The 3D Printers of Maker Faire & Beyond
is a festival for makers, with a New York City event held at the New York City Hall of Science, in Queens, NY. Myriad maker contraptions were featured, including robots, tools, urban farm equipment, unicorn flamethrowers, science experiments, and even Life Size Mousetrap. A major presence was 3D printers, including many booths and several talks. Many event recaps have noted how prevalentthey were
And it's little wonder why they're so dominant a presence. 3D printers are beginning to not only come down in price, but approaching the quality of the high end machines. Low-cost 3D printers have been around for a while now, like the Fab@Home
project, but their build quality has been lacking. Also, important for their assimilation into mainstream, they're becoming more appliance like and easier to use, not requiring the user to know how to solder.
During a talk with Chris Anderson
, Bre Pettis
, founder of MakerBot
, estimated that more than 30% of the booths and events were about 3D printing. Between the 3D Village, 3D Pavilion, and all the 3D printing booths in and around the Maker Pavilion, it's safe to say that is probably a conservative estimate. Make
even compiled a census
of the 3D printers present.
There are many different methods for 3D printing, but they all have the same fundamental process of “additive manufacturing”, adding material layer-by-layer to build up the part. Either by depositing heated materials that harden, curing resin with a laser, applying a binding agent to ceramic powder, or laser sintering metal or plastic powder, the essential process is the same. The vast majority of the printers at Maker Faire were of the Fused Filament Fabrication
(FFF) variety, as it is the simplest and least expensive option for hobby-level printers.
MakerBot Replicator 2
The highlight of the 3D printers was the recently announced Replicator 2
, the successor to the Replicator, and the fourth MakerBot 3D printer. Like the ones that came before it, the Replicator 2 uses FFF to deposit 100 micron-thick layers and build up parts. It is optimized for PLA
, the popular bioplastic that was seen at many 3D printing booths at Maker Faire.
The new, higher resolution capability produces parts that are quite nice to the touch, requiring very little finishing, if any. That, combined with the large build volume and appliance-like ease of use, makes the MakerBot Replicator 2 a very compelling device.
The Replicator 2 is a departure from the previous models in that it is a metal chassis that is, as a whole, closed source. This has led to some controversy and pushback
from the open source hardware advocates, saying that MakerBot has turned its back on the community. MakerBot has pointed out
that the core technologies are still open, even referencing Tom Preston-Warner's Open Source (Almost) Everything
The Replicator 2 is available now, as a single-extruder device. A dual-extruder “Replicator 2X” is planned for 2013.
Formlabs Form 1
Another recently announced 3D printer is the FORM 1, by Formlabs. Unlike the Replicator 2, the FORM 1 is a Sterolithography (SLA) device. It uses a laser to cure a proprietary resin with extremely high precision in 25 micron-thick layers. The FORM 1 is notable because it is one of the few printers to make available at the consumer level high quality SLA technology, normally in the enterprise domain.
The part quality is outstanding, allowing for intricate models with 300 micron-sized features and substantial overhangs. The upside-down build process means FORM 1 models require minimal support structure to be built, and also reduces the complexity of the overall device. Smartly, Formlabs includes a finishing kit for cleaning excess resin off of the model using an alcohol bath. This does highlight a major disadvantage of the FORM 1, the need to work with a less-than-human-friendly resin and process the part after building. But, the tradeoff in process is made up for by the quality and price, and Formlabs has done a good job of reducing the process complexity significantly. (Disclosure: I am friends with one of the engineers working on the FORM 1. He has been teasing me for months that Formlabs had something awesome in the works, and I'm still blown away by the device.)
The FORM 1 is available for pre-order through Kickstarter
, and Formlabs expects to be shipping in Q1 2013. Currently, the only resin choice is a neutral gray, semi-jokingly referred to as “fluorescent gray” because it fluoresces when exposed to the curing laser. Other colors, and materials with other properties, are planned.
The venerable RepRap
made a good showing at Maker Faire. It is significant less because of its performance and more because its goal of being constructed using parts that it can produce. While the metal parts and electronics must still be supplied separately, many of the components can be printed on a RepRap, or other 3D printer. Printing electronics isn't entirely out of the question, either. It's just a matter of time before the RepRap is completely capable of producing the parts for a copy of itself.
There were several other models of 3D printer devices at Maker Faire, including the Ultimaker
, and Up
. There was an incarnation of the Ultimaker that claimed to be the largest homebrew 3D printer, and it was pretty damn big. The build time must be days for a full-sized part. Arguably more a 3D sculptor than printer, there was even a bulldozer with high-precision GPS receivers on its blade, that can be computer controlled for precise shaping of a roadway.
Long used in the design process for fabricating prototypes, hence the term "rapid prototyping", 3D printing is quickly becoming capable of producing production-quality parts on demand by consumers. Additive manufacturing has certain qualities that give it advantages over traditional subtractive methods, like being able to produce functional assemblies that can be printed with components in place, no assembly required. Also, one-of-a-kind parts like custom medical components are economical to produce. Custom toys, boardgames, jewelry, even food given the right materials are all possible. Shapes that would be difficult or impossible to manufacture in any other way are not a problem, making 3D printing popular for artists. While compound materials are still out of the realm of most consumer-level printers, clever geometry can help to expand on the properties.
All these making possibilities opens a major legal can of worms, not just in the issues of intellectual property surrounding the models, but the issues regarding the actual kinds of objects being created.
As expected, a question was raised regarding the Replicator and copyright during the talk with Anderson and Pettis. Though not a lawyer, and quick to point it out, Pettis seemed well versed in the intellectual property issues surrounding 3D printers. He noted that things are not copyrightable, but the software to create them is. Also, a model derived from a scan of an object is not the same as the original model, and does not infringe on copyright
. (3D printing has its own version of the "analog hole
".) However, there are still patent and trademark issues. Anderson used the example of Warhammer 40,000
figurines, and how making a base for the models raised the ire of Games Workshop, the producer of the table-top game. The base itself wasn't the issue, but the statement that it was specifically for Warhammer 40,000
parts was. Now, parts that are for Warhammer 40,000
have big disclaimers saying “Don't use for Warhammer”, which conveniently causes them to come up in searches for "Warhammer", while on the face avoiding legal issues.
The other major issue with 3D printing is the legality of the output. Easy access to professional CAD software and high performance 3D printers means hobbyists can design and print fully functional weapon parts. This is already causing issues
for 3D printer manufacturers. Interestingly, in the case of firearms, the actual act of creating the gun, assuming it is legal for that individual to possess, is not restricted. However, the qualities of the gun that are the result of the process, such as being undetectable by metal detectors because of its plastic nature, can cross legal boundaries.
Like how scanners and printers have features that prevent or complicate counterfeiting, it's possible we'll see similar restrictions on 3D printers as they become more capable and ubiquitous. At the very least, there are many other industries that will have to sort out the legal implications of 3D printers. Firearms are an interesting case study, and will likely be the first industry to formally deal with 3D printers. No other kind of object is so protected and so regulated, or as drastically enabled by 3D printing.To complicate things further, there are the economic implications of a scarcity-eliminating device. These are exciting, interesting, legally confusing times.