looking for new things to build.
When Anderson shows Laughlin some drawers filled with cast-off electrical equipment, Laughlin gets a look on his face like he's just stumbled into Santa's workshop. Anderson takes Laughlin on a guided tour of his office, offering Laughlin an event timer, a capacitor, a transformer, a tube, and some wires. "You got any Piezo thingies?" Anderson asks. Laughlin shakes his head. "How about heat sinks. Do you have any heat sinks?" Of course not. Laughlin holds his brown paper bag wide open, looking very much like a trick-or-treater on Halloween. "You want a spool?"Anderson asks. "Small wires?" Laughlin nods. "You want a strobe?"
Laughlin is giggling now, thinking about what he's going to do with the strobe. He talks about making a special alarm to keep his siblings out of his room. "Get out of my room!" he shouts. "Reerrr! Reerrr! Reerrr! Heh heh heh."
Anderson gives Laughlin as much equipment as he can carry, and Laughlin goes away laughing, dreaming about the things he is going to build out of trash. And Anderson takes pride knowing he has helped someone else think outside the dumpster.
Teresa Esser is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.