3D Printers - The Next Technology Goldrush

3D Printers - The Next Technology Goldrush
3D Printers - The Next Technology Goldrush
By Christopher D. Winnan
Table of Contents
Part I
3D Printing Technology
Scanning Technology
Modeling Technology
Model and 3D Design Resources
Freelance Printing, Scanning and Designing
Part II
Designing New Products
Niche Markets
Untapped Markets
Three Pioneering Printers
Doll's Houses
Action Figures
Gaming Miniatures
Radio Controlled Scale Models
'Green' Products
Skulls and Bones
Custom Items and Works of Art
Miscellaneous Ideas
Plastic Covers
Part III
Overcoming Negativity
Some Interesting Analogies
Printing on a Larger Scale
Printing Materials
Legal Issues
The Printed Gun Controversy
3D Printing in the Third World
The Disruptive Power of 3D Printers
The Future of 3D Printing - How Far Could All...
Part IV
About The Author
Copyright © 2012 Christopher D. Winnan
All Rights Reserved
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or
transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,
photocopying, recording or otherwise, without proper written permission from
the author. The only exception is a reviewer. A reviewer may quote brief
passages in a review.
Thanks to Kevin Hayward for his much needed editing skills and the section on
Legal Issues. Thanks also to Hannah Jones for her excellent proofreading skills
and to Karick (Karen Reynolds-James) for her tireless formatting abilities.
Thanks also to all that was kind enough to allow me to link to their images,
especially Tomasz Orzechowski, Co-Founder & Industrial Designer of TO DO
Product Design (http://to-do.com.pl/index.html) of whose design of a twenty
century modeler work station graces the front cover
History repeats itself?
If you are reading this, you already know that 3D printers are bringing about a
revolution in manufacturing. Much like the industrial and computer revolutions,
these amazing new machines will completely transform the face of
manufacturing, distribution and consumption. But, for the moment, that is all
just rhetoric, until current printer owners get up, lead the way and show where
all the profits lie. Resolutions are improving and costs are decreasing all the
time. Did you know for example, that 3D printing was used to create the suits of
armour in Iron Man and the Aston Martins in the latest Bond movie? Even so,
some people worry that we are still in the 'spend a lot or be disappointed' earlyadopter stage. The real question that most people want answered is this: “Can I
make a buck from these machines?” and the answer is a resounding yes, not
only a buck, but probably a couple of hundred bucks a day and maybe even a
lot more. This exciting new technology is destined to provide all kinds of
exciting new opportunities and employment.
If you have an interest in 3D printers at the moment, then you should be
looking at yourself as the twenty-first-century counterpart of pioneers like Bill
Gates and Steve Jobs, from the early computer home-brew clubs. It was guys
like these who first thought about how to monetize this technology, and went
on to be the earliest IT billionaires. If 3D printers really are the beginning of a
game-changing new technology, then there are going to be plenty of
billionaires made on the way, maybe even the world's first trillionaire, who
3D printing is a technology on the cusp, and therefore it is essential that you be
fully prepared for its arrival. The only way to profit from great changes is to
anticipate them in the very early stages, and be ready to take advantage of the
opportunities that they create. We are still at the beginning phase today, but
major technical advances are already heralding enormous business
opportunities. This book is not just idle speculation. The material here has been
meticulously researched and combined with a uniquely specialised knowledge
of overseas manufacturing, niche markets and emerging economies. I was lucky
enough to spend much of the nineties in Seoul, observing the largest of the
Asian Tigers transform itself into an industrial powerhouse. The following
decade was spent in the Peoples' Republic of China, observing the dragon wake
from it centuries of slumber. Most recently, I have been on numerous trips to
Myanmar, exploring the key strategic regions of the Burma Road and the Indian
Gulf. As a well-established guide book writer, I am in a very good position to
document these areas, opening up paths for other entrepreneurs and investors
to follow. In this book I will be focussing not on one particular geographical
area, but one specific technology, that of additive manufacturing, better known
as 3D printing.
Since the 3D printer patents expired in 2009, I have been watching this field
with great interest. Home-brew tinkerers and hacker-space gizmologists have
quietly been bringing the designs and capabilities of these amazing new
machines up to a level where they are almost ready to hit the mainstream. Back
in the seventies, it took more than five years before personal computers found
their first killer app, and another ten years before they were able to crack the
home market. Kurzweil's law of accelerating returns demonstrates very clearly
that the coming paradigm shift to digital manufacturing will take place even
faster than the seismic events of the previous digital revolution. The average
Joe still has only a very vague idea of what 3D printing actually is, let alone its
capabilities, its financial applications and its massive game changing potential.
If you want to play a role in the next industrial revolution, you will need to be a
good three steps ahead of everybody else, who are just now waking up and
paying attention to what 3D printing is all about.
This book is much more than a brainstorming of random ideas that might
eventually come into effect sometime in the next decade. I have actively tried
to steer clear of all the usual type of fantasy, tea-leaf predictions, 'move into
toilet paper and become a billionaire' thinking. This book is about opportunities
and markets that exist right now. This is not some cyberpunk fantasy of vague
speculation, but a detailed overview of everything that is relevant and
important in the 3D printing industry. Even now, this is a vast field, with new
changes taking place every single day. It will undoubtedly affect many areas of
our everyday lives with accordingly immense social impacts. This book shows
you how to successfully anticipate these developments, and how to surf the
crest of this technological tsunami, while everybody else is swallowed up and
swept away.
At the same time, this book is not a specialist MBA in digital entrepreneurship. I
have researched and presented the most relevant material available, but at the
same time this is not a book about niche marketing or online business. I have
obviously touched on these areas, as they will undoubtedly play an important
role, but this is not a dummies guide to setting up a 3D printing business in the
age of the internet. There are plenty of books out there about online selling and
internet marketing. If you are savvy enough to see that another industrial
revolution is about to take place, then it is also a fair bet that you already know
how to make tools like eBay, Etsy and Facebook work for you. To this end, I am
happy to share with you as much as I currently know about the current state of
digital manufacturing, but I will not be teaching you how to suck eggs.
While there are already hundreds, if not thousands of books out there on
starting and running a successful internet business, this book is something else
completely. This is a collection of cutting-edge knowledge that has not yet been
compiled elsewhere. In fact, parts of it are so specialised, that you would be
hard pushed to find large chunks of it just about anywhere. Despite their
explosive implications, few people are writing in any detail about the digital
rights management of physical objects, or the enormous varieties of scale in the
miniatures market, or state of the art advances in mixed-mesh modelling. Few
apart from the most avid collectors appreciate the field of 1/6 scale military
figures as an emerging art form, or the industrial applications of complex
geometries and spiral vortices, or even the rapid miniaturisation that is taking
place in the arena of autonomous robotics. All of these subjects are covered
here, clearly explaining their close relationships with 3D printing.
For me personally, the most fascinating aspect of 3D printing is not the current
state of play, but those amazing possibilities that are opening up in areas that
we simply have not previously been able to explore with current technology.
These include the enormous potential of areas such as implosion propulsion,
mass personalisation and virtual object manipulation. 3D printing is not just an
isolated technological breakthrough, but one that will affect an entire spectrum
of fields, from design to development to distribution. Perhaps most interesting
of all will be the environmental impacts of these developments. Could 3D
printing usher in an age of practical sustainability that we as a planet now so
desperately need? Read on and find out all this and more in the following
N.B.: This is a very rapidly changing area of research which is changing much
faster than any one person can record. Even so, I will be following advances in
this arena very carefully and releasing new material as it becomes available.
Keep your eyes open for news of our forthcoming 3D-printer-related
publications or email me at info@3D-Printing-News.com
Part I
A Technological Primer
3D Printing Technology
Remember the Altair 8800?
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altair_8800
The Altair was a pretty primitive and useless computer by today's standards,
but it was really the first personal computer. For most people, it would have
been impossible to predict all the ways personal computers have since changed
our lives, and only the real enthusiasts could see what lay ahead of them. Those
enthusiasts turned out to be visionaries like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Larry
Ellison. They had the ideas that the were the first sparks, the kindling that set
the fires ablaze. They also became some of the richest men on the planet.
In the early 1980s, prices for top-end Apple or IBM-type machines were in the
$1,000-$1,500 range, or about $2,200-$3,000 at current prices. 3D printers are,
if anything, cheaper. Ultimaker started in May 2011 and sells its current version
for about $1,600. Erik de Bruijn, the Dutch founder, was recently quoted as
saying "It's been a real roller coaster, you know, starting a company,". "But
we've sold thousands already. It's amazing how many people want this
Much of the budget movement is open-source, and works with standard
computer-aided design packages, including some that are available free on the
Web. Early computers, by contrast, certainly were not open source, and this is
having an enormous impact on their rapid growth and development. In fact,
one of the main reasons that these machines are developing so exponentially,
is because of this open source ethos, which has allowed them to evolve quickly
in terms of build footprint, print resolution and materials used. Someone in
Macedonia might be optimising the software, while another in Mumbai is
improving the physical extruder head, and someone else in Singapore is
posting how-to-build guides on Youtube. All of them are linked informally and
instantaneously through forums, IRC channels and the usual instant
comms/social networks. For those of you saying "I want one", there are 3D
printer users' groups that can help you build or assemble machines that you
buy as a kit. For example, a 3D printer users' group meets every other Monday
evening in the London Hackerspace. The meetings are to help people with all
stages of building and running a 3D printer. And if you do not happen to live in
London or some other large metropolis, then building a 3D printer from video
instructions on Google video is now a perfectly viable option.
Additive manufacturing, as 3D printing is also known as, is not actually a ‘new’
technology. It is simply now coming into the public consciousness, and being
more widely publicised. 3D Systems co-founder, Chuck Hull, invented
stereolithography in 1986, and the company remains to this day one of the
markets’ largest players, along with Stratasys and Z Corp. Prices for commercial
3D printers range from $15,000 to more than $300,000. At the other end of the
scale, personal 3D printers requiring DIY assembly, now sell for as little as $500,
whereas five years ago the lowest-priced printer was at least $15,000.
A High End Objet1000 Printer
The open source development of 3D printers began in 2009. Before then, the
technology was under patent, and there was little incentive for home users to
become involved. The RepRap project (short for replicating rapid prototyper)
was founded in 2005 by Dr. Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer in mechanical
engineering at the University of Bath in the UK. It began with a paper written in
February 2004 that discussed a method of fabrication available to the masses
and which could evolve in an autonomous fashion. To date, the RepRap project
has released four 3D printing machines: "Darwin", released in March 2007,
"Mendel", released in October 2009, "Prusa Mendel" and "Huxley" released in
2010. Developers have named each after famous biologists, as 'evolvability'
was a key part of the concept when the first RepRap was released into the wild.
While they are not meant to compete with the top end commercial machines,
the development and democratisation of the technology is running hand-inhand with new models and paradigms for designing, collaborating, and funding.
There are many fast-growing 'cottage industries' forming around this
technology—the funding is often crowd-sourced, and the retail is web-based.
Overheads are minimal, and the ethos is collaborative rather than competitive.
The 'old model' was all about buying up new technologies in order to sit on
them and prop up outdated systems “(I mention no corporations by name, but I
am sure that we can all think of a great many).” 3D printing is quickly
becoming more than simply a technology—it is morphing into a movement and
a mindset. For some, it is as much about finding alternatives to capitalism as it
is about technology.
The Reprap and its Proud Father
All this may sound utopian, but it is hard not to be taken by the general
enthusiasm. Today we all benefit immensely from open source software—all
these free Unix and Linux programs powering and streaming through the Net.
Now, imagine for a moment a world with open source hardware. Come up with a
really great product, and you can share it with the world—to be hacked and
modified by the people who actually use it, warranted against obsolescence by
the irrepressible nature of human ingenuity.
I personally believe that open source is a future inevitability. If you are
designing a post-printable product that does not have this kind of hackability
and community, then you are suddenly a stegosaurus or a T-Rex, or some other
obscure soon-to-be-extinct dinosaur. Out there in the technological
undergrowth is a species of pathetically small furry mammals, but they have
hackability and community, and they will be out exploring the cosmos when
the only remaining evidence of your existence lies deep in the fossil record.
Current domestic 3D printers are perhaps 'toys' in the same way that a dotmatrix printer was an expensive toy of its time, but things are moving fast. Just
fifteen years ago most of us could not afford a printer of any kind, then inkjets
quickly became affordable, and now laser printers are standard in many homes.
Back in the late eighties, the company for whom my father worked bought one
of the first desktop lasers, and the price was well into five figures. Just twenty
years later, a friend ordered three desktops for his company, and the supplier
sent him a small laser printer as a freebie.
Most consumer 3D printers available at the moment use a manufacturing
process in which layers of plastic are deposited layer by layer, building up to
form the required shape of the final object. This begins with a software process,
developed by Stratasys, which processes an .stl file (stereolithography file
format), mathematically slicing and orienting the model. It then converts the
3D images into a digital pattern, made up of many thin horizontal layers. If
required, support structures are automatically generated, whereby the machine
dispenses two materials – one for the model and one for a disposable support
structure. Technically speaking this is known as FDM extrusion or fused
deposition modelling. A plastic filament is unwound from a coil and supplies
material to an extrusion nozzle which can turn the flow on and off. The
technology was first developed by S. Scott Crump in the late 1980s, and then
commercialized in 1990. The term fused deposition modelling and its
abbreviation to FDM are trademarked by Stratasys Inc. The exact equivalent
term, fused filament fabrication (FFF), was coined by the members of the
RepRap project to give a phrase that would be legally unconstrained in its use.
Despite the fancy names, these are robotic hot glue guns. By extruding a thin
line of plastic onto a printable surface, they build layer upon layer of plastic on
itself until the item is completely constructed. It is easiest to think of squeezing
a line of toothpaste onto a toothbrush, then continuing to squeeze toothpaste
out on top of the toothpaste already on the toothbrush. This layering of material
is what 3D printers are all about.
Some machines work by laying down a strand of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene
(ABS) polymer from a heated nozzle. ABS is best known as the plastic from
which Lego bricks are made. Other 3D-printer makers have chosen to “go
green", using a biodegradable compound called PLA or polylactic acid, a plastic
made from food starch, perhaps more familiar to us as the polymer that makes
our milk go clumpy once it is affected by bacteria. These two types of plastics
have become the most popular choices as they do not give off the kind of toxic
fumes that make the work place smell like a KKK meeting. A multitude of other
plastics are now becoming available, including polycarbonates,
polycaprolactones, polyphenylsulfones and waxes, each with different tradeoffs between strength and temperature properties.
The technology is not just limited to resin modelling. Polycarbonate, chocolate,
food safe silicone rubber, clay, ice and cake frosting can also be printed with
slightly altered extruders. Apart from plastic extruding machines, there are also
printers that use a powder technique whereby print heads - like the ones in
everyday inkjet printers - deposit glue in the desired pattern. The glue bonds
grains of powder into the desired shape, and the base on which the object is
produced, descends gradually as each layer of glued powder is added. When
complete, the object lies within a cube of powder and has to be dug out. The
surplus can then be recycled for future use.
Some printers are equipped with multiple "extruders" (the part that puts the
plastic down). But generally, they only come with one, so that if you want
multicoloured parts, they have to be assembled outside the printer. The
machines also suffer from some limits on resolution, or the thickness of the
layers of plastic. Generally, that is about 200 microns, or 0.2 millimetres, which
is not a lot, but enough to give the pieces a rough "feel" that must be sanded
down. The resolution of the newer homemade 3D printers is now down to 75
microns, which is getting close to the limits of the plastic. At this resolution you
can no longer see the layered formation.
Objet, one of the higher end printer companies in Israel, has now merged with
Stratasys, and so it looks like the first generation of industrially polished, nonhome-brew machines is just around the corner. The Objet Connex500 printer is
a good example of this, as evidenced by some stunning, if tiny, incredibly
detailed prints. It can print incredibly small models at a 16 micron resolution,
with flourishes so subtle that they are hard to notice at a glance, even printing
with up to 14 different materials at the same time.
And then of course, there is the home-brew community itself. Many hobbyists
have barely whetted their appetites with Makerbots and Repraps, and we are
now seeing geographically diverse internet communities springing up all over
the web, each doing their best to push the boundaries of what their machines
can achieve.
While there are undoubtedly other competitors, it will be very interesting to
see how this race develops and who will be the early front runners. Will it be the
early pioneers intent on staying the course, will big IT move in en masse, or will
it be a Linux type distributed community that makes the key breakthroughs?
Whatever happens, 3D printers are already here in their primary incarnation,
and it is up to us as pioneers to make the best use of the equipment possible. If
you do not have the latest cutting edge model capable of 1080 resolution, and
are still experimenting with a self-built rep rap, then do not worry, there are still
plenty of opportunities for all. The real beauty of the evolving printers is that to
some extent, users are able to print off their own upgrades. A quick search on
Youtube will bring up a growing number of videos where users print
components and designs that they have downloaded from the internet, to
create a newer and better model of their existing machines.
3D Printers Currently Available
The main reason that I was loathe to add a chapter to the previous edition of
this book about 3D printers currently on the market is that I knew that it would
become dated very quickly. There are clearly some absolute geniuses pushing
the envelope of this technology, but at the same time, there is no guarantee
that any of them will survive. It is the Wild West right now, and although there
are people out there starting viable businesses, many fear that once the kinks
have been worked out by these young entrepreneurs, the industry giants will
simply step in and it will be hello Black and Decker Bot or Sony Sinterengine.
Already we are seeing the Edison effect manifest itself. Just as indisputable
evidence shows that Edison was in no way the inventor of the movie camera or
the light bulb, every third grader on the planet will tell you an entirely different
story. I suppose this is what happens if you listen to third graders. We are
already seeing some larger than life characters in the 3D printing field, claiming
to be sole inventors, even taking the developments of the open source
community and claiming them as their own proprietary intellectual property.
The rule of karma may even now be dictating the inevitable backlash that these
people deserve.
Regardless of these developments, I feel that it is unfair to write a book about
the opportunities associated with 3D printing without at least a brief
introduction to a selection of the machines that are currently out there. The
main problem here is that, even when publishing through kindle, whatever I
write here is going to be at least a few months old by the time you to read this.
In 3D printing, that is an awfully long time. With this caveat in mind let us look
at just half a dozen of the players operating at the time of writing.
While there is abundant information all over the Net about the various models
currently available, by far the best place to get up close and personal with
these devices is a hobbyist exhibition, such as the recent Maker Faire. In an
insanely crowded and cacophonic pavilion devoted entirely to 3D printers, the
hype surrounding this explosive technology was palpable, and it felt that half of
the American population was in attendance, in order to find out what all the
buzz was about. Unsurprisingly, the number of 3D printing companies
showcasing their products has increased every year since the first New York
Maker Faire in 2010, when there were just three companies. In 2011 five
businesses participated and in 2012 more than twenty companies, as well as
dozens of ancillary businesses selling software, parts and other supplies, were
in attendance. A Maker Faire is an extremely organic scene. Inventors, creators,
and engineers from all walks of life have their gadgets, science projects, and
creations on display for all to see, and they range from downright amazing to
completely bizarre.
Perhaps the biggest surprise from this years event was that Makerbot
Industries, the company that much of the media has already branded market
leader at the entry level, turned out to be the biggest disappointment. The New
York-based company started selling printer kits in April 2009, 5,200 of which
were, as Makerbot's co-founder and CEO Bre Pettis says, "in the wild" by August
2011. After receiving a whopping $10 million worth of venture capital, and then
upsetting most of their customers by moving almost immediately to a
proprietary format, their newest fourth-generation printer, the Replicator 2 is
now one of the most expensive units at $2800. The company has more than
150 employees and has now opened a store in lower Manhattan. Some
attendees stated that the printed objects they had on display were some of the
worst of the show. Apparently the software is very tricky to implement and
operate, even for someone that is technically minded.
Fortunately, there are already many new players on the field including
Solidoodle, Up!3D, Ultimaker, and Tinkerines. The Tinkerines Ditto was one of
the long shots at the New York Faire that impressed many. Some claimed that it
produced the best objects, and at $900 in kit form or $1400 assembled, it was
amazing bang for the buck. Tinkerines is new to the scene, so they do not yet
have a dual-nozzle head, nor do they yet support ABS plastic (the necessary
heated base is still being developed). Eugene Suyu, from Vancouver, the
twenty-four-year-old co-founder, studied design at Simon Fraser University in
British Columbia. Tinkerine, which he founded with friend Andy Yang, has
already produced a couple of models of its 3D printer, the Ditto. The acrylic
version showcases an aesthetic sense as much as solid engineering. "With one
or two companies the pricing was generally pretty high, but now with so many
new people entering the market, the prices for these printers are starting to
flatline," said Suyu.
For even the most basic model of printer, be prepared to spend at least $500$700, and that is if you do all of the part sourcing and assembly yourself,
including soldering the electronics. The reprap.org forum and wiki are excellent
resources, although they have become a little slower recently thanks to all the
new interest in the subject. There is also #reprap IRC channel on freenode,
again with a very helpful and inviting community.
Most companies sell their products online, or at hobbyist events like Maker
Faire, but the first two US stores have now opened, which is perhaps an
indication of things to come. Diego Porqueras raised $167,410 (after asking for
$42,000) in May 2012 on Kickstarter, and set up Deezmaker in his Pasadena
garage. After being overwhelmed with orders, Porqueras opened the first 3D
printer store on the West Coast and retails a stripped-down version of his
Bukobot printer for $599. The most fertile breeding grounds for this new
technology are unsurprisingly crowdsourcing (online funding platforms)
websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Kickstarter has seen some thirty 3D
printer related projects, while Indiegogo has had another dozen projects
seeking funds.
Up to his neck in $50,000 of credit-card debt, Brook Drumm, a California-based
web designer, turned to Kickstarter, in order to raise the $25,000 that he
needed to launch his 3D project. To Drumm's amazement, just twenty-four
hours after submitting his pitch, the project reached its goal. Thirty days later,
the Printrbot had been inundated with $830,827 from 1,808 backers,
surpassing his wildest expectations.
Printrbot's most affordable model costs just $400 and was designed to be the
simplest 3D printer yet, an all-in-one kit that can be assembled and printing in
a couple of hours. Drumm assembles all the electronics, the hot end, and puts
the connectors on all the motors and components, so that there is no soldering
required. This is the printer that a child could put together. The Printrbot
borrows from many great designers in the open source 3D printer world, with
linear bearings, smooth drill rods, a lasercut print bed, a manufactured PCB
heated bed, and of course, the latest open source software.
Atlanta-based Hyrel 3D had 73 backers pledge $152,942 above their original
$50,000 goal in their latest Kickstarter campaign for a pre-assembled steel and
aluminium 3D printer, that uses precision linear rails for all three axes. It
features a hot-swap interchangeable mounting system and a quick filament
change system, allowing users to easily replace and replenish a filament.
Options include an expandable build area pack going from 150x150x200 mm
to 200x200x200 mm, and an expansion slot and electronics for a second "HotHead" extruder. The basic printer including a single extruder head and a build
area of 150x150x200 mm is sold for $1,395, while a pre-assembled model with
dual extruders, a build area of 200x200x200 mm, and an ultrasonic wash tank
costs $3,500
There are two advantages of having a dual extruder system. The first allows the
standard 3mm filament to be printed in two different colours. Second, dual
extruder systems which use an ABS/PLA combination allows the user to create
shapes which cannot be made with a single extruder. In this case, the PLA is
used as a supporting "filler" base material where the ABS prints on top of it. At
the end of a print, the PLA can be dissolved in an ultrasonic wash tank, leaving
the ABS part intact. The Hyrel also features a hot-swap interchangeable
mounting system. Both extruder heads can be removed and replaced in less
than a minute, even if the tips are operating at the extruding temperature.
Hyrel 3D is also in the process of developing a full-colour 3D printer. The next
generation 3D printer will have red, green and blue colour extruder heads, and
will blend the colours so that they can then be printed at any opacity. There will
be full control of the texture, shading and overall colour. The full-colour 3D
printer is still in development and price will be in the $5,000 range. It is
expected to be released in the third quarter/autumn of 2013. Although we
already have full-colour 3D printers in the market, such as the ZPrinter 650 (5
print heads, including black) and ZPrinter 850 from 3D Systems, which are
capable to print 390,000 colours, the price of $60,000+ is just too expensive
for individuals and small business units. Hyrel 3D's effort in developing fullcolour 3D printer could possibly bring quality colour 3D prints to the masses
very soon. At the high end of the hobbyist scale is the Form 1 from Formlabs:
The Form 1 from
Pre-order machines were priced at $2,699, although actual market pricing has
not yet been released. Even so, the Formlabs' Form 1 printer raised almost as
much cash in its first day as the Printrbot did for its entire campaign. The
machine utilises stereolithography, reaching layer thicknesses and feature sizes
that are a major step ahead of what is possible with the FDM extrusion-based
processes common to MakerBot's Replicator and homebrew RepRap designs.
