Making it real with 3D printing

With a 3D printer that costs less than $3,000, you can start your own mini manufacturing operation -- and use open source software to create surprisingly complex designs

The thrill of 3D printing is that is bridges the virtual and the actual. Based on manufacturing technologies developed decades ago, the 3D printing process begins with carefully wrought 3D design files and ends with the robotic arm of a 3D printer flying around to fabricate physical objects of plastic or metal. It's the darling of hacker and steampunk communities and the hope of many who'd love to see a boom in small-scale manufacturing.

At the high end, 3D printers aimed at the aerospace market cost a king's ransom and produce solid hunks of titanium. Cheaper, more versatile laser systems fabricate objects out of melted metal or plastic powders. But the real excitement centers on low-cost 3D printers that use a process called fused deposition modeling (FDM), where plastic wires are melted and deposited to form finished products.

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FDM machines are essentially very precise hot-glue guns connected to robots. The printer moves its nozzle to coordinates specified by control software to draw a single layer of the object. The nozzle then deposits the next layer on top of the previous shape. The machine repeats this process dozens of times until it creates a fully formed object, ready for use.

Press Print and enjoy the showWhat are people printing? At the low end, mostly goofy stuff -- everyone who has an inexpensive 3D printer has printed their share of emblem coins, keychain dongles, and USB stick covers. They're toys, really. But sooner or later, the magnitude of being able to create just about any object smaller than a breadbox begins to sink in. Then you start seeing screwdrivers, DIY drones, and all manner of more sophisticated goods.

Originally, 3D printers were invented to fill the needs of manufacturers' R&D departments. The traditional cycle of design, machine by hand, and test -- again and again -- was time consuming and expensive. The movement to outsource machining capability to China has simply drawn out the time delay associated with this cycle. By making the manufacture of test pieces automatic and hands-off, 3D printers result in a much more agile prototying process.

Increasingly, 3D printers are being used for full-time manufacturing. 3D printing turns the mass-production paradigm on its head: Instead of high startup costs and low unit costs once you reach high volume, startup costs are low and the incremental cost for each item you make is the same as that of the first one. Generally, the point where mass production becomes cheaper per unit than 3D printing falls between 10,000 and 100,000 units. In fact, 3D printing can be a less expensive solution for a significant segment of the manufacturing market.

Today, there are dozens of companies vying in the personal 3D printer market. This includes such proprietary commercial players as MakerBot, Stratasys, and 3D Systems, as well as open source upstarts such as Ultimaker and the venerable Reprap project, the granddaddy of the open source 3D printing market.

Printers printing printersTen years ago, open source 3D printers did not exist. You could buy a commercial machine for $20,000 and order the stock material from the manufacturer. Then, in 2007, the original patents on many of those machines expired.

In the spring of 2007, the first open source 3D printer came online at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. This machine, composed largely of parts produced by a commercial printer, plus a few motors and circuit boards, was capable of manufacturing most of its own components. In 2008, the first fully self-replicating rapid prototyping machine, called the RepRap, was made of parts printed by another RepRap. It was open source hardware in the purest sense: Feed the open source design to a 3D printer and out pop the parts to assemble another.

Open source 3D printers are often developed in iterative cycles driven by their user communities. The quintessential example of an open source 3D printer company was MakerBot, although it veered away from its commitment to open source earlier this year. MakerBot has produced four distinct models over its four-year history, with a host of smaller upgrades incrementally introduced to various subsystems.

Often, these incremental improvements were designed by users. The new designs were then prototyped, shared, tested, and refined by the 3D printing community. Finally, they were incorporated into the next official MakerBot printer.

This process greatly reduced the cost and complexity of the machines. Today, $2,799 will purchase a Makerbot Replicator 2X, which outperforms the commercial machines of 2007 at a tenth of the price.

One of the benefits of open source software is that if something is broken or if you want to adjust functionality, you can implement those changes and share them. What makes 3D printing special is that it can be used to bring the open source philosophy to the physical world. It democratizes the means of production and puts design tools into the hands of anyone interested in building physical products. You can share, copy, and improve upon those designs. 3D printing makes iterative development possible for the physical world. And it all happens on your desk, in your apartment, or in your garage.

Tools of the tradeThe 3D printer itself is just a piece of equipment. To spit out a physical object, a 3D printer must be fed a detailed digital representation of that item, either created from scratch using 3D modeling software or scanned in using a 3D scanner.

Blender, originally designed for animators, is a great open source tool for building 3D designs. It particularly excels at organic shapes, such as faces and flowers. OpenSCAD, free software billed as "the programmer's 3D modeler," defines objects through the accretion of a handful of primitives (such as spheres and cubes) via Boolean logic into more complex objects, which are assembled in turn into larger objects. OpenSCAD excels at building easily tweaked shapes for more engineering-centered applications.

You can create 3D models and convert them into physical objects -- or reverse that process and generate a 3D model from a physical object scanned using a 3D scanner. This is handy for any number of disciplines, from landscape surveying to quality control. Like 3D printers, 3D scanners range widely in price and capability. The most exciting segment of this market over the last year or two has been the expansion of consumer-grade devices.

Most notable is the flurry of activity around Microsoft's Kinect. The Kinect, a device used as a videogame input for whole-body gestures, uses a pair of cameras to create a 3D model of the space it watches. Some capable users tapped into the Kinect's straightforward USB communications protocol to create open source drivers for the device. Combine that with clever software, and you get a surprisingly capable 3D scanner from commodity parts.

Marry your 3D scanner with a 3D printer, and now you have a "Star Trek"-like replicator. That might not change the world, but it'll almost certainly change the things we make in it.

Set up shopAre you ready to get your own yet? One of the best ways to get started with 3D printing, while learning some new skills, is to check out your local hacker space. For instance, right next door to our Durham, NC, office is SplatSpace. Hacker spaces tend to be hotbeds of 3D printing.

If you're ready for the full monty of building a 3D printer from scratch or you need help selecting from the array of kits or fully assembled printers now available for purchase, there's a very good chance of finding an enthusiast to help you into the ecosystem. With your 3D printing kit, your Kinect, and your modeling code, maybe you really can write yourself a minivan.

3D printing technology does not guarantee you'll be able to make great stuff. You need creativity, design skills, and the diligence to learn how to model complex objects in three dimensions. But with push-button fabrication, 3D printing has made the transition from bits to atoms far less onerous.

This article, "Making it real with 3D printing," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in business technology news and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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