Today, I would like to introduce you to a 3D printer I am building. 3D printers are undoubtedly amazing machines, and the open-source movement has certainly left no stone unturned when it comes to these rapid prototyping ones. After having almost completed this printer, I have identified several shortcomings in its design, and am currently designing my own printer to share with the world – “innovation through iteration”, as I always say. For the record, the machine in the video is a modded version of the RepRap Prusa Mendel i2. What makes RepRaps and the plethora of its derivatives unique, is the fact that they are self-replicating. That means, if you create one printer, you can print a significant portion of another printer!
This post will not be showing you any 3D printing, but rest assured, you’ll see a lot of it in future posts. Since I don’t have a few of the parts I require to complete it yet, I decided that there has to be something I can do with this machine while I wait. So, I decided to test it out with some plotting runs! From snowflakes and smiley faces, to batman and mortal kombat, I’ve made this machine print all sorts of interesting 2D designs. Check out a video demo below:
I’ll cover the technical details of the printer in a future post in grave detail, but feel free to ask me any questions. After all the “oos” and “ahhs” whenever anyone sees a 3D printer, the first question is generally: “so why do you need this? I mean, it can’t print me a shoe, nor can it print me any food. Heck, it can’t even print money, so what’s the use of this machine?” I could compile a mile-long list of useful applications of this low-cost 3D printing technology, but let me keep it short, and explain why I not only want, but need a 3D printer.
1. Prototyping My Ideas … Fast
Like many others out there, every day I come up with a few new ideas and jot them down. Roughly, 90% of my ideas usually never leave my notebook. One key reason for this is the questionable feasibility of their implementation. If the idea is a tangible product, for example, prototyping with foam/cardboard/wood/polymorph can only take you so far in terms of accuracy, professionalism, and structural integrity – especially if you are on a shoe string budget like me. Of the few designs which do leave my notebook, most of them face a similar fate inside my computer as CAD files. However, the prospect of opening those CAD files, navigating to File -> Print, and seeing an actual, physical, three dimensional accurate representation (to the mil) of my idea within minutes is a lure too enticing to ignore. If I do want to send my products off for a manufacturing, before investing a few hundred dollars in molds and waiting weeks to months only to find out that a small flaw in my design renders the entire order and mold useless, I can spend a dollar or two to get a very reasonable prototype instantly.
2. Research and Experimentation
Research and experimentation is the only way to bring innovations to the world. If no one invests the time and material resources toward such initiatives, society’s technological progress would stagnate. There are two key areas of 3D printing which I would like to experiment with.
1. Currently, PLA (polylactic acid) and ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) are the most widely used polymers in low-cost 3D printers. While they are very good for printing, the community knows very little about the actual filament itself. We all know that PLA and ABS release fumes when they melt, but don’t have a well justified understanding of how those fumes impact the environment, or our own health. It’s absolutely true that PLA and ABS are widely used materials in industry. But in an industrial setting, it is expected that proper safety and waste management measures are taken, and that they know exactly what the material they use is. We can’t guarantee such provisions in our homes (most of us can’t, anyway).
Now, I’m no chemist, and don’t claim to know much chemistry at all. However, I am making a strong effort to learn about the chemistry of polymers in order to understand and apply it to this wonderful technology, with the hope that I can find a safe way to enjoy 3D printing – which may very well mean leaving the current way unchanged. I have plans to experiment with various types of bio-plastics – several of which can be created at home. Again, I am not saying that the materials we currently use are unsafe, I am simply saying that we are not sure yet, and must take precautionary steps until we are certain. Such steps should include good ventilation when printing, as well as fume extraction and filtration systems (which really aren’t that hard to make).
2. We dispose of plastic on a daily basis; from broken containers and water bottles, to old toys and jugs of milk. However, imagine a machine in your very own home which can convert what you would have otherwise thrown out, into something new and more useful. So instead of throwing away that empty jug of milk, you can insert it into your machine, and out comes a new case for your phone, or a new cup to hold your toothbrushes. This idea is far from novel, and in fact, research is currently being conducted on the feasibility of such a machine. A great example is the Filabot.
Filabot is a desktop extruding system, capable of grinding various types of plastics, to make spools of plastic filament for 3D printers. Not only is it user friendly, but it is also environmentally friendly. The Filabot can process things such as: milk jugs, soda bottles, various other types of plastics, and bad prints, to make new filament for a future print. Filabot will bring the real power of sustainability to 3D printing, allowing for a one stop shop to make anything.
I’m inspired by the prospect of this process to minimize environmental impact, and am excited to try it out for myself.
3. Doing Something Useful
Earlier this year, I helped my neighbor change his garage door opener. When I asked him why he was changing it, he showed me a tiny plastic piece which had broken, thus rendering the machine useless. The machine itself was almost 25 years old, and was truly a testament to the potential of great engineering. He hardly ever had to conduct any maintenance work on the machine, and it worked flawlessly for over two decades. Now, because of one tiny broken piece, an otherwise perfectly operational machine would end up in some landfill. On top of that, he would have to spend a few hundred bucks on a relatively cheap looking replacement (compared to the 25 year old beast), and both of us would sweat through the day installing this thing. In fact, it took us so long that I ended up missing the transit of Venus! But I won’t count that.
In retrospect, the thought that I could have designed and printed a replacement piece within an hour is truly tormenting. It would have been so easy to save a great machine from being thrown out, save my neighbor a good amount of money, and save both of us a lot of valuable time. Now, these occurrences are not rare scenarios. Be it a broken knob on your stove top, or a buckle on your backpack, the ability to fix them instead of wasting time and money is really great. If we combine this idea with the one from my second point, then this technology becomes even more promising. So not only could I have printed my neighbor a new piece, I could have used the broken piece itself as the material for the new one – and maybe even redesign it to make it better.
4. Inspiring Kids
Sounds cliché, but hear me out. When I was in kindergarten, we used to meddle with a little Photoshop like program. We used to have a blast drawing silly things on a glowing screen, and seeing it come out in full color on a piece of paper. Now imagine giving this same power to children, but adding a new dimension. Giving kids clay to play with initially, and teaching them how to build things with LEGO is a great first step – heck, I play with those things today too. To take it to the next level, we can give kids very simply CAD programs so that they can hold their own abstract creations. It may just be a ball with a smiley face extruded on the side, but the fact that they can make those same silly drawings and get a three dimensional result which resembles their creation may open a whole new realm of creativity. This simple step would truly pave the way for a generation of incredibly creative children, who would be bound only by their own creativity, and not by a missing dimension. I don’t exactly know how at this point, but it is my goal to help this technology reach a younger audience.
You may or may not agree with all my thoughts on 3D printing, but I sure would like to know what you think – so feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading!