Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Santa Claus Machines

3D Printing & Imaging
Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Santa Claus Machines

Desktop publishing is the established metaphor for desktop manufacturing: A 3D printer is like a paper printer, in that it takes digital information and makes it real. A 3D scanner is like a paper scanner in that it takes real information and makes it digital. From a mechanical perspective, neither a 3D printer nor a 3D scanner is much more complicated than its 2D analog. If, or most likely, when desktop manufacturing takes off among mainstream consumers, 3D printers and scanners may eventually be available at prices on par with paper printers and scanners today.

But we’re not there yet. Right now, if you want to get a 3D printer in your workshop for less than $5,000, you’ll be buying it, or the parts for it, from a relatively small company. To save money, you’ll probably be building some or all of the machine yourself, from parts supplied in a kit or sourced independently by you, based on open-source parts lists (though there is usually little to be gained by doing it in this way). Unless you are one of a few intrepid explorers, your hobby-class 3D printer will almost certainly be of the “fused deposition modeling” (FDM) type, in which parts are built up layer-by-layer from a thin bead of molten plastic extruded by a nozzle (or “hot end”) that is, in principle, very much like a hot glue gun.

If you’re planning on getting a 3D printer for yourself, the decisions about what to buy, and who buy from, can be daunting. If you’re trying to buy a gift for a 3D printing enthusiast, and don’t necessarily share his or her passion for the subject, the choices can be downright overwhelming, not to mention expensive. Fortunately, there are quality gift options short of buying a whole printer, and we’ve listed some great ones below, from lowest to highest price. On the other hand, if you’re ready to take the plunge and buy a whole printer, our preferred makes and models are listed at the end of the guide, again in order of increasing price.

Let’s get to it.

Custom color-printed robot

Even among experienced hands, color 3D printing is something of a novelty. The color printing process is a lot like a conventional inkjet printer, except the printhead moves over a bed of finely-divided powder, instead of a piece of paper. And instead of colored ink, it dispenses colored glue. The model is built up, one layer at a time, by gluing together very thin slices, tinted as necessary, where necessary, by a carefully controlled mixture of primary color binders.

The clever entrepreneurs at My Robot Nation have capitalized on that process in an entertaining way: Those with no experience in 3D printing will find their browser-based mix-and-match model creation process fun and easy, and those who know their way around 3D printing are still likely to appreciate getting a hands-on look at a relatively unusual technology. You can design the robot yourself, and give it as a gift, or buy a gift certificate so that special someone can design his or her own. For those willing to spend more, MRN offers three larger-sized figures in 1″ increments up to 6″ tall.

3″ Custom Full-Color Printed Robot, $25

3D-printing gift certificates

The next step above FDM printing, in terms of technical sophistication, is so-called “selective laser sintering” (SLS), a method in which models are built up, one layer at a time, by a laser beam scanning over a bed of very fine powder. The powder substrates are expensive and messy, and the equipment’s order-of-magnitude improvement in resolution is matched by an order-of-magnitude increase in cost. New cars are a fairly accurate point of comparison: “economy” models cost $10-$20,000, and “luxury” models can run well north of $100K.

Fortunately, contract SLS printing is quite accessible these days. The premier online 3D printing contractor is undoubtedly Shapeways, a Dutch firm (now relocated to New York) that has been shipping high-resolution 3D printed models to customers since 2007. Shapeways has a bustling online marketplace, where users can upload and print their own models, or browse and purchase printed copies of models designed by others. Shapeways users can set their own markups for models they design, above material costs and overhead, and skilled designers can make good money from these royalties.

Even someone who already has access to a RepRap, MakerBot, or other hobby 3D printer is likely to appreciate a Shapeways gift certificate, because Shapeways’ printers can do things that hobby-class printers cannot, such as printing at 0.2mm resolution and/or in exotic materials like ceramic, sterling silver, and stainless steel.

Shapeways gift coupon, $25 / $50 / $100

Digital fabrication gift certificates

New Zealand-based Ponoko, also launched in 2007, competes with Shapeways, to some extent, to provide contract SLS printing services. Their business model is very similar, with an online marketplace where users share designs and profit from sales of goods manufactured on demand. Ponoko does not offer as many 3D printing materials as Shapeways, but unlike Shapeways, they provide a range of other computer-controlled manufacturing processes besides 3D printing, including laser-cutting and CNC routing, as well as an inventory of common fasteners, electronics components, and other hardware that can be mixed-and-matched to create complex custom products.

