News and thoughts about 3d printing technology

Posts tagged “design

3D Printing Gone Bad

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.

It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology

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?

The Little Printer That Could

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:

RepRap Mondo

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

World’s Smallest 3D printerresearch 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.

Amazing examples of 3DP

*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.

So what is 3D printing?

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.

Hit Print.

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.

Abridged version:

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?