Stereolithography (SL) is the oldest 3D printing system and was developed by
Chuck W. Hull (co-founder of 3D Systems) in 1986. A laser is used to draw on
the surface of a liquid plastic resin that hardens a layer at a time, when
exposed to a certain wavelength of light. This is also referred to as digital light
projection (DLP). Parts created this way are very accurate, require minimal post
processing and are ideal for use as master patterns for vacuum casting.
Until now, SL has been one of the most expensive 3D printing processes. With
pricey lasers and high-precision optical components, SL 3D printers could easily
cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The results of this new
incarnation are impressive: the Form 1 can print layers as thin as 25 microns
(0.001 in) with features as small as 300 microns (0.012 in) in a build volume of
125 x 125 x 165 mm (4.9 x 4.9 x 6.5), enabling the printer to turn out objects
that are 5 inches wide and about 6.5 inches tall. Plastic is not deposited on a
build platform; instead, parts are extracted from a gooey pool of resin. To put
this in perspective, the Form 1 resolution is four times higher than the new
MakerBot Replicator 2 (100-micron layer thickness), and is on par with
professional grade systems. This means it can print complex geometries with
exquisite details and beautiful surface finishes. Form 1 uses low-cost blu-ray
lasers to cause a light-sensitive liquid polymer material to harden, the same
kind found in high-definition DVD players. The laser, steered by a pair of
mirrors, passes over one layer of liquid, telling it which areas need to "become"
the object, and then a platform lifts the object up slightly, and the laser adds
another layer. For the X and Y axes, resolution is defined by the DLPs resolution,
so it is possible to achieve quite high quality with off the shelf equipment. In
fact, there is only one moving axis. Everything else is fixed. With a decent M8
(1.25mm) lead screw and a 1/16 micro stepping stepper motor users can
achieve 2560 steps per millimeter.
Because of the nature of the chemicals used in the process, SLA models can be
translucent. They are not optically clear, so we will not be printing ourselves
new spectacles just yet, but the semi transparent qualities do bring a new
palette of options for designers, and electronics whizzes will be able to do
amazing things with clear resin and LED lighting.
The Formlabs project was started by an expert team of MIT engineers and
design students who, as researchers at the MIT Media Lab, were lucky to
experience the best and most expensive fabrication equipment in the world.
With initial seed funds provided by Eric Schmidt of Google, they have already
built and tested seven generations of prototypes. The Form 1 has an anodised
aluminium housing that gives it a respectable, serious look, quite different from
the plywood-clad, low-cost homebrew printers.
Apart from the higher initial cost, one of the other major disadvantages is the
higher cost of the resin. Current estimates put it at about $149 per litre, which
makes it is approximately three times more expensive than Makerbot-style
extrusion printing. This works out at about 10 cents per gram, allowing users to
print 7-800 cubic centimeters with a single kilogram of resin. The other major
drawback is speed, currently taking several hours even for a small object.
DLP printers which use the power of light to impact the printable resin material
and set it in place are proving very popular as one route of development. In
mid-2012, the B9Creator DLP Printer also hit its Kickstarter funding goal in just
one day. The company sought only $50,000 on the social venture capital site
and yet, to date, has received pledges for over half a million, and anyone who
put in more than $2,375 has now had a complete unit delivered.
One disadvantage that is rarely mentioned is that these UV curing epoxies,
urethanes and polyesters can cause sensitization in some people. Some are
worse than others, depending mainly on the monomers used. Once they cure,
they are fairly inert however, but when one is handling raw uncured resin,
gloves should ideally be used.
In the meantime, new designs are coming thick and fast. The Rostock, for
instance, has moved away from the box shape typical of most 3D printers.
Initially developed by Johann Rocholl, it differs in that it uses three arms that
are attached to three vertical axes, each independently driven by stepper
motors. Often known as a Delta because of its triangular shape, not only is this
a sexier printer in terms of looks, but it has a much faster Z axis movement
than the threaded rods of a traditional 3D printer designs. These severely limit
the speeds to about 200-400 mm/min speeds, but with a Delta, speeds of up to
40000 mm per minute are quite feasible. The extruder pump attaches to the
frame, not the extruder head, allowing for much improved speed and accuracy,
in fact the mass of the end effector with two hotends is less than 150g. It uses
six diagonal rods with universal joints, and all of these are fully printable. Other
advantages include being able to use the tilt of the extruder to produce
smoother layers and super round circles. Unlike most other 3D printers, the
Rostock can also be re-purposed as a "pick and place" circuit-board assembler,
because the arms are not restricted to horizontal movement. Apart from this
high-speed positioning, a delta has significantly fewer parts (fewer than 200
not including washers, nuts and SMD-mounted electronics), and therefore a
much lighter and simpler set up. These massive improvements have the 3D
printer community very excited. One commentator on Hackaday put it best
when he wrote “Sorry, could you repeat that? I couldn’t hear you over the
sound of my brain melting and flowing out my ear holes!!”
The Rostock Design
A small team from PartDaddy, an engineering company that makes machine
parts in Goshen, Indiana is working on the Rostock Max, an open-source 3D
printer based on Johann's original prototype. Their design is being funded as a
Kickstarter project, and they have quickly raised $21,567, well in excess of
their original $10,000 goal. A complete kit in lasercut wood is available for
$949, while $1,500 buys a fully assembled acrylic version. Innovations will
include UltiMachine's new electronics board, the RAMBo, with the ability to run
two extruders, a heated bed, and up to 5 stepper motors, all located within a
lower wrap piece around the bottom hiding the electronics. It features a new
linear motion design which uses t-slot aluminium extrusion as not only the
structural member, but also the linear bearing surface. The machine has an
approximate build volume of 10" in diameter and 13" in height although it is
only set up for 1.75mm filament only at the moment. In recognition of Johann's
original inspirational design the company is going to donate $5 for every kit
purchased through this campaign. In addition they will also be donating $2
from every kit sold to the developer of the REPETIER software developer
(Marcus Littwin of Germany), and to the developer of the super fast
slicing/gcode generation software known as SLIC3R (Alessandro Ranellucci of
The Pwdr 3D Printer
In a move to encourage experiments and innovations in powder-based rapidprototyping, The University of Twente have developed the Pwdr, an open
source powder-based rapid prototyping machine. The machine is ready to use
both the 3DP as the SLS process with minimal adaption, although the printer is
currently prepped for 3DP. Could desktop laser sintering for the masses be on
the horizon?
The machine has very reasonable specifications for a introductory version – 96
dpi and Z-axis layer thickness of 50 microns, with a build speed of about a
minute per layer, and a maximum build size of 125 mm cubed. The Pwdr Model
0.1 consists of chassis, tool head and electronics, all of which can be sourced
off-the-shelf, in any local hardware and electronics stores, totalling less than
€1000 ($1200). The building process requires moderate electronics skills and
might be the perfect starting point for DIY enthusiasts. The software used to
control the Pwdr machine is available for download and, as would be expected,
is based on open source tools like Arduino and Processing.
Thanks to the 'evolvability' of the open source machines, we are now seeing not
only new designs but upgrade kits for existing designs. One such project is the
Ultra-Bot 3D Printer, which utilizes the "vitamins" from the Makerbot Cupcake,
with numerous important improvements. For $349 the kit includes a new set of
Printrboard electronics that are relocated inside the inner bottom plate, high
precision stepper motors for better build quality and resolution of the parts, and
an elimination of the Z axis parts on top of the printer that are moved to the
lower portion of the Cupcake. Finally the build area is increased to 5"x 6 1/2" x
7 1/2" (127x165x191 mm).
The FDM form of 3D printing is actually only the first stage of additive
manufacturing and just as we are now seeing the first DLP printers hitting the
market, it is very likely that we will soon see even more advanced methods
reach the hands of hobbyists and home users.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is a polymer additive manufacturing technique
where a low power laser is used to sinter (not fully melt) powder particles
together, layer by layer. This process, which uses a directed CO2 heat laser was
developed and patented by Dr. Carl Deckard at the University of Texas in the
mid-1980s, The most common and useful material used is nylon powder and
apparently, adding ground glass gives even greater strength for performance
and durability. Other materials include ceramic, glass powder and metals
(direct metal laser sintering) such as steel, titanium, silver and gold. These
developments are very exciting for designer makers but the technology has yet
to fall in price in the same way as FDM.
The process of ‘Electron Beam Melting’ (EBM) melts metal powder in a high
vacuum and is distinguished from metal sintering techniques, by producing
parts that are extremely strong because they are fully dense and free of any
voids. It was developed by Arcam AB. Electrons tend to scatter off gas
molecules and expensive, inconvenient vacuum chambers are still required for
this process to work.
As more affordable laser systems with higher power, more accurate beam
steering, and better focusing optics were developed, SLM or selective laser
melting was born. Like EBM, the powder material is fully melted during fusion,
but the SLM laser does not require vacuum to function. It only requires that an
inert argon or nitrogen atmosphere is used in the work area to prevent
oxidation. SLM parts have one very large heat affected zone and so this method
of manufacture creates huge thermal stresses that are not yet fully understood.
Even so, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, has 3D
printed nickel alloy rocket engine parts using SLM. The part will be used on the
J-2x engine for the largest rocket ever built, known simply as the Space Launch
System. A part such as this J-2x manifold would not be milled on a CNC machine
because the forces required to remove metal would warp and destroy a part this
thin. Before SLM, it would have to be fabricated as a weldment from its
component parts. Its curved and flaring nozzles would first be stitched together
from sheet metal, than bent, and tacked to the main body. Welding introduces
non-uniform stress points or “heat affected zones” at the weld sites, and makes
failure modes less predictable. It is beyond human skill to manually reproduce
parts like this to the required tolerances. It would therefore have to be made
using automated bending machines and robotic welders, which take
considerable time to program and set up.
While I have focussed here on the DIY movement, it is inevitable that
innovations from industry and academia will soon begin filtering down into the
DIY machines. At the moment the UK seems to be setting the pace. The
University of Southampton has just opened a state-of-the-art rapid prototyping
facility, while 2011 saw the development of an EPSRC Centre for Innovative
Manufacturing in Additive Manufacturing, which is led by the University of
Nottingham. Another facility to open last year was the £2.6million Centre for
Additive Layer Manufacturing (CALM) at the University of Exeter, who quickly
went on to develop the world's first ever 3D chocolate printer.
A new "China 3D Printing Technology Industry Alliance" has been established at
the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Apart from establishing
new industrial standards, the group will also investigate the opening of an
advanced manufacturing park, a national 3D printing technology research and
development base and an industrial demonstration base in China.
The Obama Administration is putting $30 million into the new ‘National
Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute’ (a 3D printing institute to you and
me), to be located in Youngstown, Ohio, at the heart of the so-called American
"Rust Belt" region of the Midwest. NAMII is a public-private partnership with a
massive consortium of forty companies, nine research universities, five
community colleges and eleven non-profit organizations. Word is that this will
be the first of fifteen “centers of excellence” with the purpose of advancing and
promoting 3D printing technologies to help U.S. industry become more
competitive. The 3D printing institute will receive $30 million in federal funding
and $40 million from private industry. The institute is being developed under a
$1 billion Obama administration initiative: the NNMI (or National Network for
Manufacturing Innovation). The Obama program has charged the NCDMM (or
National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining) with managing the
new institute. This last part makes it clear to all that although a public-private
partnership, this institute is going to be headed by the U.S. military. Such
technology could create human organs, bones or body parts tailored for specific
patients. Journalists attending a press event related to the announcement at UC
Irvine's Rapid Tech Lab were shown a skull replica that belonged to a soldier
who was injured in Afghanistan. A scan of the skull was sent digitally across the
globe to UC Irvine's lab, which printed an exact replica and sent it Fed-Ex to a
doctor, who then used the printout to design the plates and procedure that
eventually saved the soldier's eyesight. A month later, the soldier was back on
active duty with 20/20 vision. Despite the feel good story presented to the
press, the technology also has the potential to speed up and cut the costs of
manufacturing robots or military weapons, but as Tony Stark was not present,
they shied away from demonstrating any mass destruction capabilities and
focussed instead on medical examples.
Even so, the first of the $2.8 million mobile 3D printing labs―each a twentyfoot shipping container holding the latest manufacturing tools―was deployed
to Afghanistan in July, according to Military.com. Two engineers can work
together to create parts from plastic, steel and aluminum on the fly. They
represent the new effort by the Rapid Equipping Force to deliver battlefield
equipment as fast as possible to soldiers in the loneliest outposts.
Scanning Technology
3D printed remixes of masterpieces commissioned by the metropolitan museum of art
—'reclining naiad', by Antonio Canova, 1819–24
Just as a 2D inkjet printer requires a flat bad scanner and some reliable OCR
(optical character recognition) software to capture a page of text and then
reprint it, a 3D printer requires a similar input device before it can reproduce a
physical object. 3D scanners analyze a real-world object to collect data on its
shape and colour. The collected data can then be used to construct digital,
three-dimensional models.
A number of different technologies currently exist, each with their own
limitations, advantages and costs. Optical technologies for example, encounter
many difficulties with shiny, mirrored or transparent objects. For most
situations, a single scan will not produce a complete model of the subject.
Multiple scans, even hundreds, from many different directions are usually
required to obtain information about all sides of the subject.
Scanners generally fall into two camps: Contact machines that probe the object
through physical touch, and non-contact scanners that emit some kind of
radiation such as light, ultrasound or x-ray and then detect its reflection.
Triangulation 3D laser scanners use laser light to examine the environment, but
due to the high speed of light, calculating the round-trip time is difficult, and
the accuracy of the distance measurement is relatively low. Triangulation range
finders are exactly the opposite. They have a limited range, but their accuracy
is relatively high, in the order of tens of micrometers. In conoscopic systems, a
laser beam is reflected through a conoscopic crystal and projected onto a CCD.
Structured-light 3D scanners project a pattern of light on the subject and look
at the deformation, adding the advantages of both speed and precision, as they
can scan multiple points, or even entire field of view all at once.
Interest in 3D scanning is on the rise because of the growing popularity of 3D
printing. With printers like MakerBot, Form1, and RepRap becoming accessible
to many, simple scanning solutions are in great demand. Scanning and digital
modification are the best way to obtain the needed CAD data for these printers,
but most scanning equipment is a long way out of the price range of the
average non-professional 3D printer user. Fortunately, though, a number of
tools are coming that will help the average person with their wish to design a
A number of web based scanning services have emerged in order to satisfy the
growing 3D printer market. At the moment, the leader of these seems to be
Autodesk's 123Dcatch. No doubt, it will soon be commonplace to see numerous
apps that will use a standard smart phone in conjunction with a stepper-motor
driven revolving stand. Just as we did not see home DJs remixing mash ups until
people were able digitally manipulate audio with a sampler, we cannot expect
the same kind of remixing to take place with 3D models until .stl files become a
little more ubiquitous.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently held an event to make 3D scans and
prints of works from throughout the museum (see the picture above). Attendees
used digital cameras and Autodesk’s 123Dcatch to generate 3D models, and
then printed those using MakerBot Replicators. They might seem a bit crude at
first (especially when compared to an expensive laser scan) but keep in mind
that these were untextured 3D models produced from photographs, using free
Here’s how it works: take photos of your item on a neutral background. Rotate
around the object, snapping a photo every 15 or so degrees, from a few
different heights: above, below, from the side. It will take about 40-75
photographs for 123D Catch to create a good 3D model. It does not work so well
with objects that are very shiny. Upload them to the site, and after a short wait,
you will receive an email saying that your model is ready for download. Open
the resulting .obj in a 3D modelling program (MeshLab, MeshMixer or Blender,
perhaps) to clean it up and export to .stl. A little bit of cleaning up in
SolidWorks to add a back face and a level base, and the model is ready for
printing. This is all done in about six hours. Autocad have also arranged
partnerships with three large 3D printing companies, just in case you do not
have your own machine yet.
Another web based scanning service is PHOV, also allowing users to create
photo-realistic three-dimensional models from digital photographs. Fun
applications include creating your own online avatar, or a detailed statue of
yourself. More serious uses are also evolving such as turning ancient artefacts
into 3D archaeological archives and locating 3D real estate presentations on
virtual globes and then outputting them through a 3D printer.
My3DScanner is yet another free online service that creates 3D models directly
from ordinary digital photographs. It is a fully automated, end-to-end, online 3D
scanning system that takes digital photographs (or videos) as input and
produces 3D computer models (dense colour 3D point clouds and meshed
polygonal models) as output without any user intervention. Input pictures do
not require calibration and any sort of pre-processing by a user, and the
software will turn any camera or mobile phone into 3D modelling device.
The MakerScanner is a completely open source 3D scanner that Andy Barry
created at the beginning of his senior year at Olin College of Engineering. Barry
now works as a research engineer in the AutoDesk Innovations Lab at the NASA
Ames Research Lab. His budget 3D scanner works by sweeping a red laser
beam across any object in front of a web cam and is the perfect complement to
a MakerBot or other 3D printer. Every one of the scanner's plastic parts can be
printed on a MakerBot or other 3D printer. At the MakerBot wiki there is
complete documentation for the MakerScanner v0.3.
This technology works for all kinds of digital images, even x-rays. If you happen
to have fifty cameras that you can click in sync, you could even obtain 3D
captures of very dynamic action shots such as dirt thrown in the air, smoke, a
batter in mid-swing, a water balloon bursting, flames etc. You could capture any
of those events blurred over a set period and then print them to create
something extremely artistic.
This kind of technology is becoming more and more embedded all the time, and
already there is a 3D scanner app for the iPhone. Unfortunately, Trimensional:
MakerBot Edition is not open source and only advanced users can unlock the
3D Model Export feature in order to create physical copies of scanned objects
on a 3D printer, or to import textured 3D scans into popular 3D graphics
software. If you are going to try the app then remember that an extremely dark
room is required and iPhone screen brightness must be set to maximum.
If you are looking for open source alternatives, then VisualSFM by Changchang
Wu at the University of Washington is a great tool for creating 3D
reconstructions of photos. It is comparatively easy to use, but extremely
difficult to install. 3D reconstruction can be done with just four mouse clicks,
and users can even watch dynamic reconstructions, but they also need to
install packages, download academic software, and edit and compile source
code, before they can get the software running.
Insight3d is an alternative open source piece of software that allows users to
create 3D models from photographs. By automatically matching a series of
photos, it calculates the positions in space from which each photo has been
taken (including the camera’s optical parameters) to create a 3D pointcloud of
the scene and a textured polygonal model. This application is still in
development at the time of writing but looks to be a very useful resource and
well worth supporting.
For many, a lack of CAD skills keeps them from printing objects in 3D. Even
though tools like Sketchup and Tinkercad reduce this barrier, the falling prices
of real-time 3D scanning might be the answer.
Until recently, most programs could only capture one side of an object, which
creates a kind of relief sculpture. In order to overcome this limitation, it was
possible to take multiple scans but manually merging them has until now been
very difficult.
Microsoft has recently announced that it is finally bringing the ability to
accurately scan 3D objects to the masses. The company has been working on a
software update for its Kinect for Windows motion controller device that would
turn it into a 3D scanner to be known as Kinect Fusion 3D.
The software, called “Kinect Fusion”, was first developed in 2010 by Microsoft
Research in Cambridge, England. In the same year, Adafruit Industries offered a
bounty for an open-source driver for Kinect, which has led to some amazing 3D
depth map projects.
Kinect for Windows is a PC-based spin-off of Microsoft’s wildly successful Kinect
motion controller for the Xbox 360, launched in November 2010, which has
since gone on to sell over 18 million units. Microsoft was at first wary of hackers
repurposing the gaming controller for their own innovative uses, but eventually
embraced and now supports development of new uses for the Kinect, and it is
now being included in their software development kit.
Kinect Fusion takes the incoming depth data from the Kinect for Windows
sensor and uses the sequence of frames to build a highly detailed 3D map of
objects or environments. The tool then averages the readings over hundreds or
thousands of frames to achieve more detail than would be possible from just
one reading. This allows Kinect Fusion to gather and incorporate data not
viewable from any single viewpoint.
Due to its low resolution, the current Kinect does not see small objects
(anything that is less than about the size of a shoe) but the technology is
advancing, and it has been reported that the Kinect 2 will be able to accurately
read lips.
Profactor recently released a beta version of free software called ReconstructMe
that works a lot like Kinect Fusion. ReconstructMe is a software tool for Windows
that also uses the Microsoft Xbox Kinect (or other 3D depth camera that uses
the Asus Xtion PRO LIVE) to capture 3D models in real-time and generate a 3D
object on a computer in an .stl or .obj file. There are a few downsides to
ReconstructMe: the Kinect for Windows isn’t supported yet. Right now,
ReconstructMe is limited to scanning objects that fit into a one-meter cube and
not having a GUI can only operate from the command line, but it looks like the
ReconstructMe team is working on supporting larger scans. Currently, the
software is Windows only and really RAM hungry (to the point of crashing after
a 15 minute scan with 8 GB’s of RAM), so you will need a fairly powerful video
card as it does the calculations on the GPU. With the default calibration, the
resolution has an accuracy of +/- 4mm but there are lenses sold for the Kinect
that shorten its range and this should effectively increase the resolution and
accuracy slightly.
The best way to scan a person is to have them sit in an office chair, point the
Kinect at their head, and then slowly spin them in a circle. Once you have a raw
scan, (I suggest using the free version of NetFabb Studio Basic to rotate it) cut
away the parts you don’t want, and then repair it to make it solid and suitable
for 3D printing on your MakerBot. The Ponoko blog has an excellent video
explaining the process. You can also place objects on a turntable, like a lazy
susan, and spin it by hand. Just make sure that anything ReconstructMe sees
within its scanning area all rotates in the same way.
A number of third-party developers including the French startup company,
ManCTL, have already developed Kinect 3D scanning software, called Skanect,
which is used to scan physical objects and people.
Another option known as KScan3D is a Kinect-based 3D scanning software
running on Windows OS allowing users to capture 3D scans with a click of a
button. Users can scan, edit, process, and export finalized data in a variety of
common file formats such as .obj, .stl, .ply, and .asc formats for visual effects,
games, CAD/CAM, 3D printing, online/web visualization, and other applications.
KScan3D can be purchased separately or as a bundled package with the Kinect
for Windows hardware for $299 and $599.
Developers at Matherix 3Dify have also been trying to turn objects into 3D
models with a Kinect sensor, but what they offer is not real-time scanning. What
you need to do is simply capture a video of the object and 3Dify automatically
builds a 3D model of the object in just a few minutes. For example, this 3D
model of a man's face was from a twelve-second video with a processing time of
five minutes on an Intel Core2Duo with 2GB memory. This project is still under
development. As is an application from Geomagic, who are now working on the
technology behind the Microsoft® Kinect™-to-3D print app that is part of 3D
Systems’ Cubify.com, and will be built on top of popular Geomagic Studio®.
In the meantime, there are still high-end scanners available but at a significant
cost. Z Corp offers a line of handheld laser scanners as part of their catalogue,
which also includes 3D printers, yet these run into the tens of thousands of
dollars. For a peek into the future, it is a good idea to have a look at the
professional technology on offer from industry specialists such as Photon,
Trimble or Faro. The Faro Focus 3D scanner is a particularly nice example,
being the smallest portable 3D scanner so far built with a weight of just 5.0kg,
but still costing in the region of $30,000. Using a touch screen, it produces
photorealistic 3D colour scans with a range of up to 120m, in 70 megapixels
onto a removal SD card, and boasts a battery life of nearly five hours. It has an
amazing speed of 976,000 measurement points per second and is used mainly
by civil engineers, as well as restoration teams working on heritage buildings. It
can even be used by law enforcement forensics teams who need to record
entire crime scenes. The new Focus3D is five times smaller than its predecessor
and yet is capable of producing incredibly detailed 3D images of complex
environments and geometries in only a few minutes. If we recall how quickly
the first mobile phone bricks were reduced to the size of a current smartphone,
then we can expect the abilities of machines like the Faro to be in our phones
and tablets in just a few years. The best place to monitor the rapid development
of this technology is the Laser Scanning Forum where nearly five thousand
members ranging from mining professionals to keen hobbyists are already
discussing this exciting subject.
