I had the opportunity last week to spend a day at the RAPID Conference in Atlanta. The annual meeting of Prototyping Solutions and 3D Imaging Providers is organized by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.
The mix of high-end printers and consumer products makes for an interesting portrait of the 3D printing industry. The opportunities are endless.
Here are some highlights I was able to capture on my phone.
3D printing has become all the rage in the tech world because of its potential to create custom parts on demand. This has opened the door for hobbyists to make toys, amazing art, and other types of objects important to every day life.
Ever considered a day in the life of a criminal? Hackers, thieves, scammers and killers are the types of people who are in need of more creative ways to achieve trickery and deception. As 3D printing allows everyone to make the things they need on demand, more and more instances of misuse have turned up.
Just this morning, a Google search of 3D printing provided a news article about thieves who designed and built their own apparatus to be placed over an ATM card slot. A similar device in Manhattan obtained the information of over 1500 customers, amounting to almost $300,000 worth of fraudulent charges. The plastic housing was created in CAD software then 3D printed with what seems to be Stereolithography which uses resin. The design was clever enough to incorporate a spycam to see the pin numbers of the cards they were stealing, as well as housing the magnetic card reader. Were a 3D printer not readily available, these thieves would have very few options to achieve a similar outcome. To see photos and the full breakdown of the device, here’s the original article.
Another example: Browsing through Thingiverse, the 3D design sharing site created by Makerbot Industries, I was polled as to whether 3D printable weapons should be allowed on the site. Should people of all ages, anywhere in the world have the ability to create, instantly and without accountability, an object that could cause damage to or kill another person? I say no, but then where does the freedom to create come in?
Perhaps the biggest threat to come is the dissolution of branded products. Designers, engineers, marketers and manufacturers all work endlessly to create a product that evokes a certain brand or feel. There are various methods that would allow me to scan or replicate action figures, cell phone housings, kitchen devices, consumer electronics, etc. Not only that, I should hope that this will allow everyday hobbyists to make even better objects using less resources. Either one of these methods are a huge threat to corporations and brands and protective legislation should seriously be considered now by lawmakers. But how do you protect brands while simultaneously opening the floor for innovations in personal manufacturing?
Here’s a great example. Star Wars is a trademarked brand which manufactures and sells toys from probably the most popular Sci-fi series ever. A quick search on Thingiverse shows there are models of X wings and busts of different characters and even a lightsaber handle, all designed for home 3D printers. As long as these designs and copies are only meant for home use and never sold there should be no objection. However, commercial profit being so easy has a very serious appeal for illegal copiers. Surely the toy and model manufacturers aren’t happy.
Public Knowledge, an organization dedicated to promoting an open and safe internet, released a white paper concerning the intellectual property issues brought about by the digitization of physical objects. Follow the link to read more.
3D printing technology is becoming rapidly less expensive and thus more widespread throughout society. The materials and resolution will only get better. These considerations will only make potential misuse more common. So what do we do?
I was able to catch the last day of the “Modern by Design” exhibit at The High Museum in Atlanta and it displayed plenty of works built from digital models. The entrance to the exhibit held a large experimental project created by the Joris Laarman lab in Amsterdam.
Though not considered 3D printing or Rapid Prototyping, this mechanical arm operates via commands. Instead of being told to melt or cure a material in precise layers, the head of this arm picks up individual squares and melds them into this solid table. Created as pixels in digital space, the table is made of small metallic bricks.
I knew the exhibit had some 3D printed models but I did not anticipate seeing a totally experimental and ornate display of additive manufacturing. Though seemingly not an efficient use of mechanics I see a few areas to be explored based on the key elements of this project. While 3D printing with even a high grade machine the material is fed at a constant rate and must always be formed in paper thin layers. The technique used here in “Digital Matter” uses blocks, and those tiny blocks can form larger blocks or shapes. Theoretically, the large arm in the first picture could have a bunch of smaller builders on a nearby platform, simultaneously creating forms that will be added to the final model by the main arm. If perfected this could cut down on build times. I think as 3DP technology progresses we will start to see multiple extruders or print heads that move along different axes but communicate with each other. It is a matter of time before the software is available to support such a machine.
Another variation might be an extruder that is designed to build only one shape or section of that shape. If it can build a sturdy structure like a sphere or egg, and build that shape onto itself, such a machine complex and bumpy surfaces in larger scale.