Though Ponoko goes to great lengths to make their system as simple and user-friendly as possible, the greater number of processes and materials they provide, and the vastly greater number of ways that those processes and materials can be combined, makes for a slightly steeper learning curve. On the other hand, for a person looking to explore what the field of digital fabrication has to offer in a more general way, a dollar to spend at Ponoko has a lot more potential than a dollar to spend at Shapeways.

Ponoko gift voucher, $10 / $25 / $50 / $100

3D modeling guides

A person interested in 3D printing is, almost necessarily, also going to be interested in making and manipulating 3D models, and for that he or she will need software. One of the most exciting things about 3D modeling today is how many great programs are available, for free, and —though opinions may differ on this point—a hobbyist designing models for desktop FDM printing is unlikely to ever really need to buy “professional” 3D modeling software at all. Exactly which of the many freely-available 3D modeling programs is best will vary with what’s being modeled, how the model’s going to be used, and the personal preferences of the modeler.

In my experience, three programs stand out: SketchUp, Blender, and OpenSCAD. Google SketchUp, which since version 7.1, has included the ability to export directly to .STL format (even in the free version), is best for small CAD-type projects involving parts with precise dimensions and not too many compound curves. Blender, on the other hand, is better for “sculpting” — making character art or other models with complex curves and surfaces that are shaped intuitively by eye and/or by “feel.” Finally, there’s OpenSCAD, which eschews the what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface in favor of a programmer’s “development environment” in which models are literally scripted, instead of sculpted. OpenSCAD is my choice when the subject admits of mathematically precise modeling, constructive solid geometry (CSG), or parameterization.

All of these programs require some experience and/or training to use effectively. Of the three, SketchUp is probably the most intuitive, for simple models, but it can quickly become a real pain if you have to actually manipulate the mesh. Blender, on the other hand, has a somewhat notorious learning curve, but is hugely powerful once you become proficient. Users of either program will benefit from a good manual, and O’Reilly has one of each. I can personally vouch for Roland Hess’s The Essential Blender, which got me over the hump nicely. As for OpenSCAD, as far as I know, to date there are only the wiki, the odd tutorial, and an official mailing list to help educate new users. An opportunity for an aspiring technical writer, perhaps?

Google SketchUp: The Missing Manual, $35 print / $28 digital
The Essential Blender, $45

RepStrap parts

If you buy a modern 3D printer kit, some of the parts you receive will probably have been printed, themselves, on a machine identical or closely related to the one you’re building. The open source RepRap project, which is the spiritual and technical progenitor of pretty much every commercial hobby-class 3D printer going, has from the beginning worked towards a design capable of complete self-replication. Again, we’re not there yet, but RepRap’s most popular iteration, the Prusa Mendel, has reduced the need for commercially-manufactured parts (or “vitamins,” as they’re sometimes called) to a truly remarkable extent. A RepRap, essentially by definition, is mostly made of parts printed on another RepRap. It is possible, of course, to build a 3D printer based on a RepRap design using parts manufactured by other means, and such a machine is often called a “RepStrap.”

The hackers of Seattle’s Metrix Create: Space have pioneered a RepStrap technique using parts cast in resin in 3D printed molds. Perhaps because parts thus produced are radically cheaper than parts actually printed on a RepRap, the “Clonedel” project as it’s known, has met with some controversy in the community. Back in March, however, Neil Underwood reviewed them favorably on the official RepRap blog:

18 Months ago the plastic parts for a Mendel where going for $700+, 12 Months ago the price settled down to $250-$400, 3 Months Ago Prusa Mendel dropped the price for the RP parts to $125-$150. Now the Clonedel cast RP parts are going for $50 (I personally know of three shops gearing up to start selling them). I wrote a post over at my personal blog a few weeks ago describing how to put a Prusa Mendel together if you don’t have access to a 3D printer for around $510. I guess I need to update it to $410 now. Amazing times.

Clonedel Part Set, $50

3D scanner parts

In desktop manufacturing, as in desktop publishing, scanning is the Yin to printing’s Yang. Along with modeling from scratch, scanning — in which a real 3D object is imaged to produce a virtual 3D representation — is the other major method for making 3D models, which can then be manipulated in software and/or printed as necessary.

Commercial 3D scanners are available. See, for instance, the NextEngine Laser Scanner below which is at the low end of the field at $3,000. Depending on configuration and options, however, “professional” 3D scanners can be as expensive as professional 3D printers, or even moreso.

