With inexpensive 3D printers now printing copies of themselves, the only limit is our imagination. Learn more as I use a Makerbot to lend me a hand.
Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation will be familiar with this request: “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” This demand was issued regularly by the Starship Enterprise’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, to the ship’s in-wall replicator.
The concept of replication occurs quite often in science fiction, and not always for items as mundane as a cuppa. In Bladerunner, the Tyrell Corporation had been bioengineering entire replicant ‘slave workers’. In Stargate SG1, Replicator spiders clatter around ingesting metals to reproduce with. In the world of David Brin’s book Kiln People, you can fashion a handy clone “ditto” of yourself to do specific tasks for you.
Before you get too excited, none of those sci-fi ideas is yet remotely possible. But you can buy the newly-released MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printer. You may not be able to clone yourself just yet, but 3D printing is advancing rapidly into some amazing areas.
What’s more, the ‘printers’ are not insanely expensive. Buying the Replicator 2 from Australia costs $2208 (plus about $200 for shipping as well as GST added by Australian Customs). Such prices are steep for the average hobbyist, perhaps, but they’re at a level that has made them attractive to colleges and universities – and also to shared facilities like Hacker/ Maker Spaces.
I write short articles as well as long feature “explainer” articles on topics including: Google Android Smartphones and Tablets, National Broadband Network (NBN), Space, Civil & Military Aviation, Ebooks and the Publishing Industry, Electric cars, Technology augmenting human capabilities etc for Geare Magazine. The editor of GEARE has kindly permitted me to post articles here after the magazine issue the article was printed in has passed its shelf life. I have added updates where new information is relevant.
Indeed MakerBot’s third-ever 3D printer now resides in the Sydney ‘Robots and Dinosaurs’ Hacker/Maker space. Their MakerBot printer model is called the Cupcake CNC
Obviously the bigger the object you wish to print, the longer the printing process takes. But there is also the level of detail involved – the more detailed instructions you are able to give the printer, the more smooth and finished the product will be.
Creating a complete instruction set for an object from scratch is a big task, but there are many designs readily and freely available. Thingiverse.com is one community of people sharing the digital CAD files that contain all the specifications required by a 3D printer, with popular designs including toys, plastic parts, figurines, gears and more. I found an open-source design of a hand making an ‘OK’ gesture (#10017 on Thingiverse) and watched it get printed layer by layer in black plastic.
So what is getting ‘printed’? My ‘OK’ hand was printed in black plastic, while the newer Makerbot Replicator can print in either ABS (which is what Lego is made of) or PLA, a bio-material made from corn. At present there is a choice of only two colours. A plastic spool of this ABS/PLA is pulled into the extruder, where it gets heated up and then squeezed through a tiny hole to print the desired object layer by layer, from bottom to top. The plastic cools as each layer is printed, so it’s safe to touch only a few minutes after it’s completed – the plastic has already ‘set’. At the end you can sand down any rough parts (or mistakes) if there are any.
If you’ve got tinkerer skills and don’t want to spend $2000+ to get a 3D printer, then the RepRap project is worth investigating.
While MakerBot is commercial, the RepRap design is completely open source, with perhaps its most incredible aspect being that the RepRap printer is assembled from parts made by another RepRap printer (or other 3D printer). So any 3D printer can make a RepRap for you, and then that RepRep can make more RepRaps! All you need is enough raw materials.
Chris DiBona, Open Source Programs Manager at Google, has said: “Think of RepRap as a China on your desktop”. UK inventor James Dyson has praised RepRap because “advanced fabrication technology that can copy itself is a truly remarkable concept, with far-reaching implications.”
On a larger scale Shapeways.com has made a name for itself as a place you can upload your 3D design and order a certain number without needing to own your own printer.
This idea is not dissimilar to high-street print shops today which handle short runs of (2D) glossy colour reports, perhaps with a variety of paperstocks. So while cheaper 3D printers (like the MakerBot) are limited to plastic, the list of materials available from Shapeways is constantly growing as new materials and technologies emerge. It currently supports nylon, alumide, acrylics, stainless steel, silver, ceramic, glass – and it can achieve full colour in some materials.
Duann Scott is in charge of communications at Shapeways, and he tells us that in 2011 Australia was the sixth largest customer for their services. He says that the largest items printed are typically architectural models, up to around 70 x 40 x 30cm. One of the most complex is the Strandbeest (designed by Theo Jansen), a fully articulated mechanical sculpture which emerges from the 3D printer fully assembled and ready to walk. The company has also produced jewellery in a mix of materials.
Ultimately I hope that the 3D printers of the future might be able to make pretty much anything, given the right variety of raw materials and a careful CAD file specification. The University of Glasgow, for example, is developing a system for 3D printing of custom pharmaceutical drugs from their constituent chemicals.
As 3D printers become cheaper, they could change the whole economics of manufacture and repair – it might be cheaper to make some parts at home, more complicated parts at the local 3D printing bureau, and leave only the largest and most complex items to the professionals.
But that would bring the issue of copyright to the fore – who owns the designs? The launch of a new ‘Physibles’ section on the Pirate Bay website shows how the effects of 3D printing on intellectual property laws will need to be considered in depth, otherwise Pirate Bays of the future will contain easy-to-download music, movies, TV – and digital CAD files for all the latest gadgets to print up at home. Is that a RepRap Retina display on your homespun iPad, sir?
This article was originally published in GEARE Magazine issue #69. It is “digitally reprinted” here with permission from the editor. I have added updates where new information is relevant.