The other floors of the exhibit were mixed with early modern designs such as Eames chairs and industrial parts. The 3D printed parts were pretty much limited to different types of chairs. I have a tricky relationship with chairs in the design world as you can only experience them visually, mostly through exhibits and design criticism. The chair may have an unusual and appealing form but there is never a way to really know how well it was designed, and one is left approximating what it might be like based on experience sitting in chairs. Since a chair’s function is to be sat on, understandably, more effort is put into the form with not much room to improve in the world of sitting.
The stool was printed using selective laser sintering which allows for moving parts. It’s hard to see how it closes but I think the circle in the center is pushed down. The second chair was built with a polymer and then covered in lacquer for the smooth reflective surface. Creating a chair these non-symetrical features is unique to 3D printing over some traditional methods. To build and cut in wood, textiles or even metal uses tools that are designed for accuracy and geometry. Creating fluid, organic shapes like this chair would require more time to experiment with cutting techniques and materials, and even more to actually build it. Having the freedom to create the model in digital space using an array of creative software packages is only made better by not having to build ten of them by hand.
I look forward to the future of digital manufacturing in America as it will bring more manufacturing jobs to produce items at home and locally. When everyday people are exposed to the possibilities that are opened by the technology, their creative and useful ideas will seem less crazy and more feasible to build.
Printer matchups to come, this could not wait. Thanks MIT
The 3D printing world has seen many innovations in the past few weeks, highlighting the range of applications. Probably the most publicized piece of news is the successful flights of an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, that can be 3D printed for snap fit assembly. It reaches speeds over 100mph and is nearly silent. Not only does this signal to the amazing possibilities to the commercial aircraft industry, but military and rescue teams could easily survey an area by creating one on demand instead of waiting for supplies. Or what if a rover on another planet could print one out to map the area?
This too will soon be possible as a new company called Made in Space has successfully tested a number of printers in near zero gravity. Most likely it will be used by astronauts and the International Space Station to print out tools and replacement parts instead of waiting for the mail to come.
What I find interesting about this zero gravity test is the type of printer that they used. A partner in this project is 3D Systems, an industry giant that produces various printers and services. The BFB 3000 is their entry level machine and the one they decided to highlight of several printers on this flight. I believe they created a wrench out of plastic (no moving parts this time). The success of their most basic machine gives only a small idea of what a more powerful printer could produce. It’s easy to print a basic part of that little machine but what about more complex geometries. Portability is not everything, especially since zero gravity means everything weighs nothing.
Here on earth there are more than a handful of machines that can put the BFB 3000 to shame in areas like build time, materials supported, product rigidity, printer resolution, and so on. They only catch is they weigh probably ten times as much and cost up to twenty times as much.
My goal this week is to have a 3D print off. I will be gathering information from the websites of printer producers as well as private services to compare abilities and limitations of some machines out there. Categorizing them by size will make for fair fights and pricing is generally a function of this. I will do my best to get accurate prices but most companies do no list prices on their public websites.
Up next… the lightweights! Stay tuned.
It is always amazing to hear about the various applications people find for their 3D printers. Most of my experience though is second hand, through sources like blogs or youtube. I rarely meet people who have heard of 3D printing at all, let alone have utilized one. There came a point where I knew I needed to see a print with my own eyes.
In hopes of having some first hand experiences I searched google for “3D printing group Atlanta”. The very first result was a hackerspace called Freeside. A hackerspace, also callled a makerspace, is a place for people to get together to hack and build things. On my first visit to the space I met people with so many skills and interests. To my delight, the first thing you see upon entering the space is a Makerbot Cupcake CNC. They open the space at weekly meetings to discuss current and future projects. Some include building a robot for a Sumobot competition, rebuilding a DeLorean, homebrewing beer and 3D printing all sorts of stuff. Everyone there knows more than me so it is a good place to hang out. Find out more about Freeside
As I walked in for the meeting a few weeks ago I noticed a guy working with 3D modeling software so I asked him what he has been up to. Nick, or Dr. Glass as he calls himself, uses his 3D printer, a Makerbot Thing-0-matic, to find better ways to fix peoples’ feet. Knowing this had to be shared with the world, I told him about my blog and he agreed to an impromptu interview. Thanks Nick for sharing, it is truly amazing work.
3DPforAll: Tell us about yourself. What is your background and how did you become interested in 3D printing?
DR.Glass: I’m a resident for Foot and Ankle reconstructive surgery in Atlanta, GA. I’ve always been a big enthusiast/hobbyist with computer technology, along with biologic and medical sciences. The combination of those two things has lead to me engage with 3D printing for research as well as general curiosity. The reprap community is a pretty exciting platform, and I find the real camaraderie with other members to be somewhat contagious.
