3D Printers – DIY Custom Manufacturing

makerbot-replicator-3d-printerLast week in Part 1, I explored the development of high quality 3D printers, already in widespread use by industrial designers. As with most technologies, the costs are starting to come down to the point where 3D printers are now entering the home user market, allowing you and me to create objects we never could before.

Sooner than you might think, DIYers will have an amazing tool that could replicate architectural details, print custom hardware or tools, even toys for your kids, using an increasing variety of materials.

Let’s take a look at what’s happening in the digital "sandbox" right now.

3D printing hits the open source road

If you’re not familiar with "open source" philosophy, it’s basically a free sharing of ideas and information that contribute to the development of products like software and hardware. The term originated with opening "source code" amongst software developers, enabling a larger community to contribute to what essentially become public domain products. It’s a bit like sharing recipes with your friends and neighbours.

The open source community is responsible for well known operating systems and software applications like Linux, Android, Firefox, and OpenOffice as well as programming languages such as PHP, which has been a boon for growth the internet.

Open source is the core of the home 3-D printing technology explosion.

Printing a 3-D printer

In 2005, Dr Adrian Bowyer started the RepRap Project in the UK – creating a 3-D printer that could print all the plastic parts to make another 3-D printer. By sharing the design freely and broadly, Dr. Bowyer is encouraging a symbiotic open source "evolution". The goal – through successive generations of design modifications – to enable printing of more of the printer components, like circuit boards, wiring and potentially even motors.

RepRap from Adrian Bowyer on Vimeo.

Printing Materials

Most of the current generation consumer model 3D printers use Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) technology, which builds up thin layers of "physical material" through a nozzle similar to today’s inkjet printers.

For the home user, that "physical material" is most likely ABS or similar thermoplastic. It’s sold by the spool and looks a lot like a 14 guage insulated wire. It can run about $30 a pound, which is a bit expensive if you’re pumping out a lot of volume. But researchers at the University of Washington, in Seattle are developing a new medium made from ceramic powder, sugar and maltodextrin that could bring the material cost down closer to $1 a pound.

Look for more materials like metals, sandstone and composites to make their way down the food chain from the specialty industrial market into the home market as well.

Remember when VCRs cost over $1000? Remember VCRs?

vcr cat feeder hack from make projects








Steve Sammartino’s article – Printing a 3D world: bigger than the internet – sums up the current situation nicely.

"Like all technology, prices of 3D printers are in rapid free fall – with basic models as low as $1,000. The prices are already at a point where they are affordable to pretty much anyone in a developed economy. Sure, the industrial high-end versions can run into the millions of dollars, but so do large-scale paper printing devices. The point is with price no longer the barrier, the only missing link before these printers invade every home with an internet connection is mass pop culture awareness. And that is coming in 2012."

which brings us to….

The "Thingiverse"

In the fall of 2010, MakerBot Industries, introduced the "Thing-O-Matic" 3D printer in kit form for a little over a $1200. They’ve just released "The Replicator", a fully assembled home 3D printer that can print larger items (up to about the size of a loaf of bread) in 2 colours for $1749. These quirky-lookingfabbers” are inspiring and enabling “makers” to crowdsource designs and share object files in the "Thingiverse".

Here’s the MakerBot in action:

Keep in mind when your looking at the "results" you’ll find here in the thingiverse – these are mostly hard-core tech geeks pushing the bleeding edge of this technology. Their "world" may seem totally incomprehensible to you and me, but it’s transformational in the big scheme of things. This is the "sandbox" of tomorrow’s technology innovators, industrial designers, artists and educators.

Crowdfunding the 3D printing revolution

printrbot kickstarter funding project screenshot If you have any doubts about exactly how much real interest there is in 3D printing for the masses, take a peek at Brook Drumm’s kickstarter project.

His goal was to raise funding to scale up production and reduce the cost of his open source Printrbot to enable widespread use in schools and homes. He was looking for a $25,000 investment – he got $830,827 in pledges from 1808 investors – 3323% of what he asked for.

But I’m a woodworker….

If the thought of all that plastic has you pining for your woodshop and the smell of freshly cut lumber, stop and take a good look around while you’re there, and consider the possibilities of the custom tools and accessories you could make. Zero clearance inserts for your table saw would be a breeze. Featherboards, patterns, jigs, – made exactly how you want them.

Need five of them, sized in 3/16” increments? No problem.

Even better, the design software like "123D" by Autodesk (Free Beta Download) operate with the same xyz principals and output code as industrial CNC woodworking tools. Affordable, small-scale CNC shop tools will almost certainly develop on a parallel path.

123D stonehaven thingie screenshot


We’re really just starting down a road that we don’t where it will lead us. Big thinkers are working on printing multi-material products like sneakers, and printing human bones and organs for transplant, while others are working on printing houses, maybe even skyscrapers.

If this all sounds just a bit far-fetched then just relax – no doubt the thingiverse is unfolding as it should. In the meantime, why not print out some snowflake cookies for that aprés-ski party. Yay!


Part 1 – 3D Printers – The Ultimate DIY Tool

Images: MakerBot.com; MakeProjects.com; Kickstarter.com

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