The silent revolution – 3D printing in the workplace and the home

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Last summer Martyn Day explained that we were living in a new digital industrial revolution with designers having access to incredible design and direct manufacturing tools. At January’s CES there was yet more proof
Five years ago, if you’d said we’ll soon be able to print 3D models directly from pictures captured with a camera phone – and all for less than the cost of a half dodgy French breast implant – you would have been called a witch and burned, along with the nearest cat. But with a wave of new consumer 3D printers and a new photo capture technology from Autodesk, this is now possible.

There has been a quiet revolution in low-cost 3D printing for some years now. With the introduction of extrusion 3D printers such as the RepRap, an open source, low-cost 3D printer (approx $520), suddenly rapid prototyping started to be become very affordable.

Sure, the thing looked like it was made from left-overs of a badly looked after Meccano set but it could do the job. There was also Makerbot Industries with its joyously named Cupcake Thing-o-matic ($1,099) kit, which resembles a cross between an old tea chest and gramophone player.

Then came the expandable Printrbot, ($499 per kit), which was designed and then ironically ‘printed’ on a Makerbot. It was massively over subscribed on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, with 1,800 backers pledging $830,000 to get their hands on one.

The interest in low-cost 3D printing is without doubt growing and the demand is actually out stripping the capacity to make these entry-level kits. So, it wasn’t surprising that at this year’s CES (Consumer Electronics Show) that two of the major players announced some exciting new 3D printers.

The Replicator

Makerbot Industries, has released the next generation Makerbot, the Replicator ($1,749). With a faster and finer resolution and build area of 225 x 145 x 150mm, it demonstrates a decent 44 per cent increase in volume on the previous machines.

As CEO Bre Pettis says, “Pump up the volume”. There are two models, a single extrusion head, or a slightly more expensive dual extrusion head for printing in two colours or multiple materials. Both have the luxury of a built-in LED control interface.

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In many respects the design and ‘garage nature’ of the Makerbot, RepRap and Printrbot businesses remind me of the early days of computing, not dissimilar to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak selling computer kits to the hobbyists and ‘homebrew’ clubs. This is undoubtedly a market to watch and Makerbot Industries is upping the game by expanding the build size and complexity, while still keeping the price low.

Next up is 3D printing giant, 3D Systems (3DS). Founded in 1986, the company is credited with the first stereolithography rapid prototyping system and now develops systems and materials for plastic prototypes to direct manufacture production parts. It has over 900 patents either registered or pending.

The company has also been on the acquisition trail for the past few years picking up over 19 companies, which has enabled it to dominate professional, production and on-demand services.

The Cube

At CES, 3DS unveiled its latest ‘personal’ 3D Printer, the Cube, ($1,299, 140 x 140 x 140 mm by volume) together with a new community website www.cubify.com. The Cube looks pretty well made and is aimed at everything from desktop engineers to being used at home ‘with the kids’. And it’s here, with the home user, that 3DS is concentrating much of its marketing effort (you can tell by the picture of a child they use on the website).

Using the cubify.com website kids (from 8 to 80 years old) can download STL models to print on their Cube. I’m not sure how long that interest will last but 3DS is also launching technology developed by Geomagic that enables a Microsoft Kinect to be used to scan someone’s head, generate a 3D tessellated model and print a bust from the Cube. Very, very cool.

Cubify is to act as a community site and 3DS is actively encouraging developers to create applications for Cube users to access and print specific types of shapes. Cubify will be a database of parts to download as well as offer apps from data capture to printing.

For now, should anyone want to actually design anything, I guess they could use 123D, a free tool from Autodesk, to model and then 3D print via STL to the Cube. Alternatively, with Autodesk 123D Capture, take photographs of objects and then automatically produce a 3D model to print from. Should any supports be required the software automatically adds them in and they just snap off after the print.

Should ‘little Johnny or Jemima’ produce something bigger than the cube can handle, the STL can be sent to a larger 3DS machine and delivered by post. Cube plastic refills cost $49 and one cartridge can print 10 to 12 average sized parts.

Conclusion

The 3D revolution is happening and the pace is accelerating. It’s moving from hobbyists and small firms to the home and it’s great that some lucky kids will get introduced to the possibilities of digital design early on.

There are also some interesting issues with this. It’s getting easier to grab any shape that exists and use it in new designs. The concept of sampling and remixing another designer’s product, if discernable could result in increased litigation on patent infringements. With reverse engineering of most objects now possible even from photographs on the web, digital design plagiarism is bound to become a growing problem.


Adoption of 3D printing continues apace
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