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.
There are many printers popping up in the desktop market and now is the time to see what they are all about. I have taken some time to grab the specs on the popular machines out there. I understand that there may be others, but I have included those with features I want to highlight or just what I know exists.
BFB 3000 – by Bits from Bytes, UK (owned by 3D Systems)
Build size (x-y-z):
Single extruder installed 275 mm x 275 mm x 210 mm,
Three extruders installed 185 mm x 275 mm x 210 mm
Overall weight: 79lbs to 84lbs
Resolution: .125mm layers
Software interface: Axon 2 which is unique to BFB. This interface allows you to scale, rotate and review your item before print if connected through USB. Will also print directly through SD card reader.
Tested in zero gravity: check
Price: $3250 for single extruder, $4065 for triple extruder
Here is an older video of the BFB, before the company was aquired by 3D systems. I chose this one because it highlights all the great features, most notably the translucent material. Also the build specs at the end are helpful. An important factor of this machine which can be seen in the video is the quality and robustness of the parts. Many of the housings and rails are machined metal making for a sturdier base.
Thing-O-Matic by Makerbot Industries, Brooklyn, NY USA
Overall Size: 300 x 300 x 410 mm (12″ W x 12″ D x 16″ H)
Build size (x-y-z): 96 x 108 mm x 115 mm
Resolution: .125mm layers, 0.4 mm extruder nozzle
Software interface: Replicator G which allows you to manipulate, scale and create build code from STL format. Via USB or SD card reader. Optional LCD display.
Tested in zero gravity: check
Price: $1299 without assembly, $2500 preassembled
Considered a hot shot of the desktop FDMers, Makerbot is a fairly new open source project based on Reprap. Although you could probably build a Reprap mendel for less than half that of the Thing-O-Matic, I find no major difference between the two other than how they are marketed. Reprap is a research project funded by grants. Makerbot is a company funded by selling machines. But with Makerbot comes a vibrant community of makers, hackers, and builders, freely showcasing their prints via Thingiverse. Because files can be downloaded as STL or in gcode, they are printable to all reprap based printers.
UP! by PP3DP
Build Size: 245 x 260 x 350 mm
Overall weight: 11 lbs
Software Interface: Supporting STL and the native UP3, the Up! has a specially designed interface that allows for the usual rotating, scaling and moving. Some great features include automatic support material for rounded bottoms or overhang and one touch printing.
Resplution: 0.2 mm nozzle
Operating Cost: As little as $.02 per cubed cm
Cost: $2960 for a fully assembled machine
This one of the newest machines in the market and will likely give Makerbot a run. This promo video is well made and highlights the clever design. The build area is completely open and the hardware and motors are mostly hidden. The fact that it weighs 11 pounds really shows the thinking that went into making a printer that will really sit on a desktop. No mention of build speed but surely no chance against the hot new contender.
Ultimaker, The Netherlands
Build Size: 210 mm x 210 mm x 220 mm, no
Overall Size: 350 mm x 350 mm
Weight: 19 lbs
Software Interface: Libre CAD software, supports STL files via USB. Software available for Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems.
Resolution: 0.4 mm nozzle. Website specs say it has stepper positioning to be less than .05mm
Print Speed: The fastest of anything yet, up to 150mm/s
They don’t really have a promotional video it seems, so I snagged this user submission. The speeds seem to be set to moderate but the mechanized movements are much more fluid. This is achieved because the extruder slides along center based bearings as opposed to threading that is active on the outside frame. From the videos I have seen, when tested at top speed, the print resolution is very poor, which is to be expected.
What I find amazing about the machines mentioned so far is that they are all competing, yet utilizing the exact same technology. Being based on RepRap limits the hardware and materials for a printer that can be sold in quantities. They all print in PLA or ABS, they all have the same range of print resolution and build size, and they all can really only appeal to the tech savvy. The UP! says it requires no maintenance and this seems promising but I think this is only because the hardware is not exposed. Even the pre-assembled Makerbot requires calibration and setup.
This is really the beginning of the desktop fabrication era, and I am always excited to see the work coming off these machines. But I have yet to see a machine with a minimal learning curve to be used by all. A major area which needs improvement is interface design and usability, and breakthroughs in this area are very near. In terms of materials and build techniques, it may just be a matter of researching what works (two of the projects mentioned below are steps in the right direction). When we get into learning about the high end machines, we will see that each company really has patents on a particular build method. . This is what I hope to see emerge in the desktop market, but some people will need to be weaned off RepRap, as amazing as it is.
I have yet to decide which printer to add to my wish list, because the various features are useful in different situations. If I were looking to achieve detailed and complex prototypes I would choose the BFB 3000 as the multiple extruder heads create more options. If I were looking for a usable machine that showcases the amazing ability of desktop manufacturing I would choose the UP!. It was clearly designed with beginners in mind and the open build platform lets you see every aspect of the process, which is an important factor in attracting new users.
Other Notable Machines:
Basic machine with a build size of 305mm x 460mm x 280
Homemade High Resolution Printer:
This is a personal project still being developed. The build technique is quite different from every other machine mentioned here. It is not fused deposition modeling but a resin curing system. The object is pulled out of a small reservoir, being cured by focused light as it emerges. The only way to really understand it is to watch.
To see more about this project, especially the resolution photos, check http://3dhomemade.blogspot.com/
World’s Smallest 3D printer – research being conducted at Vienna Tech
How about printing a nanobot chip to go in your brain?
Next we will get into high powered commercial printers, which is where the real magic happens.
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.