Apart from automating the process of 3D imaging and 3D printing, 3D data
scanned in this way can be used for a wide range other purposes including
design, testing, innovation, archiving and prototyping. 3D maps of interiors in
particular, will be especially useful to architects designing an ideal working
space, and realtors creating walkthroughs of a home. Game developers who
make realistic first-person shooters like Call of Duty could use this kind of
technology to easily scan buildings to generate maps, instead of designing
them from the ground up from pictures. Once everybody has a reasonably
detailed scanned image of themselves, it will be much more common to import
yourself into a video game. We can also look forward to virtual clothes shops,
where you can try on different clothes using your virtual 3D self, comfortably at
home with your browser. A number of large retailers are already working on
these kinds of solutions. The digitization of the physical world is accelerating
and the line between physical and virtual reality will blur even more as the
technological change continues.
Modeling Technology
The turning gears on this object were printed rather than assembled. Courtesy of Zcorp
While some people still claim that modelling in 3D is an extremely skilled
process that cannot realistically be done by the layman, the real problem has
more to do with costs than ability. AutoCAD, CATIA, Solidworks etc. retail in the
range of hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but it is likely that we will soon
see a similar situation develop to the "everyone with a Mac and Photoshop is a
graphic designer" paradigm that so democratised desktop publishing. The
reality is that with the right motivation and training, CAD expertise is not
insurmountable. If you already have the ability to make objects out of clay,
Lego or Meccano, then you just need to learn the interface of the CAD program.
Just as 3D printers are evolving very rapidly, so is the software that runs them.
Internet forums are full of old school engineers spouting statements that sound
very much like the following. “I have twenty plus years 3D design experience
using multiple programs and yet I am still learning new stuff every day.” This is
usually followed by refrains of “CAD is not a very difficult skill to master, you
need to spend a lot of time learning, then relearning, then learning more.” I can
only imagine that accountants use to sound like this before the introduction of
spreadsheets. Remember that before VisiCalc, or Lotus123 or Excel, the only
way to add up 50,000 numbers was by hand or with a pocket calculator. A
spreadsheet now does the same in a fraction of a second. Previously, offices full
of book keepers spent their entire careers comparing thousands of numbers on
two pieces of adding machine tape, that might have been two hundred feet
long a piece. Sorting was impossible. Complex, self calculating, linking financial
models were impossible. The arrival of spreadsheets kickstarted the financial
boom of the eighties. This amazing new technology allowed anybody to become
a stockbroker, and Gordon Gecko soon acquired god-like status.
In the coming few years, there will be a major simplification of complex CAD
programs to make them more accessible for the masses, just as has already
happened in music production, Photoshop and website development. Take, for
example, Tumblr and how easy it has made creating a well-designed blog.
These new arrivals might not completely replace the full versions of the
classics, because there is still a great deal of progress to be found in the
expertise of the masters often using those programs.
“3D printing is a way to re-envision the manufacturing process,” says Brian
Mathews, vice-president of Autodesk, the largest maker of 3D design software.
Others accuse the $10 billion computer-aided design industry, a sector long
ruled by antiquated and expensive software suites, of restricting collective
innovation. A new platform is coming of age, and if there is anything to be
learned from the history of the computer revolution, it is that when a new
platform is established, all technologies on older platforms become endangered
species. There is a fundamental shift in technology taking place, perhaps even
a second CAD revolution, but this time on the server side. Centralised data,
computation and rendering with streamed client connections, where hybrid
applications make latency problems a thing of the past.
Conventional thinking suggests that an individual requires at least ten
thousand hours of practice to really master a discipline, and with that in mind,
you might want to take a look at some of the SolidWorks designers on sites like
Fiverr.com, and other micro-tasking sites. The learning curve on most existing
CAD CAM software is very steep, and so it is often worth outsourcing the design
work. As any student of programs such as Autocad will tell you, it can often take
beginners an entire weekend to model their first toothbrush, even when simply
following the instructions to model a casting from the book. There are already
some fifty or more CAD designers listed on Fiverr.com that are offering their
SolidWorks skills for hire. Sometimes five bucks will only pay for half an hour of
modeling work, and sometimes you will just have to negotiate as well as you
can. For example, one customer recently commissioned a SolidWorks model of
Deckard's PKD blaster from the sci-fi classic Bladerunner. Even though it was
the smaller snub nosed version, a detailed .stl still cost four Fiverr gigs for a
grand total of $20 dollars. Of course, this is a very new market and you might
be able to have the same work done in Mumbai or Wuhan for a tiny fraction of
the price.
If you do find a good modeler then try to develop a positive, long term
relationship with them, as some of these guys might just eventually become the
Michelangelo’s and Da Vinci's of the 3D printer age. Fiverr.com already has
plenty of competitors, and then there are also all the outworker sites such as
freelancer.com, elance.com and guru.com. 3D printer forums would also be
fertile grounds for these digital artists, as would sites like Pokono and
Thingiverse where designers are already posting their best ideas.
Even so, being proficient in these programs can be a real benefit in properly
assessing the works of others. If you are able to step through the model from
the top, down through the feature manager, to check efficiency, coherence, and
sound method, then you will save a lot of trouble when you actually come to
print. It might look good as a dumb solid, but as a history-based model, making
any future edits could be difficult, and this is what real-world design deals with
all the time—continual edits
While better options are slowly emerging from the open source community, it
would do no harm to begin familiarizing yourself with a copy of SolidWorks. If
you are not familiar with this yet, then start with the company website
http://www.SolidWorks.com/ and then look at the Wikipedia entry,
At the moment, there is plenty of instructional material out there for those who
want to learn the ropes. Here are a few examples of good training materials.
1. Lynda.com—SolidWorks 2012…”SolidWorks 2012 Essential Training
[1 DVD + Exercise files]
Author: Gabriel Corbett
Duration: 07h 02m
Released on: 3/7/2012
Exercise files: Yes
In this course, author Gabriel Corbett shows how to create manufacturing-ready
parts and assemblies in SolidWorks 2012. Beginning with simple 2D sketching
and the software’s sketch-editing tools, the course provides step-by-step
instruction on building 3D geometry from 2D sketches. The course covers
creating complex 3D objects with the Extrude, Revolve, Sweep, and Loft tools
and shows building complex assemblies by mating individual parts together
into robust assemblies and structures.
The course shows how to cut and revolve holes into parts and use the Hole
Wizard tool to generate industry standard holes like counter bores, counter
sinks, and taps. Best practice for designing parts is emphasized throughout the
course as well as methods for creating parts faster and easier using equations,
mirroring, and patterning tools. The course wraps up with generating
manufacturing-ready drawings complete with an itemized Bill of Materials. As a
bonus feature, Gabriel shows how to photo render a final design. Exercise files
are included with the course.
Topics include:
Starting a new sketch
Adding and removing relationships
Dimensioning a sketch for specific size attributes
Setting system options, units, and templates
Drawing polygons
Drawing circles, arcs, and splines
Creating offset geometry
Moving, copying, and rotating elements
Working with planes, axes, and the coordinate system
Using Revolve and Loft to create 3D objects
Trimming with the Revolve, Loft, and Sweep cuts
Creating smooth and angled corners with fillets and chamfers
Designing with sketch blocks
Working with sub-assemblies
Creating threaded parts
Integrating Excel to manage design tables
Adding dimension notations to a drawing
Rendering an image of a part or assembly
2. Inspirtech—SolidWorks 2009—Fundamentals [1 DVD]
At Inspirtech we understand that learning a new software package can be an
overwhelming task. Often times, it is difficult to even know where to begin. So,
we have put together a structured course that guides users through the
learning process. Inspirtech sets itself apart from the competition with a unique
and highly effective holistic approach to teaching. Lessons are filled with
engaging examples and exercises that are just enough to inspire confidence,
yet not too much to confuse and frustrate the learner. Upon completion of the
course, learners will be prepared to challenge the CSWA exam.
Training features:
Convenient self-paced learning
Over 8 hours of instructional videos
18 project based lessons
Over 120 examples and exercises
SolidWorks files included
Table of Contents:
1—Introduction to Parametric Solid Modeling (29:48)
2—Material, Colours & Mass Properties (27:33)
3—Introduction to Parts (28:26)
4—Cut Extrudes and Construction Geo (32:54)
5—Mirrors, Fillets & Trims (31:28)
6—Offsets, Convert Entities & Fillets (34:01)
7—Revolves, Champers & Shells (27:35)
8—Hole Wizards & Sketch Patterns (32:09)
9—Introduction to Assemblies (27:42)
10—Concentric Mates & Physical Dynamics (24:43)
11—Additional Mates & Sub-Assemblies (29:33)
12—Introduction to Drawings (30:49)
13—Additional Views & Dimensions (27:39)
14—Assembly Drawings (29:34)
15—Sweeps (26:58)
16—Lofts (28:50)
17—Feature patterns (17:09)
18—COSMOSXpress (29:33)
19—SolidWorks Motion
20—SolidWorks Toolbox
3. Alex Ruiz—SolidWorks 2010: No Experience Required (2010) [1
eBook (PDF)]
The only continuous, step-by-step tutorial for SolidWorks
SolidWorks is a 3D CAD manufacturing software package that has been used to
design everything from aerospace robotics to bicycles. This book teaches
beginners to use SolidWorks through a step-by-step tutorial, letting you build,
document, and present a project while you learn.
Tools and functionality are explained in the context of professional, real-world
tasks and workflows. You will learn the essential functions and gain the skills to
use the software at once.
SolidWorks is a popular design program for manufacturing, and this book
introduces it in the context of actually creating an object
Begins with an overview of SolidWorks conventions and the interface
Explains how to create models and drawings, create a revolved part and
sub assembly, and model parts within a sub assembly
Explores modification capabilities and drawing and Bill of Materials
Moves on to top-level assembly models and drawings, Toolbox components
and the Design Library, mates, export and printing capabilities, and
creating renderings
Includes a glossary, a foreword from the SolidWorks product manager, and
downloadable tutorial files
SolidWorks 2010: No experience required and will quickly turn beginners into
confident users of SolidWorks.
Publisher: Sybex
Number of Pages: 648
Publication Date: 2010-03-15
ISBN-10 / ASIN: 0470505435
ISBN-13 / EAN: 9780470505434
The SolidWorks Tutorial DVD by Magnitude Engineering Solutions
comes with its own menu and media player so there is no instillation required.
Just insert the DVD and choose what lesson you want from the menu, and learn
at your own individual pace. These tutorials are made by industry professionals
who are Certified SolidWorks users and provide the tools to learn and master
SolidWorks quickly and easily. The SolidWorks Tutorial includes a total of 194
Video Tutorials, with project part files, audio narration and sample projects
The current generation of CAD software may be over-complicated, highly
technical and outrageously expensive but that is changing very quickly. Even
as I write, there are a number of simple to operate, web based, interoperative
programs attracting a great deal of attention, and the venture capitalist
funding to match. It now falls to the 3D modelers, of thingiverse.com and other
object file innovators to link their creations to this broader movement. At last
we are seeing collaboration and interoperability, as well as true volume mesh
modelers. Surprisingly, it is still very rare for a designer to have software object
that that is outputted in the same way. What follows is an introduction on how
this rapidly changing market is shaping up.
The key to the 3D printing revolution, in addition to software, is the ability to
learn 3D design. A whole new world opens up when you’re not afraid of creating
3D shapes, thanks to 3D printers. 3D design can be a skill we all have, and the
abundance of under fifteen-year-old Tinkercad users proves this. We’re seeing
amazing learning curve on the complexity of 3D models in the Tinkercad
community. When technical constraints are hidden and the playground is all
you see, creativity bubbles up. With playfulness, growing 3D design skills and
good tools, these youngsters will make the next industrial revolution happen.
Tinkercad is a browser based CAD program that is taking the 3D printer world
by storm. The small, two-person Finnish startup received $1 million in venture
capital in 2010 to further develop the program. One half of the company,
former Google engineer Kai Bachman bought a 3D printer in 2002 but was
incredibly frustrated when he tried the various existing 3D CAD programs to
drive it. Either they were too complex, or they were too simplistic to create the
realistic solid models Bachman envisioned. He therefore decided to create a
piece of software to make 3D modelling and design something anyone can do.
The target market is Makers, the new enthusiast/hobbyist market snapping up
inexpensive 3D printers, most of whom have no formal design background. CAD
programs are notoriously difficult to learn, but Tinkercad is trying hard to
remedy this, and by all accounts succeeding.
Unlike other web-based drawing programs like Sketchup, Tinkercad requires no
download. It is aimed at folks who are beginners to 3D modelling and thus has a
simple and intuitive interface, as well as a very low learning curve, allowing
folks to easily design something without the CAD package holding them back.
The designers have included a few simple thirty minute tutorials designed as
'Quests', using gamification as an interesting way of introducing users to using
the software.
The user is presented with a number of quests with learning steps that are
small and teach new skills as you progress. At the end of the quests you feel
confident with the software Tinkercad and have the ability to actually produce
an object. One of the quests involves dice design. You can even make a die that
always rolls a six. Another teaches you how to design a printable teddy bear.
Designing in Tinkercad is based on two core concepts:
1. You can add shapes to your design either as solids or holes.
2. You can combine a number of shapes together, forming a new shape. Using
these two simple concepts you can build your own almost arbitrarily
complex tools to create very interesting designs. Once your design is ready,
you can either print it out using one of the printing services with which
Tinkercad is integrated, or alternatively download the .stl file for printing on
a home printer.
Any design someone makes appears to be public. This means that if you see a
design you like you can either copy and edit yourself, or indeed simply
download the .stl file to print—or indeed send it off to one of the printing
companies Tinkercad uses. We assume that the company is making its money
on small commissions every time an item is printed by one of the 3D printing
companies it offers.
Technically speaking, the software is designed in Javascript and Go! (a
language championed by Google) and is reasonably fast and responsive. To
make editing possible, Tinkercad has a large cloud based component and each
of the editing operations is executed on hundreds of processor cores in real
time. In fact, even if the Tinkercad browser app is a relatively complex
component, two-thirds of the codebase is actually on the server side. Tinkercad
runs a bespoke geometry kernel that distributes calculations over hundreds of
processor cores in a medium sized cluster, which has been designed to scale to
thousands of cores.
SketchUp is a 3D modelling program created by Google for a broad range of
applications that has attracted 30 million activations in the past year alone. It is
available in free as well as 'professional' versions. In April 2012, Google sold the
program to Trimble, a company best known for GPS location services. The free
version is missing some functionality of SketchUp Pro, but includes integrated
tools for uploading content to Google Earth and to the Google 3D Warehouse, a
repository of models created in SketchUp. A new toolbox enables a viewer to
walk around and see things from a person's point of view; it adds labels for
models, a look-around tool, and an "any polygon" shape tool.
Although SketchUp is not necessarily the best design software for modelling
solid objects and 3D printing, it is one of the most popular free 3D design
software packages on the planet and has inspired many people to try their
hands at design. Sketchup was originally developed for architects, who do not
typically need precision greater than 1/16”, and so developers designed it to
work best with geometry of about 1/16” and larger. Apparently, now it’s nearly
impossible to fix the problem without redesigning Sketchup from the ground
up. While there are many video tutorials online for learning both basic and
advanced methods, disadvantages include the fact that SketchUp cannot
output the .stl format used by all 3D printers unless a special exporter plug-in is
Printing SketchUp models involves file conversion, scale conversion and quite a
bit of checking for mysterious things like "watertightness". While SketchUp 8
has added a solidity-checker, there is also a CADspan plug-in that resurfaces
models and makes it 'water-tight' or 'manifold', which simply means that the
model is a complete enclosure. It also reorients faces when needed.
With demand for rapid prototyping on the rise, companies such as Materialise
are coming out with plug-ins to make the SketchUp-to-object printing process
easier. This is essentially a wizard: After installation, the plug-in ensures that
the model will fit on the printing "plate", indicate areas of glazing
(transparency), and even add ready-made elements (like trees) from a
collection of "guaranteed-to-print" objects supplied by i.materialise. Once
ready, the plug-in allows a one-click-upload of the prepared model for printing.
Sketchups' sale to Trimble has been very beneficial to the 3D printing
community. At Google, Sketchup was an odd fit, being based on a language
very different from the many web based languages in which Google staff
program, and they didn’t put a lot of engineering effort into the software. On
the other hand, Google made the investment to turn SketchUp into a popular
software platform, and Trimble can now capitalize on that brand. They have
purchased not only a piece of software but a huge community and the new
owners are already capitalising on this. An open source “TestUp” internal
testing tool is now available to any developer and the .stl import and export
tools that are currently available as open source plug-ins will soon be baked
into the main program. In fact, Sketchup will now be released annually, with the
next version being called “Sketchup 2013.”
The world is in 3D, but most of the web is still in 2D. Sketchfab is a WebGLbased tool that allows 3D modellers to show objects in glorious 3D with full
vantage control, a universal 3D viewer you can embed on any webpage. It is a
bit like Youtube, but for 3D files. The project is self-funded and they currently
have 2,300 models uploaded to the site. 3D artists can upload models in just
two clicks.
Work began on the site two years ago in conjunction with the release of the
WebGL standard. With twelve years of experience in the 3D industry, the
founders believe it will become the dominant way to display 3D models online,
adding ”we believe 3D is the next big media, after photos and videos.”
The site has a distinct, minimal style and the UI takes a back seat to the
interactive views of the model. Visitors can pan, zoom, and rotate objects, and
of course leave feedback in the form of likes or comments. Sketchfab supports
uploads from the major modelling programs; 3DS Max, Maya, Blender, and
Solidworks are all supported.
Sketchfab fills a unique space in the market. Thingiverse is a repository of
printable 3D files and GrabCAD is a community and repository of CAD files,
targeting mainly engineers. Sketchfab focuses on the display with the ability to
display any 3D model online as well as in 3D software.
The product is ambitious, but its newness creates some deficiencies. The site is
slow to load, understandable given the size and complexity of some of these
models, but noticeable in an age of super-responsive sites and apps. And if you
don’t have WebGL enabled, you won’t be able to interact with the pieces.
The short-term goal is to create the best portfolio site available for 3D
designers, but they are keeping their eyes on the rapid development of 3D
printers and scanners.
Sketchfab is the first web service to publish interactive 3D content online in
real-time without plug-ins. The free service does not require any third-party
application installed on either the client side or the server. All Sketchfab needs
is for the end-user to be running a WebGL compatible browser. When WebGL
was being discussed a few years ago as the next generation of browser
technology, there was both a sense of “oh yeah!” and “so what?” that
accompanied the discussion. Sketchfab is showing the value of having a
standard platform for 3D graphics display.
To share a model, upload it to the Sketchfab site; a free account is required.
The Sketchfab server will process it and put it on display. To display it at
another web site, copy the provided embed code; the process is the same as
embedding a YouTube video. Sketchfab users are free to remove models at any
time. To upload models with textures, pack all the files in a .zip file before
uploading. Sketchfab is a great tool for 3D artists who previously had 2D
portfolios on CG communities like Deviantart. Now they can be viewed in full
Sunglass is a new browser-based collaboration tool for 3D design. Sunglass is
one part interactive 3D viewer and mark-up tool, one part social design space,
and one part interoperability option. One or several users can share an existing
3D design model.
It used to be that only powerful desktops could run CAD software, collaboration
was a nightmare, and software could cost anywhere between $5,000 to
$50,000. Two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates—Nitin Rao
and CEO Kaustuv DeBiswas are hoping to shake up the existing $10 billion CAD
industry. Sunglass is launching a cloud-based way to create, edit, and share 3D
designs, like a Google Docs for CAD. All of the heavy-duty processing work
happens on the company’s servers, while the user end is browser based,
powered by WebGL and HTML5, with full Dropbox integration for storing 3D
files. It’s also compatible with over forty file formats, so stubborn designers can
still open up your projects in their preferred programs.
“There are 10 million designers just like us looking to engage with each other in
a flat world,” co-founder and CEO Kaustuv DeBiswas said recently. “Products
are now built for global consumption so why can’t they be designed via global
collaboration?” His partner Rao says he has been driven by the cost of existing
design software and how it’s too expensive for emerging countries.
At the moment Sunglass isn’t a ‘proper’ CAD system as such but a way to
convert 3D CAD designs into B–REP models (surfaces defined by boundary
representation) and then holding them in an online webGL–based environment
for sharing. In time, tools and applications will become available to enable a
wide range of ‘things’ which can be done to and with models. In its current
guise it is focussing on the sharing aspect. Sunglass users can simultaneously
access a single 3D model and suggest tweaks through text chat, voice chat or
even a sketch tool for marking suggestions.
The company is also building an API to let designers share their most useful
tools with others. The company is planning the world’s first 3D app store to offer
the tools. Previously, designers would have to buy entire software suites to gain
access to a single tool. The most basic version of Sunglass is free and then
designers can pay for extra apps or add-ons. At the same store, designers can
buy one-off 3D models from others. Unity, which has a 3D gaming engine that
powers titles like Shadowgun, has a store where game developers can buy 3D
effects and models from other developers.
OpenSCAD is software for creating solid 3D CAD objects, but it is not an
interactive modeller. Instead, it is something like a 3D-compiler which reads a
script file that describes the object, and renders the 3D model from this file. It is
basically a programming language for 3D models, and while it does not have
the traditional graphical interface of AutoCAD, OpenSCAD is able to create very
complex parts with only a few lines of code. OpenScad appeals especially to
experienced coders and programmers. There are thread models and other
libraries available at wikibooks.org.
OpenSCAD provides two main modelling techniques: constructive solid
geometry, (CSG, taking 3D primitives and stretching, scaling, and intersecting
them to create a 3D shape), or extrusion from a 2D outline. Besides .dxf files,
OpenSCAD can read and create 3D models in the .stl and .off file formats. Quite
a few RepRap parts were designed in OpenSCAD, and the lightweight interface
and open source nature means it is generally a good tool for designing 3D print
items. It uses Computational Geometry Algorithms Library (CGAL) as the basic
Computational Solid Geometry engine, taking care of details such as
intersection, difference and Minkowski sums. The results can be rendered into
3D .stl files. It uses OpenCSG and OpenGL for fast previewing of models.
In the 3D Printing world it seems to have been quite difficult to put text onto
designs. Fonts are a nightmare, there are undoubtedly rights issues and it has
all been a headache so far. OpenScad overcomes this problem by use of a third
party add-on tool known as a Nameplate Generator. If you do want to edit
OpenSCAD parts in your browser, there is always OpenJsCAD, an OpenSCAD
interpreter written entirely in Javascript.
To3D is a new and open source beta 3D mechanical modeller. Not only does it
focus on 3D designs, but it also attempts to simplify the effort of keeping track
of and sharing designs with other people. Existing tools are very good at
modelling parts, and then making assemblies from those parts, but they are not
so good at starting a design at the concept or layout stage and developing
detailed parts, without a lot of redundant work and loss of control. Today’s tools
are also quite complex, can be labour intensive to use and require a lot of
training. This presents a problem for the occasional user who requires a system
that is intuitive and easy to learn. Keeping track of all the files that are created
can also be a drain on time and focus, so To3D is trying to remove the burden of
data management by creating far fewer files than other CAD systems. The
system is web based and therefore platform independent.
The designers had their Eureka! moment when they discovered that a local
college was requiring all students to have an iPad for school. This spoke
strongly to them of the realization that the world is changing, and they needed
to consider what that meant for the engineering community. To reduce its
computing footprint, heavy lifting is done in the cloud on multiple servers,
graphics and other data is sent to the browser in the smallest chunks possible
as the design is added to or changed.
Blender is a fantastic open source 3D modelling/animation/shading/rendering
package but not one that is really suited to 3D printing applications. In fact
many people now feel that the Blender Foundation shot themselves in the foot
by releasing their fourth open source short movie called Tears of Steel, a short
that mixed 3D digital content with live action and was produced using only
open source software. Despite these commendable attributes, the lameness of
the acting and the plot distracted from the quality of the CGI making it a poor
tech demo, resembling VFX animation and coming across as very fake.
The Meshup Teabunny
Uformia recently launched a new project called MeshUp, with many powerful
and interesting functions such as mesh mixing and the ability to design a oneor two-sided shell volume, then combine it with micro-structures to create
lightweight yet structural objects for 3D printing. Mesh models tend to have all
kinds of problems such as cracks, holes and self-intersections. This is due to a
disconnect between the real world being represented and the modelling
software's attempts to represent real, volumetric, complex and “messy” objects
by only surfaces.
This makes for a very dynamic, painless and playful modelling experience, as
they demonstrated by combining two of the most iconic 3D models in CG, the
Stanford Bunny and the Utah Teapot. Both polygonal models are automatically
converted to functional volumes so that the Teapot can simply be moved to
another part of the Bunny and the two maintain a union while keeping the
resulting model watertight at all times. Unfortunately the system is very
computationally intensive and can be slow for complex objects, if you do not
have a multi-core computer.
