What is 3D printing? The fabrication method of 3D printing is known in the industry for several years now. Companies have huge machines for rapid prototyping of their products. Those machines take digital designs of 3D models and fabricate them as physical objects. Depending on the material used there are several approaches to print those designs. The industrial 3D printers usually print binding material onto layers of powder of the desired material. You can see one of those industrial printers here. The only problem with those printers is that they are very huge in size and that even the cheapest models cost as much as a new car (approx. > $15.000). As you can imagine, you won't find those printers on a normal person's desktop at home. That's the reason why this fabrication technique was exclusive to big companies and generally not known to the public.
But then there was a small company, in Brooklyn, New York, called MakerBot Industries which had the goal to bring 3D printing to the masses. They have build their great products and infrastructure based on the early works of the RepRap project which was already known in the maker community and can be recognized as the pioneer project of 3D printing for the average person. However, the MakerBot team constantly improved their 3D printer designs, tools and their infrastructure up to a point where it got recognized by the mainstream media and broadly across the maker scene. MakerBot Industries offer several types of 3D printers from single extrusion units like the Thing-O-Matic (formerly Cupcake CNC) to bigger multi extrusion units like the Replicator. You can even get extensions which let you not only print with plastics but also let you extrude eatable things like chocolate, dough and so on.
Open Hardware and DIY 3D printers like the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic have the advantage that they are very affordable (usually below $1100) and that they can use cheap printing materials like PLA or ABS. With the help of open source software ReplicatorG, digital designs can be converted into instructions for the 3D printer. What happens then is similar to the industrial printing process. The printer prints layer by layer. The big difference is that there is no binding material printed on powder. They use a extrusion technique for melted plastics. The plastics are heated up to their melting point (usually 225° Celsius) and extruded onto the moving path of the bulding platform.
As I told earlier I wanted to get into 3D printing for quite some time and after I read about several printers and their supporting community, I wanted to call myself a MakerBot Operator. A short video clip of my Thing-O-Matic shows the printing process of the open hardware logo as a 3D object.
|Printed Open Hardware Logo|
So how are 3D designs created and where can you get design files online?
You can use a broad range of 3D modelling programs like Blender, 3D Studio Max and Google SketchUp, just to name a few, to design your models. Google SketchUp is the most beginner friendly program to design simple objects to start with. It has also a good plugin support to convert the designed objects into a file format which ReplicatorG can handle (.stl).
|STL view of 3D Tequila Tray|
A guide for creating objects using Google SketchUp can be found here.
If you aren't the best 3D model maker or if you just want to see what other's came up with, you definetely need to check out Thingiverse. Thingiverse is a free 3D modelling and DIY fabrication community created by MakerBot Industries. Users share their digital designs, derive their designs from each others work, give feedback and enjoy to build up a community around 3D printing. You can browse through the designs, comment on them and you can download the designs for fabrication. The majority of files can be used for 3D printing, however there are also designs for laser cutting and eggbotting.
There are also commercial fabrication services like Shapeways. They provide the service of fabricating your digital designs in several materials, so you are not only restricted to plastics. Registered users can also sell copies of their designed objects. As convenient as those kinds of services are, nothing beats the concept and the good feeling of DIY and self printing.
|Self-printed Tequila Tray|