We’ve ordered a Solidoodle Expert 3D Printer and we plan to get started using it in library meeting rooms or other borrowed spaces if we don’t have our own maker space when it arrives in 7 to 9 weeks.
3D printing is a method of manufacturing everything from shoes to jewelry, to toys and aerospace parts, using a computer-controlled printer. One thing to note about 3D printing is that it’s an additive manufacturing technique, unlike machining, turning, milling, and sawing which are subtractive.
While there are different kinds of 3D printing, all 3D objects are generally built out of layers. A 3D printer starts with the bottom layer, waits for it to dry or solidify, and then works its way up. This layering process differs depending on the printer and the material it works with — metal, plaster, polymer, resin (ABS) — but it also depends on whether it’s an industrial or commercial 3D printer.
Each 3D-printed object begins with a digital Computer Aided Design (CAD) file, created with a 3D modeling program, or which was scanned into a 3D modeling program with a 3D scanner. To get from this digital file into instructions that the 3D printer will comprehend, the machine’s software then slices the design into hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers. The 3D printer reads this file, and proceeds to create each layer exactly to specification. As the layers are created, they blend together resulting in one three dimensional object.
The Solidoodle 3D printer is a Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printer, somewhat similar to current 2D inkjet printers but with an additional axis (Z – up and down), which deposits droplets of melted material through a nozzle to form each layer. 3D printing is also called additive manufacturing, using an additive process. It simply creates each bit of the object where it needs it, layer by layer, successively, in an additive process.
While most people have yet to even hear the term 3D printing, the process has been in use for decades. Manufacturers and industry have long used the printers in their design process, to create prototypes for traditional manufacturing and iterate designs. But until the last few years, the equipment has been expensive and slow. Now, fast 3D printers can be had for tens of thousands of dollars, and end up saving the companies many times that amount in the prototyping process.
Personal 3D Printers
There is a whole other world of 3D printers: personal and DIY hobbyist models. And the cost of these machines is being reduced as new models are introduced and as acceptance builds in the maker world.
The RepRap (the unit on the right) open source project (the unit on the right) ignited this hobbyist market in the same way the Apple computer ignited the hobbyist desktop computer market in the late 1970s. For about a thousand dollars, people are able to buy the RepRap kit and put together their own personal 3D printer, complete with any customizations they were capable of making. Also, these printers print most of the parts for more printers. The interest in RepRap spawned scores of other low-cost 3D printers, both DIY and fully-assembled, and as the prices keep coming down, it puts 3D printers into more hands.
Do you have to be an engineer or a 3D modeling expert to create 3D models on our new Solidoodle printer? No. While complex and expensive CAD software like AutoCAD and Solidworks have a steep learning curve, there are a number of other programs, many free, that are very easy to learn. The free version of Google / Trimble SketchUp for example, is very popular for its ease of use, and the free Blender program is popular for its advanced features.
You can also upload files online and create your print at a 3D printing service bureau like Shapeways and Ponoko. These sites can very inexpensively print and deliver an object from a digital file that you simply upload. It’s almost as easy as ordering a custom t-shirt online. Ponoko also offers laser cutting services which is what was used to create the MakerBot enclosure above.
Even if you don’t design your own 3D model, you can still print some very cool pieces. There are model repositories such as Thingiverse and Grabcad that have model files you can download for free. You will, of course need the .stl files offered.
The Solidoodle uses ABS to produce parts. ABS is a production-grade thermoplastic that gives models the ability to perform just like production parts in real-world functional testing. The unit allows you to build prints up to 6” X 6” X 6”.
It is limitless. Jewelry, create art, prototypes, models, toys, one of a kind parts, replacement parts, inventions, action figures, tools …..get the idea?
3D Printing may be a Game Changer
Printing parts and entire products, anywhere in the world, is a game changer. But it doesn’t stop there. 3D printing will affect almost every aspect of industry and our personal lives. Medicine will forever be changed as new bio-printers actually print human tissue for both pharmaceutical testing and eventually entire organs and bones. Architecture and construction are changing as well. Now, 3D-printed models of complex architectural drawings are created quickly and inexpensively, rather than the expensive and time-consuming process of handcrafting models out of cardboard. And most consumer product development teams fully utilize the power of instant prototypes. Art is already forever changed. Digital artists are creating magnificent pieces that seem almost impossible to have been made by traditional methods.
The Future of 3D Printing
This is a disruptive technology of mammoth proportions, with effects on energy use, waste, customization, product availability, art, medicine, construction, the sciences and of course manufacturing. It will change the world as we know it.
3D Printing at Rochester Maker Space
The Solidoodle printer is, of course, one of many tools that will be available for use. It will be one of the first visible acquisitions that will promote our space and help garner publicity. Like the woodworking, metalworking and other equipment we will soon have our 3d printer will find its own niche, with its own group of dedicated users. Look for it to arrive in the fall of this year. More information to follow in subsequent blog posts.