The project was funded on Kickstarter but only just achieved their funding
targets, and I suspect this might have been because the product is not open
source and their rewards were not very well thought through. 153 backers
pledged $28,082, ensuring that they just scraped past the $25,000 goal, even
though some thought that it might not make it at all. For $25 all backers
receive is a MeshUp t-shirt or an .stl model of the MeshUp Teabunny. Even at
$50, backers were only offerered a small physical copy of the Teabunny, and it
required a cool $100 to receive a fully featured copy of MeshUp. If they had
made the price a quarter of this, and promoted it through the 3D printer
forums, I am sure that they would have reached their target far more quickly.
The end users here are hobbyists with limited budgets, not large corporations
with enormously deep pockets. Uformia seem to have ignored the fact that the
main reason that 3D printers have quickly gained such appeal is due to their
rapid drop in prices. This also needs to be reflected in the software that they
use. Larger pledge rewards were completely wasted, with backers willing to
pony up $10,000 being promised all expense trips to Norway for ice caving in
Svalbard. Come on guys, show us that you are confident in your product and
your skills, and can offer us some relevant rewards. Offer me some personalised
CAD work with your software that I can use in my new business, not some overpriced jollies to see Santa and the Northern Lights.
Despite failing to reach their Indiegogo funding goal, Anarkik 3D Design has an
interesting sketch/modelling software known as Cloud9 that they describe as a
modelling package for artists and designers, rather than a CAD package for
engineers. Perhaps the most innovative aspect of this package is that they
utilise a 3D virtual touch (haptic) device to replace the boring 2D mouse. It
certainly makes sense that a 3D device would be a far more effective tool for
designing 3D models but there are a number of disadvantages to be over come
before this hits the mainstream. The largest of these is that a 3D mouse still
costs in the region of $250.
Founders Ann Marie Shillito and Xiaoqing Cao unfortunately showed little
understanding of how to successfully crowdfund a project, even though the
idea itself is really fascinating. They presented themselves as a well-funded and
established company that had originally been spun off from collaborative
research at The University of Edinburgh. Their software is already a working
package, which they are retailing on their website along with a wide range of
rather pricey training courses. They then listed a funding goal of a massive
$120,000, so that they would be able to fix bugs and add new features.
Crowdfunding works best when you are starting a project from scratch,
preferably a project that no financial investor would ever touch. What these
guys needed was a Venture Capitalist, which is why they only ended up
securing a measly $3,000 from the crowd. Even if supporters pledged $100, all
they would have receieved was an abstract 3D model rather that the software
that cost a minimum of $200.
Anarkik are excellent at coming up with catchy marketing terms but it remains
to be seen if their software is genuinely useful, and if it can churn out practical
designs that are suitable for 3D printers. Their introduction of the Novint Falcon
haptic device is a genuine step forward though. They describe a haptic device
as a 3D mouse that provides an interactive resistance known as force feedback,
offering a sense of touch enabling the designer to explore the feel, the textures
and even the elasticity of a virtual object. Certainly, I would like to try out both
this device and the software, but like everybody else, I think I will be waiting for
a printable version that I can download from Thingiverse.
As a short aside, a brief analysis of 3D printing Kickstarter projects revealed the
following. Of the thirteen projects launched since October 2009, only six have
successfully reached their funding goals, about 46 percent. The average
funding goal of a successful project is $3,842 and the average funds raised is
$11,039, or 287 percent. Based on this analysis, it is clear that unsuccessful
projects are generally asking for too much money. For example, PotteryPrint
was an iPad app concept to teach children about 3D printing. They raised only
$6,000 of their $12,000 funding goal. Another example on IndieGoGo is
Anarkik3D, which as described earlier raised less than $4,000 of its $120,000
funding goal. Both of these projects had good ideas and great production
quality, but set targets way above the average successful funding level of
$3,842. In doing so, it was difficult to find enough individual backers to support
their idea. If you are thinking of launching a crowdfunded 3D printing project,
these are important statistics to bear in mind.
CAD File Conversion
When looking to convert CAD files to .stl format, there are a number of options
out there. The Irrlicht Engine is a liberally licensed, open source 3D graphics
library, that is cross platform, written in C++, imports about twenty different
mesh formats and can write them to .stl and .ply.
Meshlab has more than 100 mesh processing algorithms for cleaning, checking,
converting, simplifying, filling, offsetting, remeshing, smoothing, etc. MeshLab,
is an advanced 3D mesh processing software system which is well known in the
more technical fields of 3D development and data handling. As free software, it
is used both as a complete package, and also as libraries powering other
Magics can automatically generate support geometry quite well. It is mainly
used to generate supports for parts being made in SLA machines, but the
options are highly customizable. Unfortunately it is not the cheapest software
3D design is one of the major bottlenecks that is stopping 3D printing from
going mainstream. Until such a time that creating a digital representation of a
physical object becomes as easy as ripping a CD or a DVD, we are unlikely to
see the explosion in the availability of CAD files that will finally enable those of
us with printers to create the wide range of items that we are looking for. Even
so, the rapid pace of development described in this chapter is likely to change
this situation in the very near future. Just think back to a time when websites
had to be written in html code. Only the very motivated and technically
competent were able to create an attractive looking homepage, and then go
through the trouble of maintaining it. This is very similar to the situation with
3D digital designs. Creators need a certain level of expertise with complex and
expensive software suites. 3D scanners and software like Sketch up and
Tinkercad are quickly levelling the playing field. We only need to remember
how the simplicity in creating Myspace pages led to an early explosion of
personal websites. Now we have tools like Pinterest and Facebook that
completely remove all the stress and hard work out of the process. Few people
have actually bothered to become highly skilled website designers and yet
Facebook is well beyond the one billion user mark, a fact that is even more
astounding when we consider that the site is still blocked in the world's most
populous nation, China. There was a time when songs, TV shows and movies
were a rarity on the internet but now there are vast archives, with an almost
innumerable selection of multimedia files. 3D resources such as Thingiverse
and Grabcad are just a taster of what is yet to come when everybody and his
dog can create a digital representation, and instantly share it with the rest of
the world.
In the previous chapter we looked at how the Kinect is changing the field of
computer scanning. It is interesting to note that another device is trying to
change the way that we interact with 3D modelling software. The Leap is a
small iPod-sized USB peripheral that creates a 3D interaction space of eight
cubic feet to precisely interact with and control software on personal computer,
enabling users to control their PCs in three dimensions with natural hand and
finger movements. The developers were frustrated in traditional 3D modelling
software, something that took ten seconds in real life would take thirty minutes
with a computer. They felt that moulding virtual clay with a computer should be
as easy as moulding clay in the real world, and that the mouse and keyboard
were simply getting in the way. The Leap currently costs just $70 and yet can
track individual fingers and their movements down to a 1/100th of a millimetre.
It is able to distinguish thumbs from fingers, and even handheld items like
pencils. The developer's code has already been released, and so it will probably
not be long before we can mimic Tom Cruise swiping through Minority Report’s
3D computer interface, and design our projects on holographic table top
floating displays, in the same way that Tony Stark worked on his Iron Man
Model and 3D Design Resources
The Prusa Reprap
When physical products move from the analogue world to the digital realm,
they usually acquire a new descriptive term. Songs that one generation ago
were referred to as vinyl tracks are now known as MP3s, while photos have
quickly become known as jpegs. These new words do not actually describe the
original item, but a computer based digital representation. In 3D printing we
are still at that fluid stage where the new term for these data objects has not
yet been decided. It might be an .stl (short for stereolithographic file), perhaps
a CAD file, (which might be confusing when somebody eventually prints off a
mediaeval detective) or perhaps the new term 'physible' will quickly catch on.
Whatever we end up calling them, they are going to become immensely
important in the very near future. Just as Gutenberg’s printing press gave rise
to bookshops and libraries, 3D printers will see the growth of enormous online
resources full of 3D representations of all our real world objects. When the
internet was first conceived, Google was but just a twinkle in a young coder's
eye but has since become the dominant force in information indexing. Who can
predict where we will eventually gravitate for our STLs and physibles? Here are
a few of the first entrants onto the scene.
Thingiverse.com is a library of printable objects founded in 2008 by Brooklynbased Makerbot, and currently the leading resource for individuals looking for
objects to create something with their RepRap fabricators, CNC routers or laser
cutters. To quote the CEO, “Up until now, you've been able to download books,
you've been able to download movies, you can download music. Well, now you
can download things. And, once you download the digital design, you can just
crank up your MakerBot, fire it up, and print it out." At last count, there were
more than twenty-five thousand designs that had been downloaded a total of
8.5 million times. Thingiverse is, by far, my favourite resource of this kind.
Where else can you download designs for everything from a tape dispenser to a
complete 18-hole miniature desktop golf course?
The Pirate Bay has created a physibles category on its site, allowing users to
search and locate torrents of 3D printer files. Despite the fact that the move
generated massive media interest, there are still only a handful of pages of
files, including such things as the famous Pirate Bay ship and a 1970 Chevy hot
rod. What was much more interesting was the amount of self proclaimed tech
journalists making fools of themselves by claiming that TPB was hosting these
files and describing it as a piracy site, even though TPB is simply a search
engine akin to Google, that does not actually store anything except meta data
on it servers. The one major impact that it did have was to bring the word
‘physible’ into common usage on blogs and website all over the net.
GrabCAD is a website where CAD engineers display their work and make it
available for download. The site currently hosts over 60,000 CAD models and
has a very lively Q & A section.
The site includes a web-based 3D viewer that is not quite as full-featured as
Sunglass.io but still allows panning and zooming from six predefined viewing
angles, as well as an annotation function for user collaboration. Despite these
interesting features, the site is already upsetting some sections of the slide rule
set in that it is not effectively policing its uploads. While sites in other fields
such as Tripadvisor and Megaupload have drawn criticisms for making vast
profits off other peoples content, similar allegations are now being aimed at
Grabcad. Controls and execution are required to ensure that those who are
posting the models are the same as the people who actually created them.
Fortunately, it is possible to tell who originally modelled a design by right
clicking on a feature, and selecting Feature Properties.
Trimble 3D Warehouse
The Trimble 3D Warehouse (formerly Google 3D Warehouse) is an
accompanying website for SketchUp where modellers can upload, download
and share three-dimensional models. Because of the site's previous association
with Google, there is much more of a leaning towards full scale architectural
models, in fact there are detailed 3D virtual models of most major building
structures of the world. Need a street in San Francisco? Here is a filmable
virtual set. These models can then be loaded to Google Earth, after review for
accuracy that checks if they are "Google Earth Ready." The warehouse is
definitely worth watching to see if their recent acquisition by Trimble alters this
focus, so that they realign themselves more with the 3D printer market.
As the technology progresses, look out for the development of a 3D object
metacrawler, a search engine that will search all the free libraries and return an
aggregate result for you to choose from, and who is to say that this new 3D
metacrawler will not become the next Google.
While the sites mentioned above are more geared to the sharing of content,
there are many more well-established 3D repositories where designers can sell
their designs.
The largest of these, TurboSquid, has more than two million members and well
over two hundred thousand 3D models available for download, the most
popular categories being weapons and vehicles. There are some free models
here, and when comparing these different CAD sites, I searched for sword
designs. Tubosquid came up tops with over three hundred free designs to
choose from. Most of the graphics available here are the kind that are used in
computer games, architecture, and interactive training rather than 3D printing.
It does have a very useful CheckMate Certification program, which checks
models against a unified 3D modelling standard developed by TurboSquid, and
passing models are marked as certified in their catalogue. Downsides to the site
include a poor reputation for customer service, and the fact that they only pay
a measly 40 percent of sales to the actual artists. In comparison,
The3dStudio.com pays 70 percent. Both sites offer affiliate programs for
referrals of new buyers or sellers.
If you have an interest in these kinds of 3D repositories then I would
recommend looking at the following page, which has comparison reviews of all
the major players:
In the hunt for free files, many of the internal 3D models from modern computer
games are easily exported to and printed out on your RepRap or Creator. My
first experience with this was with the Halo Custom Edition game. Like many
first person shooter games, there is a large behind the scenes community
beavering away on new maps, characters and weapons. I looked at their
weapons section at http://hce.halomaps.org/index.cfm?pg=1 and decided to
work with my Singapore-based printer to see if we could improve on the 1.6
minigun that was produced by Hot Toys for their Terminator 2 figure.
The good news is that you can easily convert such models from most game
formats, as long as you have a converter that is. New software called Mineways
enables you to export your Minecraft creations into models and texture maps
ready to send to a 3D printer. None of this is foolproof, and some models might
need some tweaking to work properly, but the software is good at removing
objects that are floating in space or are impossible to construct. It will also
hollow out the interior of your designs, preventing overuse of the raw material
and lowering the cost. Mineways is also the first to export with full colour. As a
quick comparison, at the time of writing, the cost of using Mineways to print in
3D is about sixth-tenths of a cent per block vs. around 10 cents a block for
LEGOs, a cost that is likely to fall even further as printers continue to improve in
quality and resolution. I personally find that many of the 3D models found in
these games are over simplistic in their design. For this reason, I will often go
back to a site like fiverr.com and commission a SolidWorks designer to add
some details, enhancements and authenticity to the piece.
Another source of inspiration might be the classic shoot'em-up game Quake.
There is certainly software out there that will covert MD2 and MD3 files into an
.stl format, so in theory you could immediately starting printing out ogres,
grenade launchers and BFGs.
The digital age is bringing with it new ways to take the virtual world off of your
hard drive and put it on the table in front of you. The possibilities are amazing!
Imagine playing your own version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare as a tabletop
war-game, or creating an entire range of collectible miniatures based on
Farmville? It might even be fun to dig back into the past, and model the star
ships from classic games like Frontier: Elite II or Tachyon. There really is no
shortage of possibilities, nor is there a shortage of skilled, and unskilled,
technicians more than willing to help you achieve a new height of geekery. The
only real limit here is the imagination.
Freelance Printing, Scanning and Designing
An open source home 3D printer set up
Out Sourcing
If you do not yet have your own 3D printer, I can recommend that you start by
using a 3D printing service. Even when using a commercial printing service,
much of the personal fabrication experience remains, including the design, the
modelling and the eager anticipation. There are a wide range of different
services available, from home tinkerers on the various micro-tasking sites, all
the way to large dedicated printer companies such as Shapeways and Sculpteo.
They are affordable and will take care of much of the messy work for you.
Dedicated Printing Services
Ponoko is one of the first manufacturers that uses distributed manufacturing
and on-demand manufacturing, building on the success of the information age,
and applying it to digital fabrication. Customers with digital designs can
contract with Ponoko, and sell their objects either via the Ponoko site, or their
own retail outlets. Ponoko gets paid based on the cost of the materials, plus a
flat rate for every minute the fabrication machine is running, but designers who
sell their products on the site set their own retail prices. The online
manufacturing service now boasts over 1,600 material and color combinations
available through their 2D and 3D services. Digital manufacturing, because it
replicates objects exactly, and because it requires only that someone put the
right material into the machine, can be done by anyone, anywhere. The
manufacturers exist in a distributed network that is growing around the world,
and often the manufacturer closest to the customer is sourced. So Instead of
buying a mass-market table from Ikea, you can now have your own personal
design, or a design that you pick out, manufactured by somebody in your own
town, using locally sourced materials.
There are already more than 20,000 items on Ponoko's website—housewares,
toys, and furniture—available for purchase. But Ponoko does not sell these
products in the traditional sense. The items for sale are not held in inventory;
they exist digitally as design files on the company's servers. What Ponoko really
sells is access to rapid fabrication machines—laser cutters in New Zealand and
Oakland, California, and soon, all sorts of machines all over the world—allowing
people to make themselves stuff or to buy stuff that other people have
To take one interesting example, Los Angeles designer Igor Knezevic sells his
Bloom Lamp, a bedside lamp made up of eighteen precisely cut pieces that
resembles a delicate flower for $160 on Ponoko. Unlike a store-bought lamp,
this one costs Knezevic' nothing until someone pays for it. Igor stocks the lamps
digitally and manufactures on demand. "Right now I'm making a couple
hundred dollars here, a couple hundred there," he says. "But five years from
now, people will still be paying a couple hundred bucks, and I won't have to do
anything. That's revolutionary."
Ponoko and ShopBot recently announced a partnership where more than
twenty thousand online creators meet over six thousand digital fabricators. The
launch of http://www.100kgarages.com/ begins a new chapter in distributed
manufacturing, mass customization, and mass individualization. As Bruce
Sterling noted, “Everybody who knows anything about fabrication knows that
scaling up fabbing has always been a big deal. A thousand fabricators are lot
more than a thousand times one lonely fabricator.” 100kGarages is an exciting
new service for everyone who wants to have things made—by making it
yourself or finding someone to make it for you. It’s free for everyone to search
and submit requests, and for fabricators to post profiles and bids.
i.materialise is the 3D printing service arm of Belgian additive manufacturing
firm Materialise NV. With over twenty years of experience in the technology and
more than seventy 3D printers, this interactive 3D print lab provides users with
instant feedback on models as well as tutorials and an 'Easy Creation' page with
gateways to browser-based 3D design applications such as Tinkercad and
Google SketchUp. There is also a design gallery, where customers can buy and
sell custom 3D designs which i.materialise will then print-to-order. i.Materialise
is experimenting with a form of flat-rate pricing. Normally they employ the
standard "how much material and what kind of material are you printing"
approach, but perhaps this was seen as a barrier to expanding their business.
For any object that fits completely within a volume of 125 cubic centimetres
users pay a mere €12. Should they need a few more copies, prices are even
better: add more for only €4 each.
Sculpteo, a French firm, offers nine colour and material options, from resin to
silvered-coated plastic. Prices range between $42.00 per 5cm of white plastic at
the low end, up to $80.00/5cm for silver. Sculpteos service is currently
available in Europe and North America. The method of pricing of 3D printed
models is by volume of material used and not by the complexity of the model. A
minor reduction in scale can change the price dramatically. For example, if a
100 cubic centimetre model is say $10, scale it down by 25 percent and the
model will be approximately 60 percent cheaper to make. On the Sculpteo
website there is a slider bar for sizing which dynamically shows this dramatic
shift in pricing. The site also features a community page where users can find,
upload, share or sell custom 3D designs.
Shapeways 3D printing delivers designs free worldwide in a wide range of
materials including plastics, stainless steel, ceramics, silver, and more. It is also
an interesting marketplace where users can sell their designs and make ideas
into reality. This is exciting because designers all around the world are earning
money every day from this service. It does not matter if you are in Australia and
your buyer is in the USA. Shapeways handles the financial transaction,
fabrication and distribution. There is no need to invest in a large batch of
products and have them sent from China, to be distributed then to individual
retailers. Designs are produced on demand by Shapeways and sent directly to
clients, while the designer receives a monthly passive income.
Shapeways has seen enormous growth in the number of community members,
models uploaded, products 3D printed, shops opened and income earned by
Shapeways shop owners over the last few years. In 2011, Shapeways 3D printed
over 750,000 individual products and delivered them to people around the
world, earning designers over $270,000 in revenue. Some 238,000 3D models
were uploaded to the site by over 100,000 members. Over 2,500 shops opened
in 2011 alone.
Shapeways recently cut the ribbon on a new factory space in Long Island City,
New York (with a pair of 3D printed scissors obviously). When completed in
2013, it will be the largest 3D-printing facility in the world, housing up to fifty
printers, and in useful proximity to their New York HQ, to which they relocated
from the Netherlands back in 2010.
Kraftwurx is yet another community and marketplace for 3D printing enabling
engineers, product designers, industrial designers and 3D artists to buy, sell
and 3D print customized products. Kraftwurx has many 3D printing veterans
with many years of experience in turning ideas into reality. Products can be
printed in more than forty types of materials including platinum, yellow and
white gold, sterling silver, titanium, stainless steel, aluminum, nylon, ABS
plastic, rubber, transparent plastics etc. Kraftwurx also offers over forty finishes
for products including power coating, painting, polishing, plating, anodizing,
brush effects and more.
These are just four of the many companies that are springing up at the
moment. While it is slightly beyond the scope of this book to list and review all
of them, there are many websites that already perform such a function.
My top recommendation at the moment is the work done by the 3D Printer Hub
All of the above companies are large organisations that specialise in additive
manufacturing, and while they all offer reliable services, they are more akin to
selling antiques and works of art at Sotheby’s or Christies, rather than listing
your personal belongings on an internet auction such as eBay. In this age of
distributed networks, the increasingly attractive alternative is to look at the
many micro-tasking sites that are springing up. These sites are platforms for
freelancers of all kind, located all over the planet, who will perform a myriad of
small tasks, including work that is particularly relevant to us, such as CAD
design, object scanning and even 3D printing. The market is very much
organised in the same way that early internet auction sites were when they
began shaking themselves out. One major player looks as though it is going to
dominate the western market, but there are some interesting smaller
operations fulfilling important roles in specialist niches.
Fiverr is an Israeli based marketplace offering more than one million services
range between $5 and $150. It hosts micro-entrepreneurs in more than 200
countries, lists over 120 categories and provides numerous tools for sellers to
engage with, build and grow their customer base. These include systems for
collecting payment, promoting services, managing orders, exchanging files and
communicating with buyers. The website was launched February 2010, hosting
over 500,000 different gigs the first year and has grown 600 percent since
2011, now being ranked among the top 100 most popular sites in the U.S. and
top 200 in the world. The site adds about 1,000 new services—1,000 new gigs—
per day.
The gigs, most fixed at $5, range from the ultra serious to the down right
ridiculous. There is a good range of the more practical micro-tasks, everything
from CSS micro-bugging and social marketing to resume revising and
PowerPoint editing help. Of course this is the internet and so the amount of
bizarre and oddball offers defies even the most active imagination. Members
will Photoshop monsters into your family photos, pen Italian love poetry, write
advertising messages on various parts of their anatomy and burn effigies of
your enemies.
In January 2012, Fiverr launched Levels, a reputation-based promotion system.
After sellers successfully complete at least ten transactions, they unlock
advanced up-selling tools to offer Gig extras and charge more for their services.
Fiverr's success is testament to an evolving economy, one where workers do not
punch a clock from 9 to 5 and take home a steady salary.
With regard to the world of 3D printing, there are members that are skilled in a
wide range of CAD software including SolidWorks, as well as a smaller number
with home 3D printers that will fabricate your designs for you. Most sites also
have request sections, so if you need tasks completed on Tinkercad, Sketchup
etc., then this is the place to ask. Tucked away among the lunatics who will
dress up as a dachshund and record a HD video of themselves doing a song and
dance to promote your website, there are some very useful freelancers offering
their services of Fiverr.com. The site itself it still a bit clunky, especially the
communication pages between buyers and sellers, but this site being the first
of its kind, it is bound to evolve over time. Bear in mind that few gigs actually
cost only $5 and most will ask for multiples, but do not be afraid to negotiate to
ensure that you receieving the very best deal.
Attack of the Clones
There are literally hundreds of Fiverr clones out there, including, quite
predictably, a Fourerr, a Sixerr and a Sevenerr. Because the website script is
widely available, more and more are springing up all the time, but precious few
of them are lasting the course. I would like to recommend a small handful that
have either managed to establish themselves over a similar time frame as
Fiverr, or that have some small niche appeal which could make them quite
successful in the near future. The first five that I have listed here are actual
Fiverr competitors, sites that are aggressively trying to compete for a share of
the market that Fiverr currently dominates.
Despite the strange name, Zeerk is experimenting with numerous innovative
strategies to set themselves apart from Fiverr.com, rather than simply being yet
another clone. In doing so, they have introduced a number of improvements to
their site that are quickly becoming popular with the micro tasking community.
These include customizable widgets so that sellers can embed their gigs on
their own blogs and websites, four separate levels of upgrade (Bold, Featured,
Highlight and Premium member), and payment options made available on a
daily basis. In addition, there are no commissions on $2 or $5 jobs. The Zeerk
team is also developing software with which users will be able to post their gigs
on all Fiverr clones with just one click, something akin to the eBay Turbolister.
With changes like this coming thick and fast, this is definitely a micro-tasking
site well worth watching.
GigBucks is a very popular alternative to Fiverr, and probably the second most
successful micro-tasking site in terms of traffic. Although it hosts gigs for all the
categories found on Fiverr, the smaller community means there is also far less
competition for workers. On Gigbucks the jobs often outweigh the community,
making it easier for newcomers to find work. Gigbucks is a great jumping off
point for those looking to explore the world of micro-jobs, allowing people to
work how, when and where they would like. Gigbucks offers a limited
registration process; while Fiverr and Fiverr clone sites require a much lengthier
registration process. Gigbucks also appears to have much quicker customer
service turnarounds. Questions can take two to three days to be answered on
Fiverr compared to within twenty-four hours on Gigbucks. Once again, this
might have something to do with the smaller community size.
