News and thoughts about 3d printing technology

Posts tagged “digital fabrication

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?

Digital Creations at The High Museum

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.

Joris Laarman, "Digital Matter"

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.

Table made from "Digital Matter" project by Joris Laarman Lab

Joris Laarman, "Digital Matter"

Joris Laarman, "Digital Matter"

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.

Collapsible Stool by Patrick Jouin

(Collapsed) Stool By Patrick Jouin

By FRONT Design, Sweden

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.

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.

Printer Matchup

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.

From Made in Space

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.

BFB 3000 from 3D Systems

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.

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?