Saturday, January 12, 2013

Introduction to 3D Printing

(Originally posted on December 21, 2011, this was the post that started off our 3D printing adventures here at BPC.)

A recent (12.10.11) article in the Economist couldn't come at a more perfect time. It's the start of Christmas break, I have free time to read it, and I have been the proud owner of a 3D printer for exactly one week. From the article:

[At] EUROMOLD, a big manufacturing trade fair held in Frankfurt from November 29th to December 2nd [2011], ... 300 or so exhibitors working in three-dimensional printing (or “additive manufacturing” as they prefer to call it).... Some of their 3D printers were the size of cars; others were desktop models. All worked, though, by building products up layer by layer from powered metal, droplets of plastic or whatever was the appropriate material.

I learned about many manufacturers who are using this process to imitate nature. For example:
  • an artificial hip made by Materialise, a Belgian firm (see cool video featuring them)
  • a load-bearing column constructed from filaments of concrete, imitating the basic design of plant stems, and printed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • heat exchangers, whose best design resembles a fish gill (more surface area!), by a British firm called Within Technologies
  • light, geodetic structures imitating a “cytoskeleton” of fibrous proteins that holds a cell in shape. The work is being done at Southampton University in Britain, where researchers have printed an  unmanned aircraft from laser-sintered nylon (sintering is a way of making objects by heating powders, important for one of the videos below!) OMG - they PRINTED A PLANE!
That ability to create light, strong structures which have complex internal shapes may well turn out to be additive manufacturing’s killer app. The layering of powders or droplets that are then sintered into solidity, or cured with heat or ultraviolet light, allows spaces to be left inside the product. And if such a space would otherwise collapse, it can be filled with a powder that remains intact during curing and is  then washed out or blown away. Even moving parts, like clock mechanisms, have thus been made in one go in a 3D printer.


If you'd like to have your own 3D designs printed, there are companies like i.Materialize and Shapeways that will do it for you. Other folks have printed musical instrumentsfoodblood vessels (?!) and - in the case of this innovative San Francisco company - stylish prosthetics.

But, I've been much more interested in printing 3D objects myself. Preferably with my students, who are much more fearless with technology than I am.


Back in 2008, I first became intrigued with 3D printers when I saw a RepRap at Maker Faire for the first time. They had me at "self-replicating machine." Apparently, if you built one printer, it could PRINT a second set of parts (minus the electronics, metal, etc) for you to build a second machine. This amazed me. Every year since, I have been back to gawk at their booth.

Years later, a student sent me a link to the video demonstrating one of ZCorp's 3D printers. Incredible! (If you want the very technical details about how this works, you can watch Michael Mock's explanatory video.)

Still, not something inexpensive enough for the classroom, although DIY 3D printers were coming down in price. At the 2011 Maker Faire, some 3D printers were selling for as low as $800. Some students and I got to brainstorming fundraisers, and I started looking for grant money.

In the fall of 2011, I attended the NextGen Science Fair and, not surprisingly, hung around the RepRap booth. There, I met Brook Drumm and learned about his plans to create Printrbot, an affordable 3D printer that "can be assembled and printing in a couple of hours." One of his goals is to get 3D printers into the hands of kids!

Fast forward to December 2011: The first Printrbots are ready (you should definitely read all about his Printrbot Kickstarter Project) and Brook came to our school to set up and train us on our very own 3D printer! What will we print? We will be able to use ready-made designs from Thingiverse, or design our own objects using the free programs Google SketchUp or Tinkercad. (One of my students has his gummy bear design ready!) As long as the design can be exported to a .stl file, and is within the boundaries of the Printrbot, we should be able to print it!

Check our the Printrbot and my middle school kids in the video below. The printer is quite new and we have a lot to learn, but it is tantalizing with its possibilities.


Now, if you are still reading, you probably find 3D printing as fascinating as I do. Here are some other incredible videos:

3D Metal printing

Markus Kayser Solar Sinter


And finally, as with all new technologies, there are new issues to consider. Affordable 3D printing brings up new considerations with copyright. Should be interesting to see how it all pans out.