Tenbux is one of the oldest Fiverr clones and so their much copied design does
not really stand out from the rest of the market. Even so, they are one of the
most active competitors. Obviously the tasks here are twice the price of those
at Fiverr.com and there are plenty of net entrepreneurs out there making a
good living from Fiverr arbitrage. Even on Fiverr.com, users will often end up
paying for extra services anyway, and so Tenbux can often streamline that
process in advance.
This is a very active UK site that often contains significantly different content
from its US counterparts. This in itself can make up for the slightly higher price
of tasks at five pounds sterling. Even in the twenty-first century the UK market
can still be somewhat insular but this site provides a useful doorway into
services and customers that may not be accessible from other points of entry.
There is little to set this site apart from the hundreds of other clones out there
except that it has already gained a fair amount of traction, and is now receiving
a good deal of promising traffic. The only thing I do not like about this site is
their insistence on using such poor grammar, when they insist on beginning
every sellers offer with the words “I'm gunna....” Still, no site is perfect and with
so many choice out there, it is very difficult to pick winners and losers. Imagine
trying to back a winning horse when there are maybe 250 runners in the field.
Still, this is my wild card choice, at least until the next generation of microtasking sites begins to show up.
Beyond the Clones
The five sites that follow are niche sites of which you should be aware as they
may fulfil important roles in the future.
While all the other micro-tasking sites use traditional currencies, this venture
uses the Bitcoin digital alternative. Apart from this, it is similar to many other
Fiverr clones. What I really like is that next to the Bitcoin rate is the equivalent
to US dollars in parentheses, which is very useful for those who are relative
newcomers to both the site and the world of Bitcoin. Buyers pay in Bitcoin, and
sellers have Bitcoin paid into their account, minus a 10 percent listing fee. This
is an interesting option for those who are worried by the fact that we have
already lost trillions of dollars to greedy bankers by placing value in rectangular
paper cut-outs with pictures of dead people on them.
xFiverr offers a free and easy to use micro-job platform for freelancers involved
in the various adult businesses, to offer their services priced from $5 to $75 per
trade. Most micro tasking sites specify no erotica or adult related material, so
this is an interesting niche with plenty of potential
While Fiverr dominates the English language internet, it remains almost
completely unknown is Asia. The development of the Chinese internet has
shown that goliaths in the West can be quickly felled by local upstarts who
understand the importance of local language. Google is dwarfed by Baidu, eBay
was forced to leave with its tails between its legs by Taobao, and Twitter is a
faint squeak compared to the roar of Weibo. Unknown to most Westerners,
China has its own enormously successful versions of sites such as Groupon,
Paypal and Youtube. At the moment it looks as though lisili.com is going to be
the front runner in the micro-tasking market place, but these are still early days
and the Chinese internet can be very unpredictable. Google's handling of
Klingon is still quite a few steps ahead of its Mandarin translation service, and
so many of the descriptions might seem a litlle strange when read in English,
but the one thing that does jump out here, is the vast number of services
available on this site that do not exist on any of the other Fiverr clones. If your
Chinese is not yet up to scratch, then it might be worthwhile hiring a native
speaker on Fiverr.com to help you out with research, listing and querying. Even
if it takes a little investment to start, the fee on lisili.com is only 15 RMB, which
is significantly less than any of the Western clone sites.
With almost as many internet users as China, India is also fertile ground the
micro tasking trend. Rupees4gigs is still in its formative stages but is locally
owned and run, and is in a good position to leverage the wealth of English
speaking talent that makes up the Indian subcontinent. Prices begin at five
hundred rupees and while the site is merely a blip on the radar compared to
Fiverr.com, it is worth watching for the long term.
I personally like to hedge my bets by backing a relative outsider. In this case, it
would have to the Nigerian micro tasking site 1kjobsonline. Nigeria is the most
populous country in Africa, the seventh most populous country in the world and
an amazing one out of four every four Africans is Nigerian. A population of this
size and influence simply cannot be ignored. In addition, anybody that has
spent any time travelling will know that there are successful Nigerian
communities all over the globe. This particular site lists services that are
available for 1,000 Naira, and might be a useful connection to some of the
hungriest and most creative entrepreneurs on the planet. Again this site's
traffic is almost nothing when compared to Fiverr.com but I always like to have
a wild card ready just in case.
The world of micro-tasking is still very fluid, with new sites opening and closing
all the time. Therefore, if you are interested in following developments in this
area, I would like to recommend a couple of sites that do a good job in bringing
up-to-date news on this particular niche.
The War Room is one of the most active entrepreneur websites on the internet.
The site has more than half a million members and there are at least ten
thousand people on line at any give time. This creates a huge pool of collected
information and with micro-tasking being such a hot topic at the moment, this
becomes a very good place to keep abreast of the latest developments. In
addition, it is also a good place to advertise your services as well as search for
freelancers. Most people here are SEO orientated, but that does not mean that
they do not know of CAD designers and 3D printers that they can recommend. I
have always found the site to be filled with an amazingly wide variety of
individuals that make it their business to keep up with the very latest mega
Gigblab is a blog-type website that reviews and critiques Fiverr clone sites. The
site owner is an active micro-tasker herself, and so she is keen to pass on her
knowledge in the field in order to draw in new customers to her own gigs.
Another area worth investigation for you to market your 3D printing services is
that of online auctions. Start with the bigger operations such as eBay, Etsy and
Taobao, offering to scan, model and print, (depending on your capabilities),
whatever the customer desires. Simply set a flat rate per gram of ABS and let
the crowd come up with tasks for you. Not everybody is willing to fork over a
grand for a 3D printer, but they might have a secret project for which they
might need such a service. Also, do not neglect one of the oldest ways of
drumming up business. Whilst less targeted and probably not reliable for
regular work, your local classifieds can also be a useful resource, and many
towns have their own classified sites or a Craigslist website that can be used to
promote your work locally.
Part II
Financial Implications and Opportunities
Designing New Products
The Cube by 3D Systems
Designing New Products
Just as computers were once seen as little more than overgrown calculators
before some of the more innovative applications came along, 3D printers are
going to stay in the same hobbyist category until users start printing genuinely
creative, worthwhile products. This is where we need to exercise our collective
imaginations. This section is an attempt to start the ball rolling by suggesting
ways in which we can turn 3D printer outputs in financial profits.
In a recent online question and answer session on the popular tech site
Slashdot, Steve Wozniak, the inventor of the Apple Macintosh, clearly
demonstrated that being a visionary is much like riding a bicycle, a skill that
remains with you your entire life. Notice how his response significantly widens a
rather narrow question, and shows that there is always a much bigger picture to
by medcalf (68293) on Monday October 01, @12:37PM (#41514561)
Do you think 3D printers can rejuvenate the electronics hobbyist market, or
that the increasing sophistication and miniaturization of electronics makes
that a forlorn goal?
by SteveWoz (152247) on Monday October 01, @02:54PM (#41516505)
I think 3D printers may be a big factor in the future hobby market. But
sometimes such products have application outside of the hobby market,
applications which you can't pin down at first. The Apple ][ could do a lot of
things but the unseen killer app Visicalc really changed things. Maybe for
3D printers it's low cost and high resolution that will lead to something we
can't imagine now. When we started Apple we didn't imagine enough
memory to hold a song.
The main obstacle to the adoption of 3D printers and people using them to
build what they want is a lack of awareness of what can be accomplished. The
first section of this book concentrated on introducing the technology of additive
manufacturing, and investigating its current capabilities. Now it is time to begin
thinking about how we can put these capabilities to good use. Early computer
pioneers created spreadsheets, AutoCAD and word-processing. They took the
existing technology, and came up with excellent uses for all the computing
power that they had harnessed. 3D printers are about to go mainstream and
history has now come around full circle; we now have this fantastic technology
in our hands, but what are we going to do with it?
According to a 2011 Economist article, “More than 20% of the output of 3D
printers is now final products rather than prototypes, according to Terry
Wohlers, who runs a research firm specializing in the field. He predicts that this
will rise to 50% by 2020.”
Try to think in the right direction when deciding what to print. Current
generation technology still has plenty of limitations. Be familiar with your
machine's strengths and weaknesses. Ensure that you leverage the strengths
and minimize the weaknesses.
For a start, 3D printers are still very slow compared to their high-end 2D laser
counterparts; anything that you print should therefore be as small and as
lightweight as possible.
The same Economist article continues:
Aircraft-makers have already replaced a lot of the metal in the structure of
planes with lightweight carbon-fibre composites. But even a small airliner
still contains several tons of costly aerospace-grade titanium. These parts
have usually been machined from solid billets, which can result in 90% of
the material being cut away. This swarf is no longer of any use for making
To make the same part with additive manufacturing starts with a titanium
powder. The 3D printer spreads a layer about 20-30 microns (0.02-0.03mm)
thick onto a tray where it is fused by lasers or an electron beam. Any surplus
powder is reused. Some objects may need a little machining to finish, but they
still require only 10 percent of the raw material that would otherwise be
needed. Moreover, the process uses less energy than a conventional factory. It
is sometimes faster, too.
There are other important benefits. Most metal and plastic parts are designed to
be manufactured using traditional methods, which means they can be clunky
and contain material not necessary to the part's function but necessary for
machining it. This is not true of 3D printing; “You only put material where you
need to have material,” says Andy Hawkins, lead engineer on the EADS
(European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, parent company of Airbus)
project. The parts his team are making are svelte and even elegant. This is
because without manufacturing constraints they can be better optimized for
their purpose. Compared with a machined part, the printed one is some 60
percent lighter but still as sturdy.
If aerospace engineers can do this, then this should also be our inspiration.
What products can we manufacture with designs so elegant that they could
reduce as much as 60 percent (or maybe even more) of total volume?
To prove their point, the engineers at EADS have created a fully functioning
bicycle, showing how the technology can revolutionize the production of
everything, from aircraft and satellites, to much more down to earth forms of
transportation. British engineers printed the bike using a powder composed of
nylon and metal, which results in a frame that has the strength of steel, while
also being 65 percent lighter than aluminium, and yet has only six individual
These fantastic products are a little out of the realm of the beginning 3D
printer, requiring DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering) systems, but the
principles hold true for many of the products that can be manufactured using
the standard range of polymers available for more basic model.
3D Printed Amplifiers
Kickstarter and other crowd-funding sites can be very useful for inspiration
when looking for new products to print. For example, one such innovative
product line is that of iPhone and iPad amplifiers, simple plastic shells that can
boost sound outputs by up to 400 percent. At first, these were very simple
designs, but now a company called Simply Amplified has launched a beautifully
sculpted range of 3D printed amplifiers known as Symphony Shells. Not only
are these designs great to look at, the Urchin, the Murex and the Nautilus are
all selling for $35 each. Because of the large number of loyal Apple customers,
this has the potential to be a huge market and is something that could do quite
well in a rapidly growing market like China.
Niche Markets
Your imagination is the only limitation
When Apple first released the iPad, few outside the Sci-Fi community knew
what a tablet was, let alone what it could be used for. The first tablets may not
have been very impressive in terms of features but they were extremely easy to
use. They made it so intuitive that anybody could find a use for them in their
everyday lives. The 3D printing industry is currently going through this same
stage; the market is quickly filling up with simplified, user-friendly versions of
highly complex industrial machines, and people are looking for ways to make
the technology relevant to their lives. We hope that this section of the book
helps somewhat in finding some important breakthroughs.
Begin by looking for small niches rather than huge global markets. Remember
that a 3D printer can print just one or a few customized items at a time. Without
needing huge investments in retooling and production line changes, the market
with the best potential is the small run, quick turn, custom fabrication market
where you might only print a hundred, or a dozen, or perhaps even just a single
piece. These products generally have such a high margin that the size of the
market is far less important. Try not to dream of economies of scale, and
instead seek to fill the voids that economies of scale create.
Look for markets that match your capabilities. Currently, if you have a basic
printer, you can print small items with a relatively high degree of detail, but not
in multiple materials or with very complex internals. This is not to say that
these drawbacks will not quickly be overcome, it is simply re-stating the
abilities of the current generation of machines. Smaller items are generally
better. More detail means a longer print time, but that level of detail could
actually be a selling point with some items. Spare parts are often small and
limited in availability, which presents a perfect opportunity that is covered in
more detail in a later chapter. As the pet market continues to grow, it is obvious
that smaller animals need smaller items. We might not be able to print highend equestrian supplies just yet, but we can still cater to household pets of
various miniature descriptions. Highly customized short print runs could be
very desirable in the right circumstances, as are additions and extensions to
existing products. Here is a detailed look at some of these possibilities.
Untapped Markets
We are the makers
Last year the excellent 'printthat' WordPress blog featured an article entitled
“Practical Payback Period” where the author discussed the typical return on
investment of a typical $500 3D printer. Although he began with a statement
that could be considered contentious, he does go on to show quite clearly that
just about anybody can have a 3D printer pay for itself:
I doubt that the proliferation of 3D printers will turn a lot of people into
“makers.” Most people probably aren’t going to ever design a single
printable object. Does that mean they’d never get their money’s worth out
of a 3D printer? Well, I’d like to argue that the average person absolutely
WOULD get their money’s worth out of investing in a 3D printer.
While the list of printable objects that he analyzed is interesting, it is hardly a
definitive guide for the 3D printing entrepreneur, although it does give some
useful information about various price points.
Here are a few of the most enlightening examples:
Project: Tripod mount
Estimated savings - $20.00
Link: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:8679
Project: Lens gear for follow focus
Estimated savings - $50.00
Link: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:8658
Project: Peristaltic pump
Estimated savings - $124.00
Link: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:8652
Project: Solder fume fan mount
Estimated savings - $40.00
Link: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:8642
Project: Ukulele bridge
Estimated savings - $7.00
Link: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:8492
Project: Third hand PCB vice
Estimated savings - $20.00
Link: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:8194
Project: Orange juice squeezer
Estimated savings - $30.00
Link: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:7924
Project: Collapsible traffic cone
Estimated savings - $12.00
Link: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:7788
Project: Bird feeder
Estimated savings - $10.00
Link: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:4847
While many of the other items he examined, such as picture frames, door stops
and bag clips, are simply too ubiquitous to be serious money makers, this pared
down list does highlight some higher end items that may be a useful guide to
future profitability.
If driven by curiosity, then you probably had to jump straight to Wikipedia to
find out the function of a peristaltic pump. Unlike the dialysis machine pumps
that that are, relatively speaking, better known, Thingiverse.com has a number
of pump designs that are intended to be used inside 3D printers, as part of the
extrusion process. Even so, this does prove that higher priced items can be
produced with these machines. Not that it is likely that kidney failure patients
will be buying replacement parts from 3D home printers any time soon, but
longer-term trends may surprise us.
While some items, such as the orange squeezer, are more likely to be a 99 cents
item down at the dollar store, others do suggest patterns and potential. Bird
feeders will be covered later in the Upcycling section, but the commonality of
practical, useful tools does otherwise stand out. These items seem complex in
concept, and yet simple in terms of production. At the beginning, not
everybody will have the design capabilities to come up with new tools; perhaps
due to lack of familiarity with the CAD software, but that should not stop us
from pursuing simpler concepts. What follows is a look at some of the products
that can conceivably be printed almost immediately. Farm out the CAD work if
necessary, but it should not be so expensive that you cannot still make large
profits on the finished items.
Three Pioneering Printers
Dodecahedron lamp made by California artist Bathsheba Grossman
Many users are already using their 3D printers to turn a profit, albeit on a
slightly smaller scale than some of us would like. Here are three of my favourite
current examples, showing good use of ingenuity and practicality.
One notable member of this first batch of entrepreneurial printers is Bathsheba
Grossman. She creates sculptures using computer-aided design and threedimensional modelling, utilizing 3D printers to physically manifest her ideas.
Many of her sculptures are primarily mathematical in nature, often depicting
intricate patterns or mathematical oddities. In fact, rather enigmatically she
describes her work as being “about life in three dimensions: working with
symmetry and balance, getting from the origin to infinity, and always finding
beauty in geometry.” Even more interesting is the following extract from her
I have a grass-roots business model. I don't limit editions, I price as low as
costs permit, and most of my selling is direct to you, by way of this site. My
plan is to make these designs available, rather than restrict the supply. It's
more like publishing than like gallery-based art marketing: we don't feel
that a book has lost anything because many people have read it. In fact it
becomes more valuable as it gains readership and currency. With the
advent of 3D printing, this is the first moment in art history when sculpture
can be, in this sense, published. I think it's the wave of the future.
There are already a dozen or so designs that are downloadable from her
website, and we look forward to seeing a lot more.
Interestingly, she does not use any of the big name auction sites, instead using
her own website as a sales platform. Her designs start at around $40, for what
she calls the smaller 'pony-sized' renditions, and in my opinion, they are worth
every penny.
Sean Charlesworth is a toy collector from New York with a degree in 3D
modelling and animation, and a fascination for rapid prototyping. When
considering his student assignment options, he decided that an octopus vehicle
with articulated arms would be visually striking. With inspiration from the
Nautilus in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and having a distinct
steampunk feel, the model was built over the course of two semesters. Jules
Verne would be proud of this 'full metal octopus', entitled The OctoPod
Underwater Salvage Vehicle, or O.P.U.S. V for short. He documents the entire
design and build process on his blog at http://opus5.complex88.com/. The
model was printed on an Objet Connex500™ Multi-Material 3D Printing System
which has the ability to print with 107 different materials, and his final model
certainly shows it.
The O.P.U.S. V
Sean's background is in modelling for the entertainment industry and so he
used Cinema 4D and Maya, even though they were probably not the best
choice when designing something so mechanical. The most complex parts were
the tentacles, so he rejected traditional joints and instead printed a flexible
core with Objet Tango material and fused Objet Vero knuckles to it for added
detail. With a small shaft down the centre and inserted brass armature wires,
the tentacles can be posed very dramatically, even though it took four versions
to perfect this technique.
The level of detail is truly amazing. All of the arms are fully articulated, and the
suckers cupped so that they actually stick. The insides are just as detailed as
the exterior. For example, LEDs mark internal hatches and an operational hoist
raises and lowers a hook through an iris doorway. The cockpit is filled with
buttons and switches, as well as a captain's chair, and lit sonar displays, with
portholes lining each side of the cabin.
The O.P.U.S. V Interior View
The O.P.U.S. V certainly sets the standard for the rest of us, and must have
designers in large companies such as Hasbro seriously worried about their
futures. I wonder how long we will have to wait for a full-scale version? This
innovative model, as a whole, is a major accomplishment for one person, but
many of the clever aspects of it could be transferred to other products. The
suction cups, for example, offer possibilities for everything from toys to
Halloween pranks, and even devices for more serious uses.
Polymath and material scientist Neri Oxman is best known for her work in
environmental design and digital morphogenesis. She currently teaches at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, where she founded the
Material Ecology design lab.
The 3D Printed Art of
Neri Oxman
Her latest exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, entitled “Imaginary
Beings: Mythologies of the Not Yet” is a collection of eighteen prototypes for
the human body, inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, a
bestiary and zoological collection of 120 mythical beasts from folklore and
The eighteen nature-inspired, human augmentations are amplifications of
mythical human functions such as the ability to fly, or the secret of becoming
invisible. “Each ‘being’ in the series encapsulates what was once considered
magic and becomes actuality, as design and its material technologies offer
more than meets the skin: spider suits, wing contraptions, and ultra-light
helmets; these are all what she considers mythologies of the ‘Not Yet’.”
Oxman has created a thought provoking selection of futuristic designs inspired
by technological advancements, but based on fantasy and popular myth: from
the Golem of Prague to robotic exoskeletons, from Daphne’s wings to flying
machines, from Talos’ armor to protective skins. All of the pieces were created
using an Objet Connex 500 3D printer, combining a library of algorithms
inspired by nature, and the very latest multi-material 3D fabrication
techniques. She worked very closely with Objet to customise their technology
and take advantage of the latest innovations to project the future in modern
Oxman explains: “Revealing nature’s design language, this collection of objects
represents a library of design principles inspired by nature suggesting that the
ancient myth and its futuristic counterpart unite where design fabrication
recapitulates fantasy.”
She is pushing the boundaries of 3D printing, and for that she deserves our
attention. If the next Steve Jobs turns out to be a woman, then it might well be
Ms. Neri Oxman.
The Multi-Talented Ultimaker
At this stage in the evolution of 3D printers, it makes sense that smaller
versions of regular objects are going to be some of the most profitable products.
Miniatures have always been popular as luxury items and despite the economic
downturn, they still command a captive audience today. If you are unfamiliar
with the miniatures market, I would suggest that you start your research in a
much earlier period, which has since set the bar for the centuries that have
Hidden away in the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vaults) of Dresden, is a huge
collection of crown jewels and precious objects belonging to Augustus the
Strong, Elector of Saxony. This extravagant megalomaniac was famed for being
able to snap horseshoes in two with his bare hands. He was also a hunting
fanatic, specialising in fox tossing, where he would hurl live animals high into
the air and onto to their deaths, all for his personal pleasure. Despite such
cruelties, he was also a great art collector and employed Johann Melchior
Dinglinger as his court goldsmith. Dinglinger was one of Europe's greatest
goldsmiths, working in the grand rococo style of Cellini and Jamnitzer.
The Birthday of the Grand Moghul Aurangzeb
The most impressive of the three thousand pieces that are on display in the
specially commissioned complex of strong rooms, is Dinglinger’s vision of the
royal court of Aurangzeb, a seventeenth-century Moghul Emperor. Augustus
was fascinated by his Indian contemporary, who was believed to be the richest
man on Earth. Dinglinger spent nearly eight years working on 'The Birthday of
the Grand Moghul Aurangzeb.' The work depicts 137 figures modelled in pure
gold, each one ornately enamelled and jewel-encrusted. The Emperor is seated
on his ornate throne, giving audience to noblemen, princes, and rajahs, who
have all arrived to pay him tribute on his fiftieth birthday. The court is an openair doll's playhouse, complete with toy soldiers, tiny elephants, horses, and
even camels. Richly dressed crowds fill the audience chamber, which is a
fantastical rather than entirely accurate representation of a distant land, its
charm increasing further because of Dinglinger’s wonderfully playful
imagination. Instead of Indian motifs, Dinglinger decorated the walls of this
playhouse with dragons and pagodas, as if Aurangzeb were not the Moghul
Emperor but the Emperor of China. Several groups of envoys arrive from
different parts of Asia to honour the wealthy but notoriously cruel ruler. A
delegation of Chinese plenipotentiaries that have travelled from the Manchu
capital of Shenyang, features one member carrying a tiny fan which even has
Chinese characters painted on its reverse. This level of attention to detail is
absolutely exquisite. Other figures carry colourful parasols and unusual gifts.
The walls of the court are mirrored, cleverly reflecting the proceedings and the
glittering enamel, jewels, gold and silver.
Rajahs Paying Tribute
Dinglinger was paid some 55,485 Thalers for what is essentially a Fabergé-style
set of toy soldiers. This proves that miniatures have always been a very
lucrative market when done well. I therefore urge you to leave the low budget
plastic army men to the injection moulders in China, and focus instead on richly
imagined, highly detailed pieces that collectors will admire and covet. Here is a
selection of practical ideas that you can begin researching and utilizing straight
Doll's Houses
The world of doll's house furniture is one of those very profitable market niches
that does not garner much public attention. This market goes a long way
beyond Barbie and Ken, and well into craftsman-made, artisan products, which
create a passion and sometimes even an addiction among their adherents.
While there are plenty of brands out there with which you should familiarize
yourself, the two that are examined here are Re-ment from Japan, and Bespaq,
who seem to use mainly Chinese work.
According to the Re-ment's Wikipedia entry “The company's name is derived
from a combination of the phrase ‘re entertainment’, alluding to their desire for
innovation in the toy market. Established in 1998, Re-ment currently sells a line
of highly-detailed miniature food, furniture and animal figures as well as mobile
phone charms, doll fashions and magnets.” A quick check on eBay will show
you that some of the larger sets often fetch $400 or $500 per piece. Again from
Wikipedia, many of the Re-ment products “resemble the plastic sample food
found in the windows and display cases of restaurants throughout Japan.
Targeted at the adult collecting community, these 1/6 scale toys are typically
displayed in dioramas and doll houses or used with action figures and fashion
doll's such as Blythe or Barbie.”
This obviously has the potential to become a bread-and-butter product line for
3D printing manufacturers. What Re-ment basically does is take an ordinary,
everyday product, and then scales it down until it is 1/6 or even 1/12 of the
original size. With the right .stl file, a 3D printer can do this with almost any
Bespaq is a western retailer that prefers to remain more mysterious about its
background. They do have a website, but it is still little more than a bare
template at the time of publication. Perhaps this goes to show that you really
do not need thousands of dollars of flashy internet presence, as long as your
product meets market expectations. This about.com page tells much more
about the company than the company website.