3DPforAll: What is the research project you are currently working on? How do you use 3D printing to achieve results?
DR.Glass: My current research project, concerning 3D Printing, is to reconstruct bones of patients lower extremity anatomy for the use of preoperative planning. This is currently being achieved through a combination of high resolution Computed Tomography (CAT) scans and open source software applications to create, modify, and print STL files. By having a copy “template”, I hope to demonstrate improved surgical performance and outcome. 3D printing and reprap devices allow this to be done in a cost effective and timely manner which will continue to increase in convenience as 3D printers become more ubiquitous.
3DPforAll: What kind of things do you print outside of your research? What printer/hardware are you working with? How awesome is it to own one?
DR.Glass: In order to learn more of the science behind it all, I dropped some cash on a Makerbot Thing-o-matic. It’s been quite amusing to practice with while learning to tweak the hardware and software. There’s really a lot that goes into it. I started with expected prints as straight downloads from Thingiverse, like the Calibration Box, Wall Thickness Utility, etc. Eventually I moved on to other classics like the Stanford Bunny, Bottle Opener, and Human Skull. (fun fact: kids love bunnies). Once I got that going, I’ve started printing a few custom objects, created in Newtek’s Lightwave 10 software, like the “Foot-Pumpkin String Light Unit” , (which I’ll upload to Thingiverse before Halloween). Owning your own hardware is awesome, indeed. Beware, that sound effects generated from a Thing-o-matic will drive roommates crazy, and induce the strangest dreams imaginable. I suggest printing wisely.
3DPforAll: We met at Freeside, what attracted you to the space? Do you think it will help you in your research?
DR.Glass: I was invited to come out and visit on a Tuesday meetup. There, I was introduced to a few of the guys, as well as a quick “Crash Course” in 3d printing. I was attracted to the space for the groups projects, classes, and most of all the volumes of enthusiasm. That combined with the hardware made me want to come back again and again. Freeside Atlanta is truly an awesome place for people interested in Hardware, Software, and DIY. It has already helped with research so far, and I’ll be confident to go about future projects with these resources in mind.
3DPforAll: What do you see in the future for 3D printing? Not just in everyday hobbyist machines like Makerbot, but in the consumer goods market.
DR.Glass: In consumer goods markets, I see an unimaginable change to everyday life. When you consider the current progress of “fab labs” and other home manufacturing capabilities combined with Open copyright movements, it’s hard to imagine post-capitalistic world which is perfused with socialistic ideals. How and when this all arrives will remain a mystery to me at this point, but it’s truly revolutionary. I was warned early on that having your own 3D printer will change you. You’ll walk around this world sizing everything up and thinking to yourself “I could make that…” Try walking through Walmart the same way again.
3DPforAll: With my blog, I love sharing about the capabilities of 3D printing. How do you share it?
DR.Glass: I share in proof. Most non-3D enlighted people (normies) don’t get the point with spoken testament. Even after you explain it, it still sounds fairytale to them. Bring in a printed model or show them a youtube video and you can see their eyes deepen with disbelief. I share by showing. My apartment and workplace are collecting some of my favorite prints. As far as videos, I try to share these two to anyone who genuinely wants to know where my enthusiasm stems from.
I show everyone this TED talk from MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld on the future of 3D printing.
There are machines that can 3D print a stainless steel helicopter rotor. Culinary specialists use a basic machine to spurt batter and frosting to make magnificently shaped cakes. Researchers are using huge 3D printers to extrude concrete to form buildings. Another type can layer cultured human cells to literally print a kidney. Check that out here. Even the Objet260 connex (their desktop version) can create a multi-material part with 14 possible materials in a single build.
This is made possible by the microprocessors embedded in the 3D printer. After reading the file, they give commands where to put material and what movements the printer head should make to build that specific object. Because of this build process, the machines are becoming less and less limited by materials. This means that whatever solid objects a human can conceive, they can be created using a single machine. For a more traditional manufacturing technique like injection molding the ability to make an object is carried out through mechanics and hardware so that only one object can be made by the hundreds of thousands.
Another major benefit of 3D printing technology is sustainability. It extrudes the exact amount of material needed, with no excess (one exception is printing support legs for an object with significant overhang). An image that comes to mind is when opening a checkers board game, the circular pieces are still connected to the plastic web that holds them in place during manufacturing. In machining metal parts with subtractive manufacturing, material is cut away to produce the final product. 3D printing is a type of additive manufacturing. Imagine all the waste and inefficiency you don’t see!
