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A Longer and More Winding Road to Personal 3D Printing?

A Mixed Bag of Making

I have touted the prospects for digital fabrication and more specifically the economic benefits of the additive manufacturing revolution enabled by 3D printing. Great strides have been made to bring 3D printing out of computer lab and into the R&D shop. Thousands of firms now use printers costing from $15,000 to the millions to create rapid prototypes and finished parts. But beyond the computer lab, hacker space and R&D department how does printing fare when released in the do it yourselfer’s shop?

Options for 3D Printing

While it’s quite easy to print readymade files and use fabbing service bureaus to outsource prints, my preliminary verdict from personal experience and some frustration – is that there is a ways to go yet before personal 3D modeling and printing is simple, effective and ubiquitous. I suggest the situation with 3D printing is a bit like personal computing about 30 years ago and I’ll explain why this is and what’s needed to transform the industry.

First let’s look at the Maker’s options for 3D printing assuming you don’t work in the rapid prototyping industry or a computer or fab lab type of environment that has access to experts, high end software and hardware. Let me also note that you don’t have to be creating your own models and printing them on your own printer to be involved with making. However, many, if not all creative types will at some point want to create and print their own 3D designs, if not in their own office or shop, then somewhere local that may not possess a high level of expertise.

Fabbing Options Now (also see diagram above):

  1. Existing Model Printed at Service Bureau: Find an existing free model on the Internet and send it to a fabrication service like Shapeways or Ponoko (or local fab lab) who will print and ship the finished product back to you in a couple weeks. There are thousands of models available. Presumably as the inventory of models grows there will be ones that meet many aesthetic and functional needs.
  2. Existing Model Printed Locally: As with method above download a freely available model and print it on your own printer or at a community fab lab, where you might get some help.
  3. Create Model and Print with Service Bureau: Create your own design with 3D software and send it off to a local or cloud based service bureau. This assumes your model is valid for printing. Some services like Ponoko and Shapeways are willing to help evaluate and repair a printable file for a modest upcharge or subsciption.
  4. Create Model and Print Locally: Design it and make it on your own studio/shop’s printer. I assume many makers want to do this; personal expression drives making. And this is where things get tricky.

Not Quite a Personal Factory – Yet

Wishing to investigate the personal end of 3D printing I  purchased a fully assembled Makerbot Replicator www.makerbot.com and it was delivered about a month ago. Makerbot has been the poster child for 3D printing and has been featured in dozens of publications and TV shows during the past year. The new Replicator model is a vastly improved over the version I purchased and built from a kit about two and a half years ago. I took the Replicator out of the box and printed a preloaded 3d model file from a supplied SD card in less than an hour. Alternatively, I could have downloaded a free prepared model file from the Internet (www.thingiverse.com) and printed it from the SD card that slides into the Replicator’s SD slot. Once you have a model file you don’t even need a computer to run the Replicator – an on board touch pad and LCD display the necessary menus for printing. This is all pretty easy.

But what if you want to make something of your own design? Curiosity, self expression and problem solving drives creative types and inventors They want to solve a unique need they’ve identified or express their own creativity; not just copy someone else’ model. This is where 3D printing becomes considerably more complicated. Printing a unique, freshly minted 3D design still takes considerable effort and most likely a lot of trial and error.

Is It Like 1982?

I’ve previously suggested that the current status of DIY 3D printing may be like that of the personal computer 30 years ago. In 1982 you could buy an IBM PC or an Apple but it lacked a graphic user interface and a mouse. Word processing software existed in a couple of text only applications such as Wordstar or Wordperfect and Visicalc was the only spreadsheet. Printing was a rudimentary, dot matrix affair. The introduction of the Mac in 1984 began to revolutionize the situation, with graphical user interface, mouse and well integrated word processing and other applications. We know how quickly things changed after that.

The fundamental problem with 3D printing now is that it’s not a simple process to get from the model to a printable file. The model file needs to be translated into a fully closed triangular mesh. Imagine you must represent a solid volume, your model, with many small triangular shaped pieces of paper that are cut and glued together, creating an exterior shell of your solid object or assembly. The resulting construct, called a stereolithography (stl) file, should be a “watertight” model or it can’t be parsed in many thin layers and printed.

The opportunities for holes and other errors not readily apparent to the eye become rapidly clear in such a construct when considering any shape more than a simple box or sphere. And fixing the holes can be a confounding job. I, still, have not been able to create printable files from two models of my existing portfolio, after many iterations and the deployment of a program designed explicitly to find and fix such problems. I expect more research and effort on my part will resolve the problems, but if the personal printing industry is to explode then these problems need to be addressed with innovative products.

What’s Needed

While a number of good 3D modeling applications are available, in both the paid and free categories, none I’ve come across offers a completely smooth and foolproof workflow from model creation to print file generation. Some helper applications offer model file fixes but from my experience, they still overlook issues that turn up when compiling the code (G code) instructions for the 3D printer. There’s no doubt I need to become a better modeler for 3D printing. However, the Maker world of the near future should give me the option of printing my objects as simply as sending this page to the printer.

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