Despite all the commentary from around the web about 'museum quality' and
'Platinum Editions', much of Bespaqs’ stock is manufactured in industrial Anhui,
one of the poorest provinces in China, and is widely available in the wholesale
markets of Guangzhou, Yiwu and Shenzhen.
While Bespaq seem to have cornered the market in 'classical' furniture, there
are still plenty of opportunities for other, smaller producers. For suitable
inspiration, look to the eBay seller kenneth9134.2007 who, as well as selling
Chinese made products, also custom builds his own pieces, including room
boxes designed to appeal to an even smaller niche markets. His recent 'Gothic
Moon' and 'Chinoiserie' pieces both sold in the region of $500 each.
There are some truly beautiful pieces, with levels of details of which, for the
moment, 3D printers can only dream, but this situation will not last long. The
day will come soon when items like the classic dollhouse room stand can be
printed on inexpensive machines. This is a complete room in miniature, boxed
to fit into an existing dollhouse. This means that a room within a room, within a
room is completed at an amazing scale of 1/144.
Most 3D fabbers are unlikely to begin at this advanced level, but it is wise to
start becoming familiar with eBay's doll's house miniature listings, analyse the
market and see where the likely gaps are to be found. One suggestion is to lean
towards the more exotic end of the spectrum. There are plenty of factories
making miniature Chippendales, but far fewer cater to more minority needs.
With my personal experience, an interesting choice would be to choose
Buddhist or Tibetan themes and aim at the wealthy West coast market, but you
may have an equally interesting background to provide you with suitable
A relatively easy starting point when creating doll's house miniatures is to focus
on something small but essential, such as curtain poles for example. This part
of the market is very buoyant and, even amongst the specialist sellers, there is
not currently a great deal of competition. Clare-Bell Brass Works of Maine has
been manufacturing the finest quality, handcrafted solid brass miniatures in
Colonial, Williamsburg, Americana, Georgian, and Contemporary styles since
1975. One of their sets of three five-inch drapery rods (product no.1785) in
their original box recently attracted seventeen bids to finish at $29.76. Of
course, there is no reason why miniature brass curtain poles should actually be
made of brass; a 3D printer is quite capable of producing telescopic rails,
complete with tiny curtain rings in ABS, PLA or even cured resin.
Clare-Bell is an excellent source of inspiration for those new to the doll's house
miniatures market. Especially impressive is their range of LED light fixtures,
which include intricately detailed chandeliers, floor lamps, wall sconces, table
lamps, and candelabra. As LED technology continues to improve and prices
drop even further, this will rapidly become a technology and market sector that
will be well worth further investigation.
Another important factor in Clare-Bell's success is their focus on the antique
market. Period pieces generally fetch higher prices than their contemporary
counterparts. A good example of this is Re-ment's Japanese Samurai era vintage
food set. Six assorted sushi rolls, a traditional teapot and tea set is far more
popular that a similar twentieth-century sushi set, and this factor should be
taken into consideration when deciding which items you are going to print.
Of course, this is just a suggestion rather than a hard and fast rule. So before
you begin printing a full range of furniture from the classic French comedies, at
least investigate a few up dated pieces that are still popular. A great
contemporary example is the 'Lights, Camera, Action Photo Studio Set' that was
produced exclusively for the 2008 Barbie Convention.
Better yet, rather than recreate existing items why not plunge straight into the
OOAK sector of the market. The abbreviation OOAK stands for the expression,
"one of a kind." The term originates in yachting to describe a regatta race in
which ship builders were allowed to enter as many different models of yachts as
they manufactured, but no more than one of each model. Since then, the term
has found a different and expanded use as an Internet acronym, especially with
regard to the sale of handmade merchandise, which is "one of a kind" with
respect to actual production. The term has widespread use in the cottage
industry of doll making, but is also used in any manufacturing sector in which
the one-of-a-kind nature of a product signifies its value and importance.
Here are two sites to help you familiarise yourself with this market.
The website http://weburbanist.com/ is an extremely useful source for modern
interior design inspiration, with the added advantage that post-modern
furniture has far less in the way of curlicues and flourishes that your first 3D
printer might find difficult to handle. Rococo chaise lounges and high back
velvet studded thrones suitable for a Louis XIV revival, might provide a great
deal of challenges in term of detail and finish for a basic Reprap. Far easier
would be some of the modern classics. How about the Thompson inflatable
chair, a 1966 Eero Aarnio Ball, or aluminum Batoidea? How about a classic tube
chair or one of those sofas that resembles the front end of a sports car, or
maybe even a classic Gaetano Pesce UP5?
If you do not know much about the evolution of chair design, then a good place
to start might the BBC documentary, Are You Sitting Comfortably, where Alan
Yentob, previously Director Geneal and now Creative director of the BBC,
explores the history of the chair in all its many forms and functions:
Of course, larger items are going to require a lot more work in terms of creating
suitable .stl files, so perhaps it would be better to start with much smaller items.
Maybe some miniature coat hangers as mentioned before, or perhaps some
simple S&M gear for the dollhouse dungeon?
Action Figures
Most people have imagined themselves as a superhero. Now a company called
Firebox can help you out with that by providing a superhero action figure with
your own head on it. All you need to do is send them your picture and some
cash. Currently, Firebox sells five models: Superman, Batman, Batgirl, Wonder
Woman, and the Joker. Unfortunately, the heads do not include the relevant
masks and the hair is limited to a thin layer of thermoplastic, which does not
look very realistic. Perhaps most disappointing is the price, a whopping $130.
Still, this is just an initial experiment and before long, any Comicon attendee or
Cosplay conventioneer will be able to sit down in their favourite figurine
manufacturer's booth, have their head scanned and the image reproduced onto
whatever exclusive line is being offered at the event.
It is not surprising that there is already a shop in the Tokyo electronics district
of Akihabara that does exactly this. The main studio of the Clone Factory
features a chair in the middle of the room that is surrounded by digital SLRs.
Printing is done with a ZPrinter 650 and the final product is known as 'jibunsan', which roughly translates to "myself." It takes a few days to prepare a
clone, so if you are visiting Tokyo and want to take it home as a souvenir, make
sure you book in advance. The cost is still a whopping 138,000 yen and the
surface objects are a bit rough due to the limitations of the printer, but the final
product is covered in a top coat to protect the surface.
The website also ran a poll to see which other characters were most popular
among consumers. Some of these results might be useful in deciding what kind
of products might be successful if you are planning to use your 3D printer for
business. Moe girls received a massive 32.47 percent of the vote but other
options included, Rei Ayanami, AKB48, Gundams, mini poplars, Gunpla runners,
Shinki Renge minions, Gunpla parts, Bishonens, Ecchi Girls, Gackt, Sho Jo Ji Dai,
HoN Characters and Vocaloid.
When readers were asked about what kind of body they would prefer, then the
following responses proved to be equally revealing. Stormtrooper 6.47
percent, Iron Man 9.37 percent, Master Chief 4.18 percent, Maid Outfit 8.09
percent, Solid Snake 5.86 percent, Perfect Grade Gundam 3.1 percent, Mirai
1.42 percent, Super Sentai 1.55 percent, Gantz 3.91 percent, My own body
17.65 percent and Commander Shepard 1.62 percent.
Other suggestions included Hideyoshi Kinoshita, Char Aznable, Custom Dollfie
Heads, Otonashis, Ultimate Hentai Kamen battle outfit, Ryo Hazuki, Akiyama
Mio, Black Rock Shooter, Volks or Obitsu bodies, Lolita, Gendo Ikari, Super
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Oppai, Tactical Dreadnaught Armour, Starcraft 2
Marine, Sieg Kaiser Reinhard von Lohengramm, Lady Gaga, SNSD Girls
Generation, Mokujin, Kamen Rider, Kenshiro, Cloud Strife, Evangelion and
Akatsuki. Unless you are already a hardcore Cosplayer, then you might not
have heard of half of these characters, so this could be a good place to start
your research:
A second 3D printing photobooth is now open in Japan, and, those who wish to
buy themselves a mini-me can go to the Eye of Gyre exhibition space in
Harajuku for the procedure. The miniatures come in three sizes, roughly 4, 6,
and 8 inches, and cost the equivalent of $265, $400, and $530 respectively,
with modest discounts for groups. This is not a casual, walk-in affair; if you want
one of these miniatures, you will need to make reservations ahead of time.
Despite the price tag and the need to schedule an appointment, this is some
remarkably detailed 3D printing, the likes of which is not often available for
public use.
Well positioned on the leading edge of miniature figures is the Moddler
Company, located in San Francisco. Started by vfx veteran and Emmy winner
John Vegher, Moddler specializes in turning digital models into incredibly
detailed physical models with a resolution of only 16 microns (.0006" or
.016mm): that is about 1/5th the thickness of a human hair. For comparison,
Cubify resolution appears to be 250 microns, (1/4 millimetre, or 1/100 inch),
Shapeways frosted ultra-detail (FUD) has a resolution of 0.1 mm (50 microns.).
They also offer 3D scanning services with scanning resolution down to .1mm.
Founder John Vegher, has over fourteen years of visual effects experience on
such feature films as “The Matrix Reloaded,” “The Matrix Revolutions,”
‘Terminator 3” and “Fantastic Four.” Models can be printed in light blue, black
and grey and can be primed and painted. Moddler uses an Objet Eden printer
and costs around $25 for a single humanoid figure or $80 for something
Like visual effects in the mid 90s, when I began my career working on
Judge Dredd, the technology that enables 3D printing has progressed by
leaps and bounds in recent years, and possesses incredible creative
potential which is just beginning to be realized. Few people outside the
industrial world (where it has been used by automotive, aerospace and
OEM companies in one form or another for some time) are using it. I am
able to utilize my visual effects technical know-how and experience to
bring this digital technology to bear in the entertainment industry to help
digital designers, directors and producers achieve their creative vision.
Ease of use is a huge selling point for this new technology, and I already know
of one fabricator whose twelve-year-old daughter prints doll house furniture on
his MakerBot. By comparison, in a CNC machine shop, the full-time machinist
that already has ten years experience is still "the new guy," as there is so much
to learn when it comes to machining. The other big drawback is that when you
are driving cutting tool through steel stock there are enormous side forces.
Vegher describes 3D printers as being small, light, and office friendly, while
CNC mills remain huge, nasty machines that weigh thousands of pounds, and
will rip off your arm, given half a chance.
One simple example of a typical 3D printed product might be the Cosmic Cube,
better known as the Tesseract, one of the most powerful artefacts in the comic
book universe of Marvel characters. According to agent Nick Fury, it holds great
power that is almost unlimited. Black Widow states that it has enough power to
destroy the entire planet. In fact, the Tesseract has the capability to open rifts
through space and time. Which is how the Red Skull met his end and how Loki
transported himself and later, the Chitauri, to Earth through a portal. More
importantly to us, plastic 1:1 replicas of the cube (essentially a small box with a
couple of LEDs to make it glow) regularly sell on eBay for around $70.
Amazingly the 1/6 version, (ideal for a Reprap) goes for around $20. There are
no .stl files on Thingiverse for a cosmic cube, but there are designs for many
other kinds of cube, ranging from a selection of Rubik’s variations, to at least
half a dozen versions of the Companion Cube, an artefact from the first person
shooter, Portal.
I grew up near the Palitoy factory in Coalville, Leicestershire, the facility that
used to produce the Action Man/GI Joe lines that were so popular with children
in the seventies and eighties. The company experienced a huge spike in
production when the first Star Wars movies were released, and the facilities
struggled to keep up with demand for Snow Walkers and Millennium Falcons.
Shortly after that last hurrah, Hasbro took over and the Coalville plant was shut
down, with most of the work being outsourced to Southern China. Despite the
appalling environmental conditions, I am quite lucky to spend a lot of time in
Dongguan and Guangzhou where most of the global 1/6 scale figures
production has been relocated. These days the Action Man brand has been
replaced by brands like Hot Toys and Soldier Story, and these items have
evolved from playthings for boys, to highly desirable collectibles for men with
large disposable incomes. It is common for some of the more sought after
figures to sell for $1,000 a piece on eBay, and collectors will pay premium
prices for accessories with which to customise their acquisitions.
While many lament the relocation of industries like these to Mainland China,
the improvements in detail of the figures, their clothing and equipment has
been very impressive. The production of 1/6 related items is quickly becoming
(if it is not already so) a modern day Chinese art form, equivalent to the
porcelain production that came out of Jingdezhen, or the pottery that emerged
from Yixing. If you still think that these figures are just plastic dolls, then have a
look at the intricately detailed equipment of the Navy Seal UDT Halo Jumper.
Navy Seal UDT Halo Jumper
The amount of equipment included with this figure and the level of detail of all
that tiny gear is quite impressive.
Another good example is the Deluxe Suit Up Gantry from the movie Iron Man.
This one sixth-scale replica sports an impressive eighty plus articulation points
and even has a light up feature. The rear hydraulic arm features a total of nine
individual articulated joints, and fifteen individual joints on the mechanical
claw that attaches the helmet alone. The accessories and accoutrements of
these twelve-inch figures are light years ahead of the cheap toy soldiers of
yesteryear in terms of skill and production. It is quite clear that the action
figure collectors of Hong Kong and the West have developed some discerning,
and demanding, tastes.
Deluxe Suit Up Gantry
With the advent of 3D printers, it is foreseeable that the 1/6 scale area will
improve faster than ever before. While current ranges are dominated by
military figures and blockbuster movie characters, there is the possibility for a
much broader scope of action figures that will appeal to a much wider base of
collectors. One only has to look at the Japanese market to see where this is
heading, with lines such as Ashley Wood and Cygirls, moving increasingly away
from battlefield replicas and combat figures. Before 3D printers, producers were
limited by relatively large production runs that were required to make to make
a new line profitable, for example; the Pearl River Delta factories in Guangdong
require a minimum order of five thousand pieces. With a 3D printer, it is now
possible to do just a handful of figures or accessories, and at the same time add
cachet to your product by its inherent rareness.
I urge you to study this fascinating niche market see the opportunities that
await. Of all the lines that are exported back to the West, these are definitely
some of the most fascinating. Additionally, the market is sizeable enough for
me to share here with you some of my trade secrets, new projects and product
developments that are currently already under way, without any fear for my
own business. The only issue is where to start on this vast subject.
Firstly, some of the key rules that apply to 3D printers: keep your products as
small as possible, respect the limits of the current generation of open source
machines. Focus on uniqueness to ensure that you are taking full advantage of
the machines one-off capabilities. Keep all of this in mind when you decide
which 1/6 scale items you are going to print, and you will soon be producing
highly profitable items for this growing niche market.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain this is to simply provide some examples of
the lines upon which my designers and printers are currently working. I have
always felt uncomfortable selling products that were directly linked to the
military or that actively promoted violence. This first occurred to me when I
bought a knuckleduster in China for less than a dollar and resold it on eBay in
the UK for nearly fifty UK pounds, a profit of almost a hundred fold. Initially I
was ecstatic at discovering such a high margin item, and was soon fantasising
about all the money that I would be making if I could send home a dozen of
these a week. It slowly dawned on me what I was actually selling, when a friend
from the East End of London explained to me why the police come down so
hard on anybody carrying brass knuckles. Unlike a knife, which can be used for
many purposes, brass knuckles have no legitimate purpose except to cause
physical injury. Even a flick knife can be used to cut up fruit or carve a stick,
whereas a set of knuckledusters has only one purpose. This revelation made me
look very carefully at all the products that I was exporting, and made me quite
uncomfortable with more than a few of them. I was doing very well with police
patches and military insignia at the time, but felt very disquieted with the socalled morale patches commissioned by Blackwater, with their expressions of
racial hatred, despite the fact that they were really good sellers. It was at that
time that I started commissioning my own non-military designs, and enjoyed
surprisingly good sales, as well as much improved peace of mind.
The same has been true for 1/6 scale figures, and I now try not to resell items
that are overly militaristic or that needlessly glorify violence. I personally am
much happier with lines that celebrate the historical, or encourage educational
aspects. While I was familiarising myself with 12” scale products, I was
experimenting with all kinds of sniper rifles, rocket launchers and field artillery.
Nowadays, I still buy a few of these pieces, but I have my designers customise
them into victoriental steampunk blunderbusses or intergalactic plasma
repeaters. I am not trying to give you a lesson in morality here, but this will
help to explain why I am focussing on some of the more obscure items of the
Of course, not everybody has these concerns. I have one friend that is using his
3D printer to create 1/6 scale weapons from the Game of Thrones series, a
gratuitously violent show if ever there was one. 1/1 scale replicas of swords
such as Arya Stark's Needle, Jon Snow's Longclaw and Eddard Stark's Ice
regularly fetch thousands of dollars on eBay, and so it makes perfect sense that
1/6 scale versions will sell like hot cakes to collectors and customizers. I have
already seen the sample prints that he has completed of Robert's Warhammer,
and they are most impressive in terms of quality and detail, and will look even
better when fully painted.
Actually, this raises an important point about being located in the production
zone where all of these items are manufactured. It allows us to see what is
being made and where there are important gaps in the market. Game of
Thrones for example has been a massive hit all year, and still there are hardly
any examples of related merchandise in the wholesale markets, making it clear
that a nimble 3D printer has a good opportunity to jump in long before the big
boys begin to dominate. Another advantage is that a product can be developed
and produced in a fraction of the time that it takes a goliath like Hasbro to set
up tooling, negotiate production and arrange marketing. A home-based 3D
printer, even if they are using a freelance SolidWorks designer based halfway
around the world, can still have a saleable product online in just a couple of
I personally try to stay away from movie and TV tie-ins, in order to avoid the
unwanted attention of copyright lawyers and other corporate mercenaries.
Early in 2012, there was a great deal of hype surrounding the release of the
Prometheus movie, Ridley Scott's first science fiction movie in years, and the
resurrection of the Aliens saga. I was very tempted to jump on this bandwagon
and work on some 1/6 scale replicas, and maybe even some 28mm models. As
it turned out, the film proved to rather disappointing in terms of costume
design and special effects. I was similarly tempted to print a few items based on
the hugely successful Hunger Games movie, but there again, the props and the
equipment were basic to say the least.
These days, I tend to focus more on genres and old classics rather than the
latest released films and recent TV hits. Not only does this keep me away from
potential legal issues, it gives my creativity much more freedom in terms of
what I can imagine or design. As a concrete example, why would I copy items
straight from a show like Buffy or Twilight, when I can pick and choose from the
entire Dracula mythology, and print out entirely unique vampire hunting
equipment and suitably Gothic paraphernalia? Why would I want to copy
wholesale from films such as Judge Dee and Tai Chi Zero, when I can develop
my own range of completely individual oriental steampunk gizmos? Why should
I go to the trouble of licensing tired old Star Wars clichés, when there is an
entire galaxy of pacifist space opera and galactic exploration literature out
there with which I can experiment?
Of course, I am not the only one thinking in this way. One of the larger twelve
inch figure factories in Guangzhou is moving away from the traditional battle
field soldiers, and developing the domestic Chinese market with
representations of Bruce Lee, Ip Man and Jayden Yuan. Others are exploring the
growth of anime, manga and cosplay, with many taking a distinctly hentai
direction. I myself am looking very closely at the UK cybergoth sub culture, and
small diorama pieces for the customisation crowd.
Of course, just because I do not want to deal in arms, whatever the scale, you
may not have the same sentiments. Companies like Zytoys are already
producing a selection of the latest semi-automatic sniper rifles such as the
Cheytac M200 Intervention and the USMC M4A05, incorporating incredible
detail, that most current open source 3D printers would to struggle to replicate.
Rather that compete directly with these guys, I would prefer to push the
boundaries of my machine into other areas. Uniqueness sells well in this
market, so I personally would look at some of the stranger rifle manifestations
in the arms markets. Items such as the 'round-the-corner' rifle or the Kriss Super
V sub-machine gun would both be interesting contenders. The internet movie
firearms database would certainly be a very useful resource if you do decide to
go in this direction
It is not surprising to learn that there is already an entire subculture devoted to
exotic weaponry.
The 'SINZA—Exotic Automatic' for example, is a discussion forum for exotic
weapon design and construction with nearly twenty five thousand members.
Fans, builders and collectors share their experiences with a wide range of
automatic bladed weapons, including switch-blades and xiphoids (a type of
retractable forearm dagger). There are schematics for projects as exotic as
assassin railblades and even a machete shooting slingshot crossbow. More
traditional firearms crafts can be observed at a range of other sites including
homegunsmith.com, weaponsguild.net and weaponeer.net.
One aspect that is very popular with collectors is increased functionality. If you
can use your design skills and your 3D printer to add some kind of working
mechanism to your model, then you will be well ahead of the crowd. As
examples here, I am talking about crossbows that can load and launch
miniature bolts, or grappling hook launchers that can actually fire their missiles
a reasonable distance. Collectors will pay a premium for these kinds of
Look carefully at the performance of 1/6 accessories sales on eBay and you will
soon notice how even the smallest accessories can fetch $10 or $20. Learn as
much as you can about this market and try to put yourself in the shoes of
collectors who are willing to pay these premium prices, so that in the future,
you too can meet their particular needs. Guangdong might be ground central in
terms of production, but it is the retail outlets of places like Richmond House in
Mong Kok, Hong Kong that are where some of the most avid collectors
congregate. Take a look at their Facebook pages to see what is currently hot,
pages like Figures Station where the pre-order announcements will give you a
good idea of what is popular, and what is currently in the works.
Another resource that I find especially useful is the One Sixth Warriors website.
Despite the growing number of collectors, there are very few documentaries on
the subject of 1/6 action figures, compared to say, railway modelling for
example. There is however one film that I would highly recommend entitled
'Marwencol,' that shows action figure artwork taken to a totally different level,
as well as focussing on the valuable therapeutic aspects of the hobby. Here is
the Internet Movie Database Review of the film.
On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was brutally attacked by five men in his
hometown of Kingston, New York. The assault left the ex-navyman,
carpenter, and showroom designer in a coma for nine days; he emerged
with brain damage that initially made it impossible for him to walk, eat, or
speak. Physical and occupational therapy helped him regain basic motor
skills, but after less than a year he discovered that without insurance, he
could no longer afford it. Determined "not to let those five guys win,"
Hogancamp turned to art as a therapeutic tool. He revisited his childhood
hobbies of collecting toy soldiers and building and painting models.
Commandeering a pile of scrap wood left behind by a contractor, he
constructed "Marwencol," a fictional Belgian town built to one-sixth scale in
his backyard. He populated it with military figurines and Barbie dolls
representing World War II personages like Patton and Hitler as well as
stand-ins for himself, his friends, and his family. Finally, he dusted off an
old camera and used it to capture staged events ranging from pitched
battles between occupying German and American forces to catfights in the
town bar.
Gaming Miniatures
Most entrepreneurs could be forgiven for thinking that gaming miniatures are
an insignificant sector of the market. On the contrary, Reaper Miniatures
launched their Bones Kickstarter campaign on July 23, 2012 asking for
$30,000. By the time that their campaign ended, just over a month later on
August 25, 2012, nearly 18,000 people had pledged more than three and a half
million dollars. If you still think that miniatures are a minority niche market not
worth your attention, then you might want to think again. These miniatures are
not mere tokens, like the Monopoly ‘old boot’, but are highly collectible and
mostly intended to be assembled and painted by the purchaser. There are even
derivative markets for professionally painted miniatures on eBay and specialist
hobby forums.
According to Wikipedia, the 25/28 mm models ( ≈1:73.2) are “the most
common size of miniatures, as…used by Games Workshop. While original 25
mm figures matched 1/76 models (4 mm scale or 00 gauge), there developed
wide upwards variation in figure height. True 28 mm figures are close to 1/64
models (S scale), but may appear larger due to bulky sculpting and thick
There are already a handful of 3D printers beginning to serve the gaming
community with some smaller items, but the rest of the market is wide open,
and there are excellent opportunities in producing high quality diorama items
in the $100 to $200 range. I am experimenting extensively in this area, but I
am keen to share my experiences so that others can also take up the baton.
While Games Workshop is one of the largest players in this niche, this has not
always been the case. Many readers who have enjoyed this hobby might have
fond memories of painting up busty Barsoomian slave girls from Ral Partha or
Grenadier produced dragon riders. High quality hand painted figures still sell
well, but for beginning 3D printers, smaller accessories might be a better
starting point. Simple spears currently fetch a couple of dollars, but that is just
the beginning as the range of medieval weapons is huge. A good point of
reference to begin with would be some of John Mollo's arms and uniforms books.
