On 3D Printing and the Future

- - posted in making thingsfuturism

I recently bought the parts for and built, with my own hands, a 3D printer. Specifically, I built a RapRap “Huxley”, which is the adorably diminutive little sibling of the RepRap “Mendel” and “Prusa” which are somewhat larger. Though it has a tiny desktop footprint about the size of a phone book, it has a significantly larger print volume than a Makerbot Replicator Mini, which I had also considered.

I’ve had a couple of folks ask me why I built my own 3D printer when a store-bought printer like the Replicator Mini is so readily available, comes already pre-configured and pre-calibrated, and works right out of the box the minute you receive it. Here’s a quick list:

  1. It is so much more satisfying to build something with your hands than to buy it pre-made, for me anyway.
  2. The parts on a RepRap are either 3D-printed themselves or easily sourced through regular hardware stores I already frequent. Spare parts, if I need them, will be very easy to come by.
  3. If I want to improve or upgrade my printer, I can easily 3D-print improvements for it. I have already done so with an improved direct-drive extruder.

Follow me below the fold for my thoughts on what 3D printing means for the future.

The RepRap is really meant to be a 3D printer that is accessible to anyone who has spare parts lying around or mechanical skills. Even the 3D-printed parts can theoretically be shaped out of wood or metal instead, but the real beauty of it is that it’s an upgradeable piece of equipment you can build yourself. It wasn’t easy. All told, I think I put close to 30 hours into getting it built and then calibrated properly. That’s a lot of work, and this is slaving over a workbench with tiny little wrenches (smallest one: 5.5mm!), a soldering iron, multimeter, and high-precision calipers. Pretty tedious, intricate, and delicate work, but the payoff is that I now have a 3D printer that I built my damn self.

The reason RepRaps are cool is because literally anyone could do this.

There is no particular skill required to make the metal extruder parts beyond really rudimentary machining; only a drill press and tap handle are required to make the hot end, though the nozzle itself needs some more careful treatment. Mine is 0.5mm in diameter but I’ve seen even smaller available for purchase as an upgrade. The 3D-printed plastic parts could be made out of a variety of other materials if no 3D printing is available. Bottom line: the RepRap is really a machine that can bring distributed manufacturing to the third world, the places that would most benefit from it. Imagine a future where the town mechanic in a remote African village can assemble one of these bad boys and service their entire town’s plastic fabrication needs. The only parts that would be tough to source there are the electronics that drive it, and the super beefy stepper motors.

This is an extremely powerful notion. Another powerful notion is what happens when you realize something about the thing you’ve just built: the plastic extruder is a modular, completely separate mechanism, and you can replace that with anything you want. I’ve seen some great syringe-based extruders that extrude epoxy, silicon, even cake icing. Pretty badass. 3D printing is more than just being able to make anything you want out of plastic; it’s also this platform of having a machine that is very good at controlling the process of making something layer by layer–regardless of what material it’s layering. I’m very excited about the possibilities here, including printing in ceramic and silicon or rubber. Expect updates, space cadets.