Fortunately, it is easy, almost astoundingly so, to build DIY 3D scanners capable of very impressive results. There are two common methods, but both involve capturing digital images of a subject under illumination with patterned light, and then analyzing those images, in software, to extract a shape. A technique known as “structured light scanning,” popularized by Kyle McDonald in this 2009 Instructable, combines a video projector and a digital camera with an open-source software package called ThreePhase to produce a low-cost DIY 3D scanning system that does not require a backdrop for calibration. Structured light scanning was famously used to produce the point clouds in Radiohead’s 2008 House of Cards video.

For the method to work well, projector and camera need to be rigidly mounted in relation to one another, and the good folks at MakerBot have put together this laser-cut plywood enclosure, sold as a kit with all the necessary hardware, to serve that purpose. The pocket video projector is mounted in the center of the cube, and the digital camera on top. MakerBot maintains a 3D Scanner wiki about how to put together a structured light scanning system using the frame, including details of what hardware and software work best.

MakerBot 3D Scanner Mounting Kit, $73

Micro video projector

Quite apart from its other potentially awesome uses, like building a spherical display or a homebrew stereolithography printer, a “pocket” or “pico” video projector is an integral part of a structured light scanning system. These tiny projectors use LEDs or lasers for illumination, instead of incandescent bulbs, and though the MakerBot 3D scanner wiki recommends the LED-based Optoma Pico and AAXA Ultra Pico Jr, I would have a hard time turning down the laser-based MicroVision models, which are now available for about the same price. The laser models will be much brighter and have better resolution, to boot. Note that if you don’t want to use an iDevice to run the projector, you may need to purchase a converter so you can plug a standard VGA out into one of these tiny devices. Shown in the picture is MicroVision’s top-of-the-line model, which has a handy compact HDMI input.

AAXA P1 Jr Ultra Portable Pico Pocket Projector, $108
Optoma EP-PK-101 Pico Pocket Projector, $125
MicroVision SHOWWX Classic Laser Pico Projector for iPod, $135
MicroVision SHOWWX+ Laser Pocket Projector, $300
Microvision SHOWWX+ HDMI Laser Pico Projector, $370

3D scanning software

The other common DIY 3D scanning technique, and the first to make a big splash on the web back in 2006, involves using a laser line generator, instead of a video projector, to illuminate the subject. This method typically requires a white 90-degree corner backdrop printed with a special black calibration pattern, but has the advantage of not requiring a video projector. The backdrop is not difficult to prepare and laser line generators are likewise inexpensive to buy and/or easy to make. (One popular tutorial improvises a line generator from a laser pointer and a wine glass stem, for instance.) With the subject in place before the backdrop, one simply turns off the lights, turns on the camera, and “paints” the subject with the laser line, by hand, from a variety of angles. The magic software does the rest.

And though it is possible to use MATLAB, for instance, to extract point clouds from raw image data gathered this way, the folks at Germany’s DAVID Vision Systems pioneered this technique, back in 2006, and have been continuously developing their application-specific software since then. DAVID Laserscanner generates 3D data in real time and allows you to watch, on the scanning computer screen, how the model is developing as you work. It can stitch together scans of the same object taken from multiple angles, and exports directly to STL, OBJ, and other popular 3D file formats. The latest versions have added support for no-backdrop structured light scanning using a video projector, as well as traditional laser line scanning. Best of all, you can try it out for free with the trial version, which has some restricted options and a scan resolution cap, but is otherwise fully functional.

DAVID-Laserscanner Pro Edition 3.x Upgrade Code, $150

Prusa Mendel Kit

Thanks to Pete Prodoehl for this sublimely elegant photo of a sublimely elegant machine. From RepRapWiki:

Prusa Mendel is the Ford Model T of 3D printers. Like the Model T, the Prusa Mendel improves on a previous design by being more streamlined for manufacture. The Prusa Mendel is a simpler remix of the original Mendel. Prusa’s main goal is to be the purest and simplest 3D printer you can build. It’s much simpler to build it. It’s much simpler to modify it. It’s much simpler to print it for your friends. It’s much simpler to repair it.

Many people are making and selling Prusa Mendel kits. For an extended list, see the official RepRap Buyer’s Guide. My own tremendously positive experience with Rick and Karen Pollack’s MakerGear Mosaic has convinced me to endorse their Prusa Mendel kit, here. But you don’t have to take my word for it: Check out the glowing reviews.

Prusa 3D Printer, $850

The MakerGear Mosaic

I will admit to being slightly biased toward the MakerGear Mosaic. I am now most of the way through building my own, and as I have often joked in my weekly build guides, I keep waiting to get to the difficult part. I planned for seven weeks to complete all seven parts of the guide, but in fact, that has proved an extreme overestimate of the time the actual build would require. My progress is slowed by the requirement to get good photos of every step, but even so I think I will end up spending about seven hours, altogether, in its construction. All the complicated subassemblies are pre-built and come out of the box ready to drop in place. I haven’t got it printing yet, so there’s always the possibility of a last-minute surprise or two. But so far, “smooth sailing” is putting it mildly.

Mosaic 3D Printer, $1,000 kit / $1,500 assembled

The MakerBot Thing-O-Matic

This device may look familiar to you. That may be because we’ve been giving them away like Halloween candy over the past couple of weeks. Or perhaps, you may recall, back in August, having seen it on television printing a copy of Stephen Colbert’s head, or more recently, in September, in a beautiful full-page exploded view in The New York Times. Then again, maybe you just recently noticed it on the cover of your copy of the Make: Ultimate Kit Guide.

Here’s Make: Labs intern Eric Chu’s review of Thing-O-Matic from that issue:

If you want to get into 3D printing but don’t know where to start, the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic Kit is the way to go. It’s a complete kit, so you need no additional parts, and a large user community can back you up if problems pop up (not to mention Thingiverse, where you can find awesome open source designs). It took me about 20 hours to build the Thing-O-Matic and start printing, and I improved its accuracy with more tuning, calibrating, and tinkering with settings in the ReplicatorG software. If you have any trouble, read the discussion at the bottom of every build step. I’ve since 3D-printed many fun and handy things (everyone loves a 3D-printed gift!) and the MakerBot is now by far the most-used machine at Make: Labs.

MakerBot Thing-O-Matic Kit w/ Stepstruder MK7, $1,100
Custom Fully Assembled MakerBot Thing-O-Matic, $2,400

Entry-level business class 3D scanner

If you believe the hype, the NextEngine 3D Laser Scanner represents both a big leap forward in quality, and a dramatic reduction in price, in the “professional” 3D scanner market. Though it’s included here, like the ZPrinter 150 below, mostly to establish a point of reference for the cost of the cheaper DIY alternatives, the NextEngine does make some intriguing claims: Full color scanning, up to 0.005 inch accuracy and 400 data points per square inch, two minute capture times, and no inherent size limitations (besides field-of-view) on scanned objects. They’ve even got Jay Leno endorsing the thing.

NextEngine 3D Laser Scanner HD, $3,000

Entry-level business class 3D printer

Finally, there’s pro-grade 3D-printing equipment. Boston’s Z Corporation has an established reputation as a leading manufacturer of high-end rapid prototyping machines as well as “entry level” gear which, though still inaccessible to most hobbyists, is within the grasp of many small businesses. The ZPrinter 150, shown here, is their least-expensive 3D printer offering, and is included mostly to provide a point of comparison. If you can afford to give one as a gift, though, more power to you. And by the way, would you like to be friends?

ZPrinter 150, $15,000


When I talk to non-geeks about 3D printing, they’re amazed that such a technology exists today, they joke about needing one now, and then they ask when a consumer out-of-the-box 3D printer will be available. That’s what the UP! Start Plus v1.1 bills itself as: “the first assembled, all-metal, portable, consumer friendly 3D Printer that is ready to print in about 15 minutes out of the box.” -Gareth

The UP! USA Store @ is offering a deal through Dec 31, 2011. For $2,250.00 (plus $85.00 S&H) you will receive their UP! Start Plus v1.1 printer, (1) spool of white ABS (0.7kg), a platform perfboard kit, a tool and accessories kit, and UP! Software for PC and Mac OS.

Here are some highlights of the UP! Start Plus:

  • Uses 1.75mm ABS & 1.75mm PLA materials
  • High-resolution, precision printing at 0.20mm Z layer resolution
  • Build Volume: 140mm(w), 140mm(d), 135mm(h) – 5-1/2″(w) x 5-1/2″(d) x 5-1/4″(h)
  • Heated, metal build platform integrated with & controlled by UP! software and mainboard electronics.
  • USB connectivity to mainboard and internal 2G SD card memory
  • Software included by download. Allows importing of .STL files, manipulation and preparation of model for printing on the UP! Automatically generates necessary custom support structure for each build
  • Overall Dimension: 245mm(w), 260mm(d), 350mm(h), 9- 5/8″(w), 10-1/4″(d), 13-3/4″(h)

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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