Mollo was the costume designer responsible for the first Alien movie, as well as
the first Star Wars movie, and so his credits are impeccable. Once you have
produced your fill of halberds and morning stars, you can move on to the classic
Palladium Book of Exotic Weapons, by Matthew Balent. Here you will find all
kinds of bizarre killingry from lantern shields to bohemian fighting spears, each
one a fine challenge for your 3D printer.
If you would prefer something a little less violent, then perhaps a better place
to start would be scenery. Giant mushrooms and monster ferns sell well,
depending on their quality and aesthetic value. I am currently trying some
simpler organic models such as gnarly tree stumps and that D&D favourite, the
Beholder. This is a demonic floating eyeball, loaded with extraneous eye stalks.
Looking at some of the old TSR representations, (the original publisher of the
Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks) this particular beast is desperately due for a
visual makeover. If you are a fan of the swords and sorcery genre, there are all
kinds of equipment and accessories that you can print for other eager gamers.
A few people are already covering the bases with items such as sacks, barrels
and chests, but I am trying to outdo these guys with heavily bound treasure
caskets filled with tiny precious gems, and barrows of tempting loot that will
make any player character drool. Topside, I am experimenting with gallows,
gibbets and guillotines, but it is underground where I am going to have real
fun. Thingiverse has long had some basic files for coffins and gargoyles, but I
already have my designers working on some highly customised editions that
Vincent Price would be proud of. Down in the crypts and the oubliettes, you will
find all kinds of skeletal remains surrounding evil altars and monstrous effigies.
Cauldrons, chopping blocks and dimension portals will undoubtedly prove
popular additions in this area. Evil Priests and demonic monks in long robes and
dark cowls are always popular with gamers, and ideal for beginning printers, as
the details are mainly cloth folds rather than complicated weapons and
Make your products really shine by adding in lots of detail and perhaps even
some electronics. Many readers will have already seen Tony Stark's high-yield
arc reactor power source, that has been recreated on Thingiverse, but think
how well that kind of LED technology would do in dungeon fixtures, ranging
from simple cressets to eerily glowing high altars. Of course, there will always
be a demand for suitably Gothic pillars and arches, as well as a full gamut of
heavy doors and portcullis gateways. In addition, my own fascination with
secret passageways is bound to have a strong influence on the models that I
will be producing in the future.
There are many specialist sellers making a good living out of 28mm gaming on
eBay, and some of the best in terms of inspiration, include dzur2003,
monkeydogworkshop (who does a nice line of flames and ruins) and enjar (with
some great DIY terrain models.) Dutchmogul is one seller who is really breaking
ground in 3D printing by offering models that have been downloaded directly
from the Thingiverse repository. As an avid science fiction fan, I am keen to
replicate his success.
The following items of scenery already exist, but there is always room for
improvement and customization: consoles, comms stations and computer
banks. Everything from power generator regulators and holographic projection
units to satellite dishes and jack in the box alien egg chambers. My chief
SolidWorks designer is currently splicing together a teleporter pad and the lid
of an iris box, to create a command deck portal that will be the envy of every
star ship captain in the Federation.
It does not really matter whether you work in the realm of star ships or silver
dragons, the real key to this market is contextualised setting; collectors will pay
a lot more for an entire scene than they will for individual pieces. Therefore, a
fully equipped dungeon is worth much more than the sum of its parts. The most
lucrative opportunity lies in complete haunted graveyards and fully equipped
torture pits, or fully furnished command decks and loading bays. Some of the
traditional manufactures that have excelled in this field are companies such as
Armorcast, Micro Art, War Torn Worlds and Itar's Workshop. By combining
quality design and imaginative construction, sets from these producers very
often push the hundred-dollar boundary. Often times they will be simple
trenches or walls, ponds or temples. Occasionally there are complex catwalks or
bunkers, but the market is as large as the imaginations of designers and
collectors alike.
While Games Workshop might be the Goliath in terms of production, it is other,
smaller companies that are leading the way in this hobby. One example of the
cutting edge of modern miniature design is Hitech Miniatures, whose products
sell very well on eBay. Most of the figurines are so highly complex and detailed
that they are probably best left to the professional artists, but there are a few
reliable areas where the newcomer can break into this market. Rather than look
at producing actual figures, focus instead on accessories, bases and plinths,
items like those that Hitech and others already produces, and items that are
always popular with customisers and painters. Accessories in the Hitech range
include helmets, shields and halberd blades, but that is just a starting point, as
discussed extensively above.
Bases and plinths offer up a great opportunity to produce high margin items.
Small, undecorated bases are so common that they go for mere pennies.
Specialised bases on the other hand command a premium. For example, the
Bone Field Bases offered by Secret Weapon Miniatures, which are a little bit
larger than usual at 60mm and one eBay seller described them as being “of a
shallow depression design and are meant to be filled with a blood recipe to give
the impression of being ankle deep in gore.” These gruesome bases sell for $5
to $10 each at time of writing. Secret Weapon already produces nearly twentyfive different styles of base ranging from lava flows to broken flagstones, but
there is still room to experiment here. I am working on some rune mosaics and
Himalayan village cobblestones but I am sure that you can think of many
For the more advanced fabber, a step beyond accessories and bases might be
simple war machines, such as bunkers and gun turrets, both of which sell well.
The manufacturer Flames of War does some very attractive, but relatively
simple reinforced concrete machine gun nests, which most 3D printers should
be able to embellish and improve upon. Think about rocket launcher
emplacements, anti aircraft guns and a selection of tank traps, all easy to
produce, but always popular.
Large pieces like these need not be one hundred percent printed. Sometimes
the bulkier parts of the assembly can be upcycled from ordinary household
products. The set of pictures below demonstrates how this works, showing the
various stages in constructing a model radioactive waste silo. On a piece like
this, the most sensible parts to print are the more complicated details. These
include the piping, the riveting and the valve handles, all time consuming to
make by hand, sometimes impossible to mould, but a cinch for a 3D printer.
Radioactive Waste Silos
For those seeking more inspiration an excellent recommendation would be the
website http://www.coolminiornot.com/. Here the best artists in the field come
together to share their latest creations and it is a fantastic place to see how and
where the hobby is pushing its boundaries. Another professional modeller
website worthy of note is Industria Mechanika, who produce some really
imaginative steampunk-styled models.
For those still in need of convincing that toy soldiers can be a very profitable
line, some fine examples can be found within the ranges produced by King and
Country. Founded in 1984 in Hong Kong by two expatriate Scots, Andy Neilson
and Laura McAllister, this company represents the top end of the market. Andy
is a former Royal Marine Commando and has been interested in toy soldiers
since a very young age. They produce a number of ranges of all-metal, handpainted 1/30 scale military and civilian miniatures.
In addition, Andy's brother Gordon oversees an impressive range of scale model
buildings, fighting vehicles, tanks, ships and aircraft, all made of polyresin.
Production is centred just across the border in Mainland China, while the
models themselves are sold at premium locations on Hong Kong Island. I think
it is particularly telling that the King and Country store I visit most frequently is
in Pacific Place, Admiralty, one of the territories most upmarket shopping
complexes. Up on the second floor, King and Country's neighbours include an
Aquascutum and a Bang and Olufson. Clearly, these are not your common or
garden toy soldiers.
Among their best-selling ranges are the "Streets of Old Hong Kong"—a colourful
series of Chinese figures and buildings depicting street life in-turn-of-the
century Colonial Hong Kong. Despite the high prices, these are some of the
more outstanding miniatures in the market, mainly because they are nonmilitaristic, something that is comparatively rare among figures at this scale.
Other ranges stretch across a very wide spectrum, from “The Life of Jesus” all
the way up to “The Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Regimental Band”.
King and Country figurines are 1/30 scale or 60mm, slightly larger than the
average 1/32 scale or 54mm toy soldiers, giving more room for adding lifelike
detail to the faces of their exquisite miniatures. This is clearly reflected in the
prices that these figures command. Expect to pay almost a $100 for a single
figure, tanks at maybe twice that price, and a whole lot more for their
spectacular dioramas. Recent postings on a collector’s forum indicate that their
Arnhem Bridge setting now commands a whopping $10,000.
Part of the skill in producing and selling products for wargamers and roleplayers
is setting the right price point. To illustrate this, here are two recent examples
of larger science fiction assault weapons that would make interesting 3D printer
projects. By comparing both models side by side, one can glean a number of
insights into why one sold very quickly and the other simply languished in the
idea-only stages.
The first is an eBay listing from earlier in the year, pasted here in its entirety:
OOP Armorcast Mad Cat/Timber Wolf.
Mad Cat
Out-of-print heavy stalker tank from Mark Mondragon's DreamForge-Games,
famous for the Gabriel and large-scale Leviathan models. This is the big puppy.
It comes with all the parts and, for those parts already put together, put
together cleanly and well. It also comes with an additional PPC arm. This is one
of the iconic Mechs of the Battletech/Mechwarrior universe, but you already
know that, don’t you. This beautiful model was produced years ago and is now
out of print and exceedingly rare. It is a perfect scale to be a Warhammer 40K
super-heavy walker for Apocalypse games. Before it became a collectible, some
have used this model as a Tau titan as well. Made from polyurethane and
created for 25-28mm tabletop war games, it stands 5½" tall 10" long and 6¾"
wide when completed. It has customizable hard points (weapon mounts) and
your choice of two different types of main guns and four varieties of secondary
weapons. The main hull, solid cast in one piece, is 7" long, and with the gun
barrel attached, stretches out to nearly 11"! This would be great for any 28mm
wargame and would be a sweet Imperial Guard titan in games of Apocalypse. A
review of this model was done in 2005, at the following website:
This very thorough description helped the auction garner a dozen bids and
eventually sold for $366
Now let us look at a more recent Kickstarter campaign for a similar heavy
assault vehicle that launched on December 16, 2011.
Ghost In The Shell T08A2 Tank
T08A2 Tank
A 1/6 scale T08A2 Tank will be given life right here on Kickstarter.
The Ghost in the Shell is an iconic anime film envisioned by legendary
Japanese director Mamoru Oshii. The 1996 feature animation deals with the
exploits of the cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi, a member of a covert
operations division known as Section 9. The division specializes in fighting
technology-related crimes and hi-tech enemies. One of these such enemies
is the T08A2 Heavy Assault Tank.
This six-legged, spider-like tank comes complete with machine guns and
cannons attached to its imposing frame. We wanted to create a toy that
was well designed, engineered and manufactured from premium materials.
A product that your friends would stop in surprise and ask you where the
hell you got it from?? There will be two releases of the figure; a regular
pose-able figure of 5000 (1/12th scale (12in x 19in), and a deluxe limited
edition of 1000 (1/6th scale 22 in x 24in). The limited edition will have
battle damage, a diorama of the battle scene from the movie, and a battle
torn Motoko Kusanagi (We are working on the figure having camouflage
that is similar to the movies effects).
The tanks head as well as appendages can rotate and lock into position.
The legs of the tank are pose-able and allow the figure to be placed in a
number of very cool poses.
This figure measures at 12” in height and 24” in diameter.
So here is where you come in. Like most designers our dream is to
eventually bring our ideas to life but funding, manufacturing and
distributing a new product is a different story. Kickstarter is a great way to
obtain our vision without sacrificing the integrity of the project. We love
creating awesome works without the big company politics. By pledging at
least $50 you are being put on the pre-order list for the T08A2 tank and
helping make what we believe is a very cool project a reality.
We hope that you are inspired and excited by the idea and choose to
support the project. Please spread the word and share with all your friends.
Everyone knows at least one person that loves anime.
THE TANK. One limited Batou 1/6th scale Action figure (ghost in the shell
movie version) Estimated delivery: Apr 2012 Pledge $1,000 or more—1
The most obvious difference between these two items is the price, and that is
clearly why the Ghost In The Shell T08A2 Tank did not succeed in attracting
enough backers to go into production. Perhaps the biggest mistake in the
second description is that this project was openly described as a toy. If you
want to charge very high prices, then you would be well advised not to describe
your products as toys. Ferrari and Lamborghini do not describe their sports cars
as toys and neither should you.
A closer look at the two descriptions reveals a number of other telling factors.
Both are filled with rich detail about the construction and dimensions of the
model involved, but the main difference is that the first seller showed clearly
that the model have a very specific purpose for wargamers. He even
recommends games for which it would be most suitable. The second description
clearly fails to do this, and is trying to sell the piece simply as a decorative
item. Impressive though the construction may be, this particular niche market
is simply too small for items that are only to be used as ornaments or
memorabilia. While the Batou tank might do well in Hong Kong or Japan, the
designer may have over estimated the popularity of anime in the west, and
might have been more successful if he had chosen to build something that was
more widely known by western Science Fiction fans. One other thing to
consider is the scale. The Mad Cat was designed on the 28mm scale, while the
Batou was supposed to be built at the 1/6 scale which is much, much larger and
on a par with GI Joe or Action Man figures. While there is a considerable market
for 1/6 figures as I have already discussed, it is very different from the 28mm
market, and holds a number of pitfalls that must be avoided by the 3D printer.
To summarize, pick your price points carefully, ensure that your customers have
a good practical use for your items and make sure that you produce them at the
right scale.
Kickstarter has at least a dozen very well funded projects involving 28mm
miniature figures, from which you can learn how the market responds. Here is
one of the more bizarre examples:
Low Life Miniatures by Andy Hopp
A highly detailed line of miniatures based on the weird and whimsical Low Life
game by Andy Hopp (but usable anywhere). Launched: August 24, 2012
Funding ended: September 23, 2012
309 Backers pledged $52,966 of $4,000 goal
Low Life is a roleplaying game setting produced by Andy Hopp and published
by Pinnacle Entertainment Group and Mutha Oith Creations. It has been
critically and publicly acclaimed for its uniqueness, originality, and artwork. The
most recent book, The Whole Hole, will be in stores soon, as will Dementalism,
the first Low Life card game.
GAZILLIONS of years in the future...
Every possible calamity, cataclysm, apocalypse, and cosmic hangnail has
befallen our beloved Mutha Oith during a bygone era known as The Time of
The Flush. Now, After the Wipe, the ancient Hoomanrace is extinct and the
wobbly orb is wrecked. Oith's current denizens evolved from the lowliest of
the low: the resilient roach, the indomitable worm, the everlasting snack
cake - the dregs that survived.
The initial set included nine figures, all produced in 30mm scale. This project
just goes to show that even the most outrageous figures can become a
profitable line of miniature figures, and in this case the project garnered more
that ten times its original request in cash pledges. Reaper, King and Country
and even Low Life all go to show that the miniatures market is a bustling, active
one that is ideal for home 3D printers.
Apart from terrain and scenery for wargamers, there are plenty of other options
out there to produce items for role players. One of my favourites is the dice
tower. There are dozens of basic acrylic versions of these but a well designed,
custom piece should appeal to a discerning enthusiast with deep pockets. This
will mean an attractive design, an imaginative drop sequence and a large
landing area. If you are looking for inspiration, a recent eBay auction for a
“Handcrafted Tigerstripe Maple" Dice Tower Boot Chamber Board Games with
tray ended at $67.95.
Another key item for role players is a good selection of dice. There are some
intriguing designs for steampunk dice showcased on the Tinkercad site, a
repository similar to Thingiverse. There are designs for four-, six-, eight- and
twelve-sided models. There are also skeleton dice, cage dice and you might
even want to think about creating a set of loaded dice as a novelty item!
Radio-Controlled Scale Models
Paparazzi Drone
Thanks to some rather dubious military decisions, drone has become a very
dirty word in the twenty-first century. Though likely to conjure images of covert
military operations, it is not a connotation that the term, or the technology,
necessarily implies. Fundamentally, a UAV or drone is merely an unpiloted
flying machine, and that is a potentially useful thing to have for all sorts of
civilian applications. According to a recent Wired magazine article (which is
well worth a look), the US army owns and operates a grand total of 7,494 of
these high tech aerial assassins, but, interestingly, this number is easily
eclipsed by the number of ordinary folks that own simpler home versions of the
technology. One company alone, DIY Drones, claims to have shipped more than
1,000 units in the last couple of years, and eBay lists around two thousand
drone items at any one time.
The truth is that drones are much more than the unmanned missiles that
people might perceive them to be. The toy industry and the hobbyist
community have already caught up and taken over the military industrial
complex in terms of price and availability, just as the home-brew computer club
knocked corporate computing off its lofty perch back in the seventies. This is
especially interesting as many people are now claiming that 3D printing may do
the same to big manufacturing quite soon.
In the meantime, the civil drone market is flourishing. Just a quick scan of eBay
will show you that all kinds of fantastic machines exist in this market, from
small 'parrot' drones controlled with an iPad or iPhone to completely assembled
octocopters capable of carrying full-sized digital SLR cameras. In between, you
will find hexacopters, quadrocopters, microcopters and multicopters. All have
autopilots but no guided missiles, and are usually limited to a few hundred feet,
but evolution in this field is moving at an incredibly advanced pace. Just as
smart phones have made some incredible leaps over the last few years, drones
or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are making parallel strides based on
exactly the same technology.
Fortunately, for 3D printers, the technology is not quite perfect just yet; trial
and error calibration means that there is a big market in replacing broken struts
and blades. Motor mounts, frames and landing gear are all possible with even
the most basic of printers. The Carboncore Multicopter listed on Thingiverse is a
mean looking machine that looks as though it has come right out of some
dystopian cyberpunk nightmare, yet all of the components can be made on a
home 3D printer. (http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:23570).
The whole drone market is still at a very early stage of development. While the
military have found special uses for these machines, they have now escaped
into the public sphere, where future developments are a tantalising market
possibility. Just as the internet morphed and transformed itself into a very
different beast once it was freed from the shackles of DARPA, who knows what
uses drones will be put to once the price drops down to that of other everyday
appliances. I personally am looking forward to my ultra-sensitive metal detector
drone, autonomously covering half a dozen fields and creating a highly detailed
treasure map of hidden goodies, while I sit having my lunch under a nearby oak
tree. Just think of all the monotonous metal detector swinging saved by not
have to cover the entire area by hand!
Of course, not every drone listed on eBay is the kind described above. Drones
are integral part of the science fiction scene and there is a multitude of types
on the market that are popular with modellers and gamers alike. Tiny 28mm
Tau Empire gun drones are common and inexpensive, but there are other
possibilities for creative 3D printers. Miniatures designer Forgeworld does a nice
line of Tau Drone Sentry Turrets, which retail around $80 a pair, but there is
plenty of scope for other sci-fi drones. I was especially impressed by the very
nicely done 'Dr. Who custom Dalek Aerial Targeting Drone' which recently
fetched 40 UK pounds with six separate bidders on eBay. (As an aside, while Dr
Who is still a very collectible show, there is also a massive amount of
competition in related items. That other Classic BBC sci-fi series, Blake's 7, has
equally ardent fans and a market that is far less saturated. Rather than printing
Daleks and Tardis replicas, why not try Liberator communicator bracelets, and
Scorpio clip guns. These kinds of items have a much higher scarcity and the
potential for much better sales.)
Science fiction drones come in all shapes and sizes, from Giger-inspired aliens
to cute little guys like Duey from Silent Running. Readers might be surprised at
the size of some UAVs. Weifang Tianxiang Aerospace Industry Co. Ltd. Of
Shandong manufactures an unmanned helicopter capable of flying as high as
3,000 meters at a top speed of 161 km per hour, with a payload of 80 kg, and
can be controlled from a maximum distance of 150 km or programmed to fly
automatically. The helicopter is used to conduct geological surveys as well as
aid in emergency rescue operations, aerial photography and forest fire
Drones of all types are definitely an up and coming segment of the market and
must be researched in detail in order to find long-term profitable niches. The
intention of the aforementioned information is to provide some useful
inspiration to do just that.
Further reading:
Here come the drones! By Chris Anderson
This is the home for everything about amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
(UAVs). This community created the Arduino-compatible ArduPilot, the world's
first universal autopilot (planes, copters of all sorts, ground rovers). The APM 2
autopilot hardware runs a variety of powerful free Arduino-based UAV software
There is also the business end of the community at
To come right up to date with this exciting technology, look to some of the
Youtube videos posted by the The Perching Project of the Biomimetics and
Dexterous Manipulation Lab at Stanford University. Their experimental footage
of fixed wing models that can perch and observe are eye opening to say the
least. Demonstrations of 'precise aggressive manoeuvres' with autonomous
quadrotor swarms at the GRASP Lab, University of Pennsylvania, including flips
and flight through very small windows, are acrobatically impressive enough to
make a humming bird envious, and will impress even the most well informed of
anti-drone activists. For a balanced and broader perspective there is also a
three part 2012 documentary by Alternate Focus entitled Drone Wars. The film
covers the history of unmanned aerial vehicles and their trial uses in wars since
the early part of the twentieth century. It features commentary by the
designers of such vehicles, as well as congressional representatives who defend
their use. The film also interviews critics such as Tom Hayden, along with
historians and business owners who explain the down side of targeted killing
from a safe distance by armchair "video game warriors."
Even more relevant for readers interested in the business opportunities
associated with UAVs is an episode of the Australian current affairs show
Foreign Correspondent. Series 20 Episode 21, called 'Rise of the Machines',
focuses much more of the positive commercial aspects of this technology than
other programs.
'Green' Products
Hermit crab shellters by Elizabeth Dema
Just because a 3D printer extrudes fossil fuel based plastic, does not mean that
the products cannot be a huge benefit to the environment.
Rocket Pot containers, developed by Peter Lawton of Australia, root-prune trees
by guiding root tips to open air. Plants can be held safely for much longer than
in other pots. The roots do not spiral and plants look healthy. When the Rocket
Pot is removed and the tree is planted, the abundance of active roots grow
outwards and downwards to colonize the new site. The tree grows like a rocket,
hence the name. Best of all the pots are easily reproduced for home use on a 3D
I really like the Maddigan's Milker as a potential 3D printing project.
Currently priced at $45 each, these would go down very well in the emerging
Urban Farming market on eBay or Taobao.
Most home aquaponics owners struggle when they come to fabricating the bell
valve. Despite the fact that there is a great set of instructions on the web:
This is a difficult and sometimes frustrating part to manufacture. Unless of
course you have a 3D printer. Again these would sell well on eBay and Etsy at
around the $20 mark.
Did you know that the American hermit crab population is currently facing a
massive housing shortage and that there are simply not enough shells left on
beaches for hermit crabs to inhabit? Many have been trying to shelter
themselves in glass jars, plastic containers and pieces of human refuse. Thus
far, scientists are not sure whether this problem is due to pollution, or global
warming or maybe over-collecting of seashells by humans. In an attempt to
remedy this environmental problem, scientist and artist Elizabeth Demaray has
decided to help out by researching hermit crabs’ tastes and preferences, and
designing tiny plastic houses that can be printed on 3D printers.
The new designs have a number of advantages. They are much lighter than the
calcium carbonate of seashells, so do not take as much energy to carry. Plastic
is non-biodegradable, and so these new houses are expected to outlast the
crabs themselves. In her laboratory beta tests, 25% of hermit crabs opted to
dump their old seashell house and upgrade to a new plastic house. Demaray
believes that her designs will be even more popular in the wild, where hermit
crabs grow much faster and the housing shortage is more pronounced.
Although Demaray is currently looking for corporate sponsorship for this
project, the thought of logo-ed hermit crabs wandering the beaches seems
rather implausible. Fortunately, Thingiverse already hosts fifteen different
shellter designs, ranging from conches to turritellas, and from nautili to golden
rectangles. None of these are currently available on eBay or Etsy, even though
they are striking, attractive designs.
In 2007, hunters shot an Alaskan bald eagle in the face and left her for dead,
but she was then found by Jane Fink Cantwell, a bird conservationist. The bird’s
entire upper beak had been shot off, the equivalent of losing a limb for birds
that use their beaks for feeding and preening feathers, and clearly a death
sentence for this majestic creature. Janie and her small volunteer staff at the
Raptor Chapter kept the bird alive through liquid tube-feeding until mechanical
engineer Nate Calvin was able create a prosthetic beak using a 3D printed
nylon-based polymer. This magnificent bird of prey has since recovered to full
health and has been named Beauty, and most deservedly so.
This work was much more of an effort to increase the quality of the bird's
captive life, rather than facilitate a release back into the wild with a new beak,
but that should not restrict future projects. Contrary to initial thoughts, the
beak actually needs to be ‘weaker’ not ‘stronger’ since the limitation is the
connection points and the purchase available at those attachments. A new
design is in the planning stages which will have ‘give points’ designed to allow
the beak to flex before damage can be done at the connection points.
Beauty the Eagle
The success of this project has led to the consideration of how 3D printing can
be applied to the rehabilitation of other animals afflicted with similar damage.
