Wednesday, December 21, 2011

3D printers FTW!

A recent (12.10.11) article in the Economist couldn't come at a more perfect time. It's the start of Christmas break, I have free time to read it, and I have been the proud owner of a 3D printer for exactly one week. From the article:

[At] EUROMOLD, a big manufacturing trade fair held in Frankfurt from November 29th to December 2nd [2011], ... 300 or so exhibitors working in three-dimensional printing (or “additive manufacturing” as they prefer to call it).... Some of their 3D printers were the size of cars; others were desktop models. All worked, though, by building products up layer by layer from powered metal, droplets of plastic or whatever was the appropriate material.

I learned about many manufacturers who are using this process to imitate nature. For example:
  • an artificial hip made by Materialise, a Belgian firm (see cool video featuring them)
  • a load-bearing column constructed from filaments of concrete, imitating the basic design of plant stems, and printed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • heat exchangers, whose best design resembles a fish gill (more surface area!), by a British firm called Within Technologies
  • light, geodetic structures imitating a “cytoskeleton” of fibrous proteins that holds a cell in shape. The work is being done at Southampton University in Britain, where researchers have printed an unmanned aircraft from laser-sintered nylon (sintering is a way of making objects by heating powders, important for one of the videos below!) OMG - they PRINTED A PLANE!
That ability to create light, strong structures which have complex internal shapes may well turn out to be additive manufacturing’s killer app. The layering of powders or droplets that are then sintered into solidity, or cured with heat or ultraviolet light, allows spaces to be left inside the product. And if such a space would otherwise collapse, it can be filled with a powder that remains intact during curing and is then washed out or blown away. Even moving parts, like clock mechanisms, have thus been made in one go in a 3D printer.


If you'd like to have your own 3D designs printed, there are companies like i.Materialize and Shapeways that will do it for you. Other folks have printed musical instruments, food, blood vessels (?!) and - in the case of this innovative San Francisco company - stylish prosthetics.

But, I've been much more interested in printing 3D objects myself. Preferably with my students, who are much more fearless with technology than I am.


Back in 2008, I first became intrigued with 3D printers when I saw a RepRap at Maker Faire for the first time. They had me at "self-replicating machine." Apparently, if you built one printer, it could PRINT a second set of parts (minus the electronics, metal, etc) for you to build a second machine. This amazed me. Every year since, I have been back to gawk at their booth.

Years later, a student sent me a link to the video demonstrating one of ZCorp's 3D printers. Incredible! (If you want the very technical details about how this works, you can watch Michael Mock's explanatory video.)

Still, not something inexpensive enough for the classroom, although DIY 3D printers were coming down in price. At the 2011 Maker Faire, some 3D printers were selling for as low as $800. Some students and I got to brainstorming fundraisers, and I started looking for grant money.

In the fall of 2011, I attended the NextGen Science Fair and, not surprisingly, hung around the RepRap booth. There, I met Brook Drumm and learned about his plans to create Printrbot, an affordable 3D printer that "can be assembled and printing in a couple of hours." One of his goals is to get 3D printers into the hands of kids!

Fast forward to December 2011: The first Printrbots are ready (you should definitely read all about his Printrbot Kickstarter Project) and Brook came to our school to set up and train us on our very own 3D printer! What will we print? We will be able to use ready-made designs from Thingiverse, or design our own objects using the free programs Google SketchUp or Tinkercad. (One of my students has his gummy bear design ready!) As long as the design can be exported to a .stl file, and is within the boundaries of the Printrbot, we should be able to print it!

Check our the Printrbot and my middle school kids in the video below. The printer is quite new and we have a lot to learn, but it is tantalizing with its possibilities.


Now, if you are still reading, you probably find 3D printing as fascinating as I do. Here are some other incredible videos:

3D Metal printing

Markus Kayser Solar Sinter


And finally, as with all new technologies, there are new issues to consider. Affordable 3D printing brings up new considerations with copyright. Should be interesting to see how it all pans out.


document storage said...

3D printer will surely be the next big thing in Printing Press industry. It may be expensive at first but as the time passes by, this 3D printer and printing will be getting more and more affordable to the public.

Michael Johnsons said...

That is awesome! People are now much more fearless with technology. But they're a bit expensive though.

printing services

Brandon Wright said...

This is amenable for the 3d inspection software that I got running in LINUX. All I need now are some vinyl.

Adam Burton said...

3D Printing surely is amazing! It is indeed a big thing now and I remember I closed a great deal because during my presentation, I used 3D models that impressed our clients.

Chester Cummings said...

3d printing is the future of printing industry. Just imagine a car decal that is purely printed using this kind of technology.

Jonas Lennert said...

Wow! I must say that the invention deserves a recognition. By using this device, producing replicas and hard to mold stuff will become easier, also I think, this will be useful to companies who want to produce their own life size mascot figures.

Makayla Laurie said...

I can sense that sooner they could produce a printing machine that could engrave all the designs we want directly to whatever thing we want it to be. You know, you just have to attach it to your car and voila! after some few moments the design you want will appear in a notch.

Anthony Abbott said...

That 3d printing device is what a certain graphic design company should have in their office. I have never seen a print coming from a 3d printer.

Richard Sharp said...

The 3D Metal printing is pure awesomeness, seriously! We're all done with the liquid metal pouring procedure in a mould, this is far better than the usual routine.