Next weekend’s 3D Printing Camp will show you how to make anything
Post by Christie Taylor on 7/13/2012 3:00pm
Sector67, Madison’s own “hackerspace” for freeform crafting, machining, and general making-things projects, has a pretty defined ethic. They’re pro-recycling, pro-collaboration, and think every good idea should be shared with the world.
So it’s no great leap that they’re inviting anyone and everyone (limit 125) to spend a day at their Eastside space next weekend learning about the rapid rise of affordable, accessible, do-it-yourself 3D printing technology, what you can do with it, and how to get started.
The participant-driven “unconference” runs from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 21. The unconference structure relies on participants to volunteer their knowledge and experience, rather than a list of pre-arranged speakers. As a result, it’s free, though still looking for additional donations and sponsors to cover meal costs. And there’s a schedule, yes, but don’t expect it to tell you much: the real schedule won’t be settled until after participants get there Saturday morning and begin to talk to each other about what they know, what they want to know, and how they can collectively organize the ideal conference schedule.
“We’ll have Post-It notes on a whiteboard wall,” says Sector67 director Chris Meyer. “We’ll literally go around the room and say why we’re here.”
Participants who own 3D printers, or who have created cool products using them, are encouraged to bring them. And the unconference welcomes anyone else to join, including, “makers, hackers, designers, prototypers, artists and general innovators,” says Joe Kerman, a Sector67 member who does much of the group’s outreach work.
(Register online, or contact Bob Waldron (bwaldron at gmail.com) for more information about participating.)
For the uninitiated, 3D printing is decades-old technology that is, at last, becoming mainstream thanks to the inexpensive models by companies like MakerBot, which is making small, affordable 3D printers a mainstream commodity. The concept is simple: take a material, such as molten plastic, and lay it down in layers, waiting between layers to let the material cool, to create a three-dimensional shape. The most simple printers are, Meyer said, essentially a more precise hot glue gun (and he’s got parts made of hot glue to prove it) hooked up to basic computer software.
With more sophisticated materials and equipment, 3D printing has applications that include organ creation, fossil reconstruction, and personalized hip replacement. There are people designing jewelry, shoes, and furniture that can be created with a 3D printer.
At Sector67, a member is working on mounts for cameras for skydiving that will mold exactly to the wearer’s wrist, eliminating snag hazards and allowing for easy removal if anything goes wrong. Meyer says the market for such a product is so small that the standard path to manufacturing would be impossibly expensive, requiring at least $100,000 in venture capital. “He’d be out of the game completely,” Meyer says. But with 3D printing, the same innovator can create a prototype and easily impress would-be investors with only a few cents’ worth of plastic.
The shop has plenty of other examples: a printable iPhone tripod mount, a Pez dispenser top shaped like Stephen Colbert’s head, a bottle opener. A student at the UW-Madison College of Engineering made a prize-winning prosthetic hand at Sector67, lacking the resources to prototype it on campus. Another member designed and printed a part to adapt a sewing machine so it would better work for a project.
3D printing is more than just functional: cheap printing allows Nathan Davis, one Sector67 member, to create art based on music, plotting time versus the number of times a frequency appears.
Website Thingiverse is a site where 3D print operators can share new creations, free, for download by anyone else with a 3D printer. And the open-source, DIY nature of hackerspace 3D printing is allowing huge drops in the price of access: MakerBot’s printer costs only $1,800 compared to university-grade 3D printers, which remain expensive at at least $10,000 or, often, far more.
Affordable 3D printing, to the point where many people designing products might conceivably have access to one, turns the internet into a pathway for physical objects. “You can design this thing and e-mail it to a guy and he can have it printed before you can drive to a post office to send it to him,” Kerman says.
And that’s a powerful tool for a group of people who rely on collaboration and sharing, Meyer says. “You can get global distribution with 3D printing in a matter of hours. There are people with all different backgrounds and ideas utilizing a product you designed. Even if it’s not very profitable, and not as strong a production as you want, it’s getting in the hands of people who need it.”
While the products of these cheaper printers aren’t as pretty as the exact models crafted by machines costing in the tens of thousands of dollars, Meyer notes that their plastic construction makes them more useful as parts, and a perfectly adequate start for designers who hope to attract investors to new products.
“The point is to get it working and get it out the door,” Kerman says. “It has to exist to be touched and used. You’ll leave with your bike light working again, and you can sell a company off a prototype like that. They don’t care how pretty it is.”
Meyer and Kerman think the phenomenon could, like photo printing before it, disrupt the entire chain of how basic goods and parts get to consumers, with specialized manufacturers yielding to home printing and, for people not interested in investing in their own kits, businesses like Kinkos and Fed-Ex. It would be cheaper for a company like General Electric, for example, to just sell the schematics for its oven knobs, rather than keep warehouses full of knobs for different styles of oven to send customers when they need replacement parts. But the basic manufactured goods, especially the biggest ones, are still more effectively made the traditional way. “We’re going to be printing kidneys before we’re printing whole ovens,” Kerman says.
At Sector67, they’re already using 3D printers to build...other 3D printers, at least for several of the necessary parts. The rest are easily found at hardware stores. In one lucky find, they’re converting a $12,000 piece of medical equipment--bought for $40 from salvage--into a machine that can print far beyond the usual 6” cube possible with Makerbot and standard DIY kits. All you really need is something with 3 axes of motion, Meyer notes. “And rather than going online and buying all the parts, we can print everything here,” he says. “It’s going to be the biggest 3D printer in town.”
Eventually, Meyer says, DIY-ers will be free from even commercially-produced filament--the plastic wire that Makerbots and other printers print with, which costs about $15 a pound. There’s a fully funded Kickstarter campaign for Filabot, which, if made widely available, could provide 3D print operators with affordable technology for melting down and printing with any leftover plastic, including milk jugs and legos.
“So potentially, when you’re done printing stuff, you can take all the junk that didn’t work and grind it back up and run it through again,” Meyer says.
“Two years ago, you had two choices: buy one, or here’s a kit,” Kerman says.
“The last two years have been really exciting for this low end--it’s exploded. And now the software is all one-click, user friendly, pretty graphics and not just command line nerd stuff. A 10-year-old could use it.”
And with open-source plans comes low-price accessibility, Meyer says. “You run to the hardware store to get all the nuts and bolts, run to someone with a 3D printer to print those parts, go to internet to get the motors. You could build one for about $500 if you had a shop for making it.”
“It’s really a disruptive technology,” Meyer says, meaning one that can rearrange the existing markets for high-quality, extremely expensive 3D printers in favor of ordinary people who couldn’t otherwise afford the technology.
Meyer says closest cousins to Saturday’s unconference are the Maker Faires held in several cities since 2006, which showcase a variety of home building, crafting, engineering, and general DIY creations. But those haven’t homed in as narrowly as this will. “This is the first 3D printing conference targeted to do-it-yourself printers,” Meyer says.
Kerman says having a conference environment will help participants find the best information quickly, and get excited about what they’re learning. “You’ll be able to walk out of there with a really high level of confidence that you can build or buy one, knowing they exist and they’re under $1,000 and a 10-year-old can build them, and that there’s a whole bunch of stuff you can download and make in one click,” he says.
“Not only can you get hands-on time playing with it and poking at it and asking questions about it, but you get people who can explain what’s available and the differences between them,” Meyer says. “Where else are you going to learn? If you walk into the university and say, ‘I want to learn about 3D printers,’ they’ll, what, sell you a mechanical engineering degree?’”
Christie Taylor (@ctaylsaurus) covers science, environment, and, depending on the season, state politics for dane101. She verbs a lot of nouns, including rollerskates, radio, and Kurt Vonnegut. A Madison native, she's not sure she'll ever quite manage to leave Wisconsin, and that's just fine by her. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.