The technologies behind the printers are innovations, but more importantly they create pathways to further innovation. How will products we now use be redesigned and reconstructed using these techniques? As more people are exposed, the scope of homemade design will proliferate allowing products to be more available for cheaper.
*Note about Makerbot: This product is a derivative of the Reprap, a project that has been researching ways to make self-replicating machines. I can download a manual to print half the plastic parts from my friend’s Reprap, then go to the hardware store/internet for the other half. Whole machine can be $500. But Makerbot and Reprap are two separate undertakings run by separate people. Both are open source, Makerbot just made its own version and sells it. The machine Reprap originally produced can be viewed here.
On the photos. From this collection alone you can see the range of what some printers can do.
Repraps and Makerbots use a more basic technique called additive layering. In this case a precise plastic melting head, called an extruder, is moved by small gears and motors (It could also be a moving platform with stationary extruder head, but it is easier if I imagine the head). The movements of the head are given by computer and are specific to the thing I am building.
The flyswatter was made on a Makerbot. The striations inside the body of the fly are created by a .50mm nozzle that moved up and down the shape creating the striped look. Along with the movement commands, the extruder is told where to melt the plastic and where to leave empty spaces.
That’s pretty complex in my mind, but an even more advanced method called selective laser sintering can create high levels of detail, like shapes in the second two photos.
Before I really explain what it does, keep in mind the method of layering . When creating the bunny on the makerbot the computer decided to build from the very bottom up. It makes sense this way since the ears have to sit on top of the head and so on.
This limits the Makerbot to layering the plastic on top of the previous layer of plastic (for the most part).The ring could not be printed on a Makerbot because the plastic being melted out to form the web would just fall to the platform.
Selective Laser Sintering, or SLS, layers supportive material as it builds. Take this analogy. I have a glass box in which I need to build a tower of marbles. I try to stack the marbles but they fall. To stack the marbles into a tower I can use sand. Put the first layer of marbles into position, then fill the box with sand to cover that layer over. This creates a new platform on which to build the next layers.
SLS uses this to a much more precise and microscopic degree. These layers are a tenth of a millimeter and the sand is really a fine powder. It is still contained in a box and the machine lays the powder before each layer of material.
Imagine what you can do if you are not limited by the type of material… More on that.
Basically, it is a manufacturing technique that builds a physical object from 3D files created in computer programs. It turns digital information that we create into holdable, throwable, usually plastic parts.
For many years the technology has come in the form of large, very expensive machines. These are mostly used by enormous manufacturing companies to create prototypes of a potential product before they decide to create 500,000 of them.
A variety of materials, like titanium or ceramic, have been used in very expensive models. Some new companies like Ponoko and Shapeways have emerged that will take the file of what you have designed and print it in the material of your choice. But simpler models have been getting progressively less expensive, and some people use these to to print everyday things at home.
Quick run through of how it works. Let’s say I want to create a small item such as a ring. I will design it using in a 3D drawing software such as Google Sketchup. If it is for me I will make the drawing to fit my ring size. I will then format that sketchup file to be interpreted by my 3D printer.
If I have my own, I can sit back and watch it for ten minutes while it precisely layers the material (in this case plastic) into a ring I can wear. Or maybe it’s a ring to give to friends. I’ll just change the quantity to 20, spend a while planning a ring giving ceremony, and they’re done.
I know. It’s like sci-fi. First off, don’t worry because I will get into how exactly the printer itself works. Here’s a hint: It is a lot like inkjet printers and the precise movements they use to puts words on paper. I’ll explain the mechanics of it really soon, I just wanted to start with how it will impact people and economies.
But think about what it would take to buy that plastic ring from a store or the internet.
Some nice lady thinks up and designs the ring, and sells it to a company. The company sends it to their engineering and prototyping team, where they can spend months making it ready for mass production. Now if they are not already in China (1 in 5 people are), they have to send it there (in most cases).
There they analyze the ring so that they can make a complex custom machine to create 500,000 of the same ring. Once they are all finished, packaged, warehoused, shipped back to wherever, distributed to whatever store you shop at, only then can you buy that little ring.
Might be missing some steps but you get that it is an arduous process from start to finish.
My thoughts at this point are that if this industry of 3D printing becomes the industrial player that Economists say it will, isn’t that just digitizing and cheapening physical products to be distributed freely via internet? Obviously many good things will come from it, like the ability to customize to exact specs and add personal details. But what about the systems that already exist?