3D Fabbing State of the Art

3D Printing & Imaging Workshop
Jeffrey McGrew shows off the puzzling Wikipedia logo, modeled in Blender and cut on his studio’s CNC machine named Frank.

We asked leaders in the field of 3D printing and desktop fabricating, and early adopters of this technology, a simple question: What are you most excited about right now; what has your attention? Here’s some of what they told us.

Jeffrey McGrew and Jillian Northrup

Because We Can, design-build studio becausewecan.org

Everything has gotten so much more accessible, both the technology itself and the amount of help online. We could now buy a plastic extruder kit from MakerBot, mount it on our inexpensive ShopBot machine, and have a 3D printer that could make something 4 feet by 8 feet by 6 inches thick. That’s insane! For next to nothing, we’d have a machine that would’ve cost tens of thousands of dollars just five years ago!

In terms of tools, we love Blender, a super-powerful, open source 3D modeling app. We used it for the globe logo we did for Wikipedia.

Most commercial CAM software is either buggy and looks like it was written in VB in the mid-90s, or is staggeringly expensive. Or both. We don’t see a great option yet on the open source horizon. However, Vectric, a small company in England, writes high-quality, easy-to-use, and affordable CAM software that does 80% of what the expensive packages do, at about 20% of the cost.

David ten Have

CEO, Ponoko, direct digital fabrication marketplace ponoko.com

For me, the most exciting thing is the emergence of a common vernacular (more people are starting to understand the processes required to handle the creation, distribution, and consumption of 3D design files). When we started, we spent lots of time explaining this process to people.

The second thing is the appreciation of these new technologies and systems by established businesses. We’re learning how to talk to one another productively and with the rest of the economy. We’re able to help unleash the creative forces that we all know we need unleashed, and reward designers/creators/engineers with new opportunities.

100kGarages (100kgarages.com) is a fine example of companies appreciating the tech that’s starting to emerge. [Editor’s note: 100kGarages is an organization, started by Ponoko and ShopBot Tools, to bring together digital fabricators, makers, and those looking to have things made.]

Ted Hall

CEO, ShopBot Tools, makers of CNC routing equipment shopbottools.com

One exciting aspect is increasing social organization being built around digital fabrication. This includes the Fab Labs around the world — offshoots of Neil Gershenfeld’s book Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop — where additive and subtractive digital fabrication tools are made available to all. Also, sites like Ponoko that offer digital fabrication services as well as designer galleries of digitally fabricated products.

More and more people “get it.” We may not have Star Trek replicators yet, but we do have tools that allow anyone to make almost anything with just a little learning and effort. And, it can be shared and reproduced elsewhere, by many others.

And the prices for both “subtractive 3D printers” (CNC tools) and 3D additive printers have become much more affordable. Together, these digital fabrication tools contribute to the emerging understanding of how digital models of practically anything can be translated into real objects: a laser cutter can make a plexiglass clock, a 3D additive printer can produce a housing for an electronics project, and a ShopBot can cut out children’s furniture. Digital fabrication makes a new type of manufacturing possible.

Phillip Torrone and Limor Fried

Adafruit Industries, open source hardware pioneers and electronics kit-makers adafruit.com

We’re cautiously optimistic about 3D printing. We’d love to use one just like we use our Epilog 35W laser — to create enclosures and cases for kits in an economical way. The laser cutter ($20,000 a couple years ago) paid for itself many times over. But as 2009 ends, there isn’t a 3D printer for what we want to do at a price that makes sense for us yet.

We’re on the lookout for a $10,000-range printer that can produce models with fairly good structural strength, can support things like threaded screws, and with good “cosmetic quality” without needing to paint, sand, and finish the model. We might get a CNC machine, or go with injection molding, and we’ll likely continue investigating contract 3D printing services for now, since it’s more affordable than settling on a so-so machine.

That said, the Solido 3D printer (solido3d.com) caught our eye. It uses sheets of plastic, cut out with glue and anti-glue, and builds up the model a sheet at a time. While there are variations, the Solido uses a PVC-based plastic, it can be drilled, it’s dust- and powder-free, and it’s just under $10,000.

And, we think CandyFab and Bathsheba Grossman’s art are two of the coolest things we’ve seen.

Mark Ganter

professor of mechanical engineering and co-director, Solheim Rapid Prototyping Lab, University of Washington open3dp.me.washington.edu

1. Objet (objet.com), the first multi-material printer.

2. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) now has a formal working group on rapid prototyping (RP).

3. Open source printers like RepRap (reprap.org), Fab@Home (fabathome.org), and MakerBot (makerbot.com) are really democratizing RP.

4. The new materials coming out of our lab. Like printing in glass!

5. The idea of open sharing or open innovation exchange in RP. Traditionally RP has been very closed.

6. Really high-quality free software like MeshLab (meshlab.sourceforge.net) and MiniMagics (minimagics.com).

7. The fact that more people are getting involved as the price of entry is coming down.

Lenore Edman

Evil Mad Scientist (EMS) Labs and CandyFab, an open source 3D printer for candy candyfab.org

The burgeoning business of printing objects for those without printers, for example Shapeways (shapeways.com), is exciting. This allows you to print your own objects, even if you don’t have your own 3D printer. Or maybe you do, but you want larger production runs, or the ability to sell your designs without even printing them. These services also enable printing in media like metals that aren’t yet easily accessible to the home 3D printer.

Windell Oskay

EMS Labs and CandyFab

I cannot overemphasize how cool I think the blossoming world of Thingiverse (thingiverse.com) is, where folks share their 3D designs so others can download and print them out. Once you have a 3D printer, what are you going to print?

The thing that has me really excited is the emergence and success of maker-oriented job shops with low cost of entry. Services such as Shapeways that let anyone fab designs without significant setup costs are a huge advance.

Maybe I can’t afford an exotic-car-priced laser sintering machine that makes incredible 3D objects, but I can use one for just a few dollars. The precision and quality of parts that are fabbed this way are shockingly good. Laser cutting is also available from similar online services these days — like Pololu (customlasercutting.com) and Ponoko — making it so that just anyone can start fabbing.

This situation reminds me of desktop publishing in the late 1980s: nobody had their own professional-grade laser printer, but the copy shop down the street had one that you could use for a few bucks. It’s 20 years later. The copy shop is farther away, but feels closer, and they’ve got wonderful new lasers. Stands to reason that we’ll each have one at home 20 years from now.

Read more of our favorite 3D enthusiasts’ recommendations at makezine.com/21/stateoftheart.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn