Friday, September 30, 2011

The 3D Printer That Prints Itself

"For geeks it has to be the ultimate DIY project. A build-it-yourself, entirely open-source 3D printer. And here is the clever thing about it, not only is it an open source project, but it is self-replicating; you can use your 3Dprinter to print yourself another 3D printer. Called RepRap, it has more than an air of Heath Robinson about it, with its open circuit boards, gears and worm drives. But it is a fully functioning 3D printer, which you can build yourself, for less than £500. Dr. Adrian Bowyer, from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath, is the man behind it. At yesterday’s glittering Founders Forum, a gathering of the start up elite, Dr. Bowyer rather stood out. Among the stellar guest list (which apart from a who’s who of CEOs included people as diverse as Prince Andrew, Dr. Brian Cox and television presenter Davina McCall) of the typically young and sharply dressed, Dr. Bowyer, who admitted to being not quite the wrong side of 60, and dressed as befits his profession, charmed this tough crowd with his presentation. After the talk he had many of Europe’s elite crowding around him. 
The printer was putting manufacturing into the hands of everybody, he said. He showed some of the products the printer could make, from children’s shoes to a model of a gothic cathedral. You can use the printer to make your own keys—which last for about a week or so. When they break, just print yourself a new one. In addition to the open-source printer, there is also an open website ( where people can share their designs allowing anyone to share their work. It is sort of the App Store for 3D printing. 
The underlying language, STL, is also an open standard. Three dimensional printing works in a similar way to bubble-jet printing, but rather than squirting ink, it lays down layers of material to form a solid object. The raw material for the printer is a cheap plastic, typically from recycled material. Dr. Bowyer said a 1Kg drum cost about £30. The obvious question is who would want a 3D printer? Well among the harder-core geek crowd it was actually completely the opposite question—who wouldn’t want one? Alex Ljung, CEO of the Berlin-based Soundcloud, one of the entrepreneurs gathered around Dr. Bowyer, said he thought giving people the ability to manufacture their own products was all part of the democratization of the web. “What will they make? Who knows? But who knew what people would do with YouTube when you gave people the ability to share their own videos? Who knows what people will do with sound on Soundcloud? That is what is so important about these technologies. You are giving ordinary people a voice, in video, in sound and now in 3D printing.” Also watching was Lisa Harouni, MD of Digital Forming, a company aimed at making 3D printing technology more accessible by allowing anyone to design products over the web. She showed high-end products, including chain mail, made from metals such as titanium, bronze and stainless steel, that demonstrated the intricate detail possible with the 30 micron resolution achievable by high-end printers. Other technologies can achieve resolution down to 5 microns. A human hair is 40 to 120 microns in diameter." Link to article