Tuesday, October 12, 2010

3D printers

Have you seen 3D printers in action? They're still a bit pricey. The high end versions start around $20,000. The low end you can land for $750 or so. Some think that in 10 years they'll be as common in the home as printers were 20 years ago.

I've gotten to play with a few. The first one I saw was in college. That would lay down a sheet of paper, a laser would cut it according to the pattern, and the space that was to be removed later was cut into squares. After a few hours you had a stack of paper and you could just knock away whatever didn't belong.

The Colonel gave me something when she was cleaning her office. It was given to her by Z Corporation at some convention. Yummy recognized the name so it may even have been the convention that she puts together every year. The sample was two rings with ball bearings between them. It spins pretty freely. And it was printed like that.

Why would the Colonel be interested? Oh, there's the fun question. One of the biggest uses for 3D printed objects is for medicine. In this picture you can see people at Walter Reed Army Medical Center shaping a plate to go on some guy's skull. Before the scalpel touches his body they scan his head, figure out what has to be done, and design a plate to fill the hole they'll have to cut in his skull. They also have a bin filled with models of femurs, tiny skulls, spines, hips, and something of a circulatory system. They also printed the room numbers outside the door.

On the table you can see a printed skull with something red in it. A tumor? Blood vessels? There's part of a spine in front of it. More skulls are on top of the book case.

On the lighter side - what? You don't think there could be a goofy side to 3D printing?

On the lighter side, there's the CandyFab. It's a bit different than most, but you can print things out of sugar.

What I'm looking at now is the new MakerBot 3D printer No, it's not the one you might have seen before. This is newer. However, the video below shows their first model.

This is a clip from the second episode of "Bad Universe". Here the host visits MakerBot Industries and they demonstrate how the machine makes it's own parts.

See, I need to spend more time with the brick press on the farm. I'm going to model all the parts and print them on one of these to make sure I have it right. And then I think I'll release the plans for anybody to get at. The initial part, the part that I'm working on now, is missing some key measurements. I was drawing it out for either a 3rd party 3D modeler or a metal shop to make when I saw that I had left something out. Something I can't fix until Christmas. I hope to measure most of it then.

The next question, one I hadn't thought enough about, is how big are these printers? Can I rejigger the open source MakerBot to print significantly larger objects? It can make most of the parts, but the legs will be tricky. Even the pivot arms, nothing more than a bar with some dents in it, could be a problem because it's too long?

But what of the initial comment I made? The one about these things being as common in 10 years as printers were 20 years ago. I'd say closer to printers 25 or 30 years ago. Or maybe I'm over estimating how common computers (and thus printers) were 20 years ago.

The question is why would they be so common in 10 years? You don't feel the need for one now. What's gonna change?

There's lots of little things around the house that need fixing. I could pop out to get a replacement part for the foot on my couch or I could download the design from their website and print me a new one. The litter box scoop cracked. Print a new one. The case to my iPod cracked. A replacement is about 15 minutes away. If you're someone who is handy with a soldering iron you can make much niftier cases for your gizmo than a metal, or even wood, box. Get model planes without the embarrassment of being seen at the hobby shop. Last night I wanted to make a little thing that would cover the base of a wire where the insulation has come away and the wires are exposed. Just think what the hamster cage would look like if you left the kids alone with that for a few hours.

"Ok," you say. "That sound nifty, but is that really gonna be worth $1,500?" I'm assuming that the price would come down. The MakerBot is a reasonably priced competitor for Z Corporation's stuff. Maybe not at medical implant quality, but for your home stuff. Plus the technology would improve. The one at Walter Reed can do 2 colors at least. Get it to print with conductive material and you can print your own circuit boards.

1 comment:

Spencer said...

Dad - Sid used to used these at Boeing back 15 years ago to see if certain parts could fit past others to assemble the plane in specific order or repair.