With the financial rise of the Chinese has also come a growth in the black
market trafficking of endangered species body parts. These most famously
include shark fins and tiger penis, sometimes for consumption, sometimes for
pseudo-scientific medicine. One of the most horrific trends is the growth in
illegal poaching of rhinos for their highly prized horns. A single specimen can
now command up to $500,000 from Chinese buyers. In the most recent cases,
well-funded poachers with high powered rifles and night vision goggles have
been flying night raids into nature reserves by private helicopter. Upon
immobilising these magnificent creatures, they proceed to hack off the horns,
either with machetes or chainsaws. Unsurprisingly, few of the rhinos survive,
situations quite similar to enormous sharks killed simply for a single fin.
Printing a replacement horn for a rhino is obviously many magnitudes more
difficult that printing a beak for an eagle, but this is a project that is being
pursued. Designing a replacement is feasible from a mechanical standpoint, but
has some incredible challenges from a practical viewpoint (controlling the
animal during and after the procedure, limiting/assessing a ‘typical’ use/load
scenario after attachment).
Chainsaw Attack Survivor
Alex English of ProtoParadigm, offers many free designs for garden accessories.
Here are four to be starting with:
1. The seed spacer sows seeds at different widths in a hexagonal pattern. This
way the leaves of plants will shade the soil, help control weeds, and
produce more per square foot from your garden. .stl files with 1.5”, 2”, 3”,
and 4” widths are available.
2. Slug traps have a small reservoir about half full with beer. Greedy slugs are
caught and make tasty treats for the ducks.
3. The garden trellis-netting hook, designed for hanging a garden trellis net
for peas and green beans.
4. A watering spout that turns any standard two-litre soft drinks bottle into a
watering can.
Shaan Hurley of Salt Lake City has used his 3D printer to produce cabbage
moth (plutella xylostella) and cabbage butterfly (pieris rapae) decoys to save
his back yard vegetables.
Having seen the tiny white eggs all over his cabbages, which went on to hatch
into caterpillars that voraciously devoured all his greens, he decided to work
with the territorial nature of these insects. This is a brilliant alternative to
spraying pounds of toxic chemicals all over your home-grown vegetables, and
begs the question of what other decoys could be printed. A small hanging
kestrel or similarly sized bird of prey will keep the sparrows off that freshly sown
lawn seed, a pole-mounted owl with a swivel head to keep the starlings on their
toes, or a long-legged heron to keep competitors away from your precious Koi
carp? The warty snout of a 'gator or the half-submerged fin of a great white
might have a similar effect on human trespassers.
Decoys for attraction are mostly used by hunters but might also be utilised by
permaculturists and other enlightened gardeners to attract beneficial species to
their projects. Pigeons and doves provide valuable nitrogen fertilizer to
orchards and pasture for example. Perhaps another innovative and practical
use of your printer might be to produce some miniature representations of the
produce to use as markers for freshly planted seeds.
Evil Face Planter
The 'Evil Face Planter' has been downloaded more than seven hundred times in
the last year, making it one of the most popular stl files on Thingiverse. The
'splinter effect' seen on the planter was apparently unintentional, the result of a
misaligned platform. The overhangs and cracks absolutely make this print,
giving it a fantastic weathered wood look. These layer gaps are an excellent
example of how mistakes can transform good designs into masterpieces. In fact,
that is what design evolution is all about. This just shows the positive effects of
being able to copy freely, and how such freedom brings about unexpected
improvements. One downloader printed the first 12mm with clear PLA, so that
he can still see the roots of the plant growing, and the rest with glow-in-thedark Glowbug Yellow. A true work of art and something only possible with this
kind of distributed production and open-source styled collaboration.
The work of Samuel Bernier, upcycler extraordinaire
According to Wikipedia, “Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials
or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or a higher
environmental value.” Recycling in fact has two halves: Downcycling means
smashing things up into their component parts, before purifying and
reconstituting them. Upcycling on the other hand, takes the original form, and
improves upon it, sometimes aesthetically, more often it terms of practicality.
Wikipedia ends the article with this insightful statement:
“Upcycling” has shown significant growth across the United States. For
example, the number of products on Etsy with the word "upcycled"
increased from about 7,900 in January 2010 to nearly 30,000 a year
later―an increase of 275 percent. As of October 2011, that number stood
at nearly 167,000, an additional increase of 450%.
This is a clear indication of a rapidly growing market, and one good source of
inspiration, also pointed out by Wikipedia, is the Inhabitat.com site. Here, for
example, there are sections for Landscape, Interiors, Furniture, Products,
Gadgets, Fashion, Graphics, Transportation, and Energy, with many
reproducible ideas suitable for 3D printers.
Hobbyist Samuel Bernier has some fantastic ideas on his site, including caps
that will turn an old tin can into a birdhouse, or those same used beans tins into
a set of dumbbells. His Instructables.com page is home to some very interesting
finished products.
Dirk Vander Kooij has produced a number of items made from ground-up
recycled CD cases, which are extruded by his industrial robot’s arm in a
continuous thread, layer by layer. Rather than downcycling the jewel cases,
why not follow the Bernier concept and simply upcycle them for completely
new purposes? A 3D printer can easily knock out plastic inserts that transform
the use of a CD case. One insert might be to hold coins, another to hold a
treasured piece of jewellery such as a necklace or a bracelet. Thingiverse
already has some good models of chess sets. If scaled down these could fit
snugly inside an old jewel case. The same is possible for a travel version of
backgammon, draughts, or a wide range of other board games. 100 Amazing
Upcycling Ideas Anyone Can Do is an inspirational web page that hosts, well,
one hundred ideas for upcycling of course!
Even complex working parts are capable of being produced with the latest generation of
home printers
3D printers could utterly change the concept of the hardware store, as we know
it. Craft and DIY stores could, in the near future "stock" all manner of screws,
bolts, nuts and washers without needing the space for miles and miles of
cupboards and shelving. All they would need is a library of 3D models and
everything that a customer requires is made to order. Adding a 3D scanner to
the equipment list would also allow for custom replacement parts. Imagine your
local garage storing designs instead of parts, and printing that new water pump
on demand, complete with all the latest upgrades and tweaks. The workshop
could print up small trim parts rather than having to maintain a full inventory,
or have them shipped in. It is doubtful that Gutenberg foresaw his printing
press evolving into anything like Kinkos, but this might be one direction in
which 3D printing is heading. These shops would certainly need a good
selection of equipment, not only to provide the right specs and textures, but
also the correct tensile properties. Portable 3D printers could also change the
repair industry as we know it too, allowing a repair technician to produce parts
as and where needed.
The beginning of this trend is apparent when looking at eBay sellers such as
natspaul123. For $100, he is currently selling (among other 3D printer parts) a
full kit of Mendel Max 1.5 printed parts. The complete set includes many
upgrades, including a Wades accessible tilt screw extruder with herringbone
gears, lm8uu Y carriage, Lm8uu X carriage, and upgraded feet. Of course, these
are ABS plastic parts and do not include any of the 'vitamins' or electronics, but
this is certainly the beginning of a new trend. Anybody with a 3D printer can
now start printing sets of parts so that their machine can be replicated. In fact,
because of the continuous nature of upgrades for these machines, you could
even print an entirely upgraded version of your current machine. The desktop
machines such as RepRap and Makerbot are quickly proving to be popular all
over the world. This has meant that some of the components are hard to find in
Europe because supply is not meeting demand. As sales continue to grow, this
is definitely an area worthy of further investigation.
So, what else in the way of spares can you be producing to ensure that your 3D
printer is paying for itself? Here are a few suggestions to give you a head start.
K'nex may not be as famous as Lego or Meccano, but it could be a good place to
start for 3D printers. Many of the parts are relatively small pieces of simply
designed plastic, such as connectors and pulley wheels, and therefore should
be quite manageable, even on some of the earlier versions of the first
generation DIY printers. A quick look at the K'nex section of eBay should
provide plenty of inspiration, as many spares are still in high demand. Simple
blue spacer rings are only about a quarter of an inch in diameter, and yet lots of
twenty still sell well, representing the lower end of the market. Gears, pulleys
and rods are all popular, and so it would be worth analyzing sales over a period
to see which parts are the most in-demand.
Meccano and Lego are much more mainstream than K’nex, but are still worth
market research. Meccano collectors tend to look at the age and the
collectability of the piece more than anything else, so assume that replicated
pieces will not be as desirable as vintage parts. Even so, there will be some
spares that will always be in demand and, with tools like eBay, it has become a
simple analytical process to determine which parts are most sought after.
Determining the demand for various Lego parts is a more difficult process due
to the vast array of parts available and the size of the market, but is a worthy
endeavor given the longevity of the product line and the seemingly neverending demand. The other problem is quality control; The Lego Company
notoriously makes their bricks with very tight tolerances, far smaller than most
homebrew machines can achieve just yet. If your machine can achieve these
high standards, bear in mind that avid collectors tend to go for large, complete
sets. The original Millennium Falcon, for example, still sells for around $1,000,
but the amount of time necessary to produce such a large set, with almost
1,000 pieces, would be prohibitive. Perhaps instead, focus on spare parts for
similar in-demand sets. After all, if it is so popular, parts are bound to be lost,
broken and misplaced along the way.
One more area worth investigation might be that of adaptors and universal
joints. For example, US-based F.A.T Lab and Sy-Lab have recently created the
Free Universal Construction Kit, a set of three hundred 3D printed “adapter”
blocks. This allows different types of brick toys to be assembled together. Users
can build with a multitude of bricks like LEGO, Lincoln Logs, K’NEX, Zome and
Tinkerbots. If you already have a 3D printer of your own, the templates are
freely downloadable in .stl format.
Another potentially profitable area for the budding 3D entrepreneur is Radio
Controlled Racing Cars. Some of the higher end models such as the Savage X
Super Truck or the HPI Baja 5T sell for thousands of dollars. There are some
important brand names to look for in this arena as always, and these include
names like Kyosho, Traxxas and Losi. While engines and chassis are still mainly
made of metal, there are plenty of opportunities for 3D printers to fill a demand
for plastic accessories such as wheels, fins, bumpers etc. Classic models have
had recent revivals, Tamiya has occasionally re-issued popular classics such as
the Midnight Pumpkin, the Frog and the Lunchbox, and there is an ever-present
community dedicated to modifying and racing the Clodbuster model. Tamiya
also manufactures more realistic radio controlled models, such as the Subaru
Brat and the ever-popular Bruiser. Spare parts, accessories and upgrades for
these radio controlled models make for a lively market.
If you are a fan of all things radio controlled, then another market to explore is
micro-heli parts. A surprisingly large number of spare parts are fashioned from
plastic and reproducible by a 3D printer. For example, the 'MicroHeli Blade SR
CNC Delrin Main Gear W/Hub' for use with Honey Bee FP helicopters has a
MicroHeli list price of $22.99 and weighs only 10.4 grams. The Tail Push Rod
Guide (MH-MCPX005T2), designed to replace stock plastic tail servo guides for
Align T-REX 450 PRO helicopters. It is CNC cut with lightweight delrin, and has
screws to be able to adjust and secure the position of the push rod guide on the
T-REX 450 PRO tail boom. It weighs just 0.7g but retails for $14.99. CNC Blue
tail bevel gears are an upgrade described as improving tail control performance
on the WALKERA 35 helicopters, and are described as being favoured by many
expert model chopper pilots. At just 1.6 grams these lightweight parts are a
good choice for potential marketing, but material suitability should be checked
when planning to produce spares for flying objects.
Many different toys and collectibles require spares and replacement parts.
Obviously some are going to be easier to print, and it would take a long time to
develop expert knowledge of the many different parts that go to make up
Transformers, for example, and you would need to have considerable expertise
and experience in this very specialized area. Do you for example know what a
'Machinder Chogokin Popy Popinika Japanese Mazinger 7' looks like? If not, then
it might be a better idea to find a niche with which you are more familiar. There
again, a six inch Transformers Masterpiece Optimus Prime "MEGATRON GUN"
still goes for $50 a pop, so the market potential could justify an investment of
time to expand your knowledge.
One of the easiest forms of market research is browsing eBay's completed sales
with search terms like parts and replacements. Anyone with an eBay account
can do this and it can help to build a good picture of what products sell well.
Also, start sifting through the attic and look for those small parts and
accessories that are often lost over time. Action Man and GI Joe sets are often
missing some missiles or other small extras. Successfully replicating these parts
not only will make many collectors very happy, but should also be provide a
good profit at the same time.
Think about all the toy brands of which you are aware, and then think carefully
about what your printer can handle. You might want to try plastic shell bodies
for slot cars. Others might prefer custom-made dinosaurs as additions (or
replacements) for the popular Aurora prehistoric range. Another opportunity is
accessories for the WWF wrestling toy range. Small parts ranging from
briefcases and folding chairs to benches and folding stepladders are easily
accomplished with a 3D printer. A table, chair, ladder combo can see prices of
up to $25 from collectors, which leaves a good margin for the printer.
In the appendix, there is a complete guide to miniature scales for reference. A
strong understanding of these scales and their common uses is crucial to
knowing where to focus your manufacturing efforts. NASCAR fans prefer 1:18
accessories for their workshop and pit stop dioramas. Other auto enthusiasts
lean more towards 1:64 or even 1:87 scales, however these scales require a
higher resolution and therefore a more expensive machine. Inspiration for
accessories and parts for auto-racing dioramas and custom model builders are
easily found in real life, your own garage may even end up being a source of
Just as modelers need spares, so do gamers. Twenty sided dice for D&D players
and other role-players start at a few dollars each, and are an ideal product for a
well-calibrated printer. One seller is already doing a good trade in spare parts
for the classic board game 'Operation'. How about replacement parts for
Cluedo, Mousetrap or Sorry? Everybody inevitably loses at least one of these
tiny pieces during a toy's lifetime. Studying the parts section in toys and games
on eBay can provide all the data needed to make decisions about what to print.
How about some replacement or even some newly designed Spirograph rings
and gears, or maybe some custom parts for Mr. Potato Head?
Game tokens of all kinds are always in demand and an easy place to start is
with the 30mm replacement red and yellow checkers for the Connect Four
game. This old favourite sometimes often also requires replacement legs and
side sliders. Battleships is another candidate, having lots of parts that end up
down the back of the sofa or in the dog. Both ships and pegs are very feasible
for even the most basic 3D printer. Hungry Hippo had plastic marbles that
always went missing after a few sessions, as did many of the plastic Ker-Plunk
straws. Fortunately, for those seeking opportunity, the same is often true for
Cranium, Happy Trails, Crazy Forts, Game of life, Trouble and Boggle. There are
a great many fantasy board games that will also need spare pieces including
Dark Tower, Dragon Strike, Green Ghost, Witch and Heroquest. More serious
strategy games are perhaps the worst option for 3D printers; games such as
Stratego and Conquest have large numbers of intricate parts, as do Axis &
Allies and Risk, both of which are well represented on eBay. Lesser-known
games, due to scarcity, are a better choice of niche market for the newcomer.
Battling Tops is the most famous of a number of games where players launch
spinning tops into an arena. They game was introduced by Ideal in 1968, and
their simple construction makes them ideal for a 3D printer project. The object
of the game is to have the last standing spinning top. The game takes place on
a circular concave arena with four spinning top launch positions. Players wind a
string (attached to a pull-tab) around their tops, place them in the launch
positions, then pull the tab vigorously to release the top. The concave surface
forces the tops together to battle.
A newer incarnation of the game was released under the name Beyblades, by
Japanese toy manufacturer Takara Tomy, in 2000. The game includes spinning
tops, an arena and a 'launcher'—a device for bringing the spinning top up to
speed, with an integral ripcord. As in the original game, the last top still
spinning wins. The first generation of Beyblade tops are made entirely of
plastic, with the exception of weight disks, and consist of four basic parts: Bit
Chip, Attack Ring, Weight Disk, and Blade Base. In official competitions, players
are allowed to repaint the Beys but not modify or create their own parts. Even
so, that does not mean that attack rings that give added advantage over other
blades would not be popular amongst home aficionados.
For more information, visit the Beyblade wiki site or the World Beyblade
One market already being exploited by 3D printers is that of parts for Nerf
guns. Thingiverse already has a number of .stl files for such parts and the
market on eBay is quite buoyant. If you are not familiar with this brand, then I
suggest, these recent wired articles are great introductions to the subject:
How Nerf Became the World’s Best Purveyor of Big Guns for Kids
A History of Nerf and the Pursuit of the Perfect Blaster
This popular toy, originally licensed by Parker Brothers, was dubbed “Nerf” after
a kind of foam bumper used to push drag racing cars to the starting line, which
is in turn an acronym that stands for “Non-Expanding Recreational Foam.” Nerf
blasters have a very well developed modding community devoted to
customising and upgrading these toy guns. Many prefer the available disc
projectiles to the darts. The discs are more slender and they easily slip into
small crevices, meaning that a great deal quickly go missing, allowing a good
opportunity for 3D printers to provide replacements, for a fee.
Spares and replacements are definitely going to become the bread and butter
of some printers. This is an advantageous arrangement given parts no longer
have to be stored in warehouses or distribution centers, incurring vast
overheads. You simply have an archive of 3D designs on your computer, a
photo of the finished product, and then you print on demand. Over time, vast
libraries of parts will build up both in the public and private domain. In fact, this
has already been going on for hundreds of years. The British Royal Naval
Dockyards in Plymouth already has for centuries maintained a large storage
area containing wooden templates of nearly every part imaginable needed to
build a warship.
The following story of an antique sewing machine collector recounts how 3D
printers are already starting to make impacts in this area.
On the subway ride home I thought I'd peed myself, and discovered why
the seller had been so eager to get rid of the machine. Cradled in my lap
was a fairly rare 1965 overlock machine, Singer 460/13, and somewhere
between 72nd and 14th Street it produced a large, oily wet spot spreading
from crotch to mid-thigh on my jeans. It was leaking oil like crazy, a detail
the Craigslist seller had neglected to mention while taking my money.
Back at home I took the machine apart, put it back together and spent a
week getting it running again. I also found the source of the leak: A ruined
gasket whose online price is $1.50. It’s an irregularly-shaped 2-ounce piece
of rubber and no one in the world seems to stock it any more. This isn’t the
first time one of my projects has stalled for want of a sub-10-dollar, nolonger-available part. And this is why I want a magic 3D printer that can
make things out of metal, plastic, and rubber.
I might be screwed, but I was heartened to read MakerBot’s story of
Malcolm Messiter, a guy who fixes old machines like me. Messiter’s
machines, however, play music. His 1970 Robert Goble self-playing
harpsichord was out of commission with bad “jacks,” the little plastic bits
that hold the thingies that pluck the strings in place.
To replace all the jacks on this instrument with custom wood pieces (there
are 183 of them), Malcolm would have had to shell out something like
$3000. And having custom plastic pieces made for the job? Forget about it.
But Malcolm has The Replicator, which can make anything, including 183
harpsichord jacks, and then 183 more. And now he has a functioning
harpsichord. As far as we know, and as far as Malcolm knows, he is the first
to perform this life-saving operation on a harpsichord. Like so many people
on Thingiverse and others in the MakerBot world, he’s a total pioneer.
Malcolm tells me that, all told, these pieces average 3.62 grams when he
makes them at 75% infill and one shell. MakerBot sells Natural ABS for $43
per kilogram. This means the entire repair set costs about $28.48 in
Of course, this is not just about making useful spares, combining accessible
spare part designs with the process of upcycling opens up possibilities for new
designs and enhancements for our favorite items. This is just what Ponoko user
'ZoeF' has created for his Ponoko showroom, in the form of a circular border
frame for the popular strategy board-game, Settlers of Catan. The design is for
an interlocking border to be made on a 3D printer out of just about any 3mm
material available. The designer has claimed a Non Commercial No Derivatives
license, and is asking US$5.00 for the files, but nobody doubted it would be
long before similar designs were being sold on eBay. There are already two
separate sellers selling very nice borders:
eBay has a relatively few sellers doing business in modern spares and
expansion parts, although a few games like Wedgits and Hive are supported.
Suggestions with potential include 'Peg Perego' and Thomas the Tank Engine
track expansions, which command relatively high prices, although something of
that scale will require a substantial amount of ABS, so a recycler is an advisable
investment as well.
Another interesting example of this kind of innovation is the printable straw
connector. Now you can create all kinds of wildly imaginative geodesic spheres,
tensegrity towers and abstract sculptures, just with a packet or two of straws.
For full details of how to print out these connectors, consult this 'instructables'
There are too many different potential niches to list all of them here, but these
starting points are all fine examples of printing inspiration. How about
specializing in parts for model rocketry? This is one of the most active 'toy'
sections on eBay, and there is definitely room in the market for nose cones,
baffles and mounts.
Did you know that immediately prior to setting up Microsoft, Bill Gates was
working for a company called Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems
(MITS) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, developing the programming language
BASIC? Much of their work was to produce miniaturized telemetry modules for
model rockets. Soon after this, they developed the first commercially successful
home computer, the Altair 8800. Everybody knows that Bill Gates dropped out
of Harvard when he saw the potential of the personal computer, thereby
becoming the world's first software multi-billionaire. If it worked for him, could it
not work for you?
It is said that history does not repeat itself, but there really does seem to be a
strong connection between rocket hobbyists and computer whizzes. Fatherand-son backyard experiments are already sending smart phones up on
weather balloons to snap pictures at the edge of the earth's atmosphere.
Lunar Robotics is working on an open source Kickstarter project that will enable
anybody to launch a 4-to-6-foot rocket to the moon carrying any three pound
payload for just $5,000. Launching the rocket into space from a balloon is
expected to be as easy as "fire and forget," and a simple ham radio aboard the
rocket could beam telemetry data back to the human user on the ground. True
to the DIY spirit, the team also plans to use mostly commercially available parts
for building the rocket.
And here is the interesting part:
"Ideally, the goal is for everything to be off-the-shelf or as close to off-theshelf as possible," Pierce explained. "Anything that's not could be
manufactured with a 3D printer or CNC machine."
If the evolution of personal computers was anything to go by, we can expect
the cost of this overall project to drop dramatically as designers and 3D printers
constantly improve the basic parts set.
Teenage Engineering, the Swedish manufacturer of the popular synthesizer, the
OP-1 has responded to criticism about the high costs of buying and shipping its
collection of accessories by letting customers ‘print’ their own parts. While
perhaps like me, you have never heard of the $849 OP-1 synthesizer, among
musicians it has long boasted cult status. Resembling a children’s toy, it is allin-one compact sampler, four-track recorder and mixer, sequencer, MIDI
controller and synth, not to mention a growing variety of accessories that
extend its capabilities even further.
For users outside of Scandinavia, the shipping cost of the OP-1 accessories all
the way from Stockholm is very high, and so as an alternative, the company has
decided to put CAD files of the parts onto an online library in both .step and .stl
format for free download. This is the first company that I have seen to offer
printable parts, and is an incredibly smart move, as it takes away the need to
warehouse and distribute replacements. Knobs and dials are the perfect static,
detachable objects with which to begin this new paradigm. Technical manuals
are already distributed digitally, and anyone that wants a hard copy can print
one, so why not do the same with accessories?
More exciting yet, this also means that their fans have an opportunity to modify
and customize aspects of their synthesizers. The company has already stated,
“It will be exciting to see what people will be doing with the 3D models, how
many will print them, and if anyone even will go ahead and do custom
modifications.” How long will it be before tinkerers are adding gears and pulleys
to the tops of wheel and crank caps to create amazing new sound effects for
It will be fascinating to see how this develops in the future. If the company
decides to make all replacement parts and add-ons downloadable and 3D
printable, they might not need to manufacture parts at all in the future; they
can simply release the file and the synthesizer owners can print it at home. This
immediately does away with the need to mass-produce, hold inventory or
distribute. All they need to do is design and release. Will it improve customer
loyalty in the longer term? Will customers prefer to buy machines which they
know they can obtain spare parts, rather than those which later become
obsolete and fall into obscurity?
The development has already caused quite a stir in the various synthesizer
discussion forums, with many users pledging to open up their precision calipers
and throw up models for parts that they already own. There is excited talk of
printing obsolete parts and ‘hot rodding’ existing gear. There are even requests
for specific parts such as Moog knobs, sliders for DX synths and Casio SK8
battery covers. Owners constantly complain that these small parts seem to
'grow legs', and would probably order two or three for just this reason. How long
will it be before a whole website for synth parts from classic lost knobs, to cases
for popular DIY projects springs up? If you have an interest in music, then this is
an opportunity that you cannot afford to ignore.
It is clear that the vast market in spare parts will create many opportunities for
those looking to monetize the 3D printer investment. Although it might seem
rather counter intuitive, this wide open playing field might in fact turn out to be
one of the first manufacturing battle grounds. At a recent conference on rapid
prototyping a delegate from the appliance manufacturer Whirlpool was asked if
they were not thrilled and delighted at the prospect of not having to supply
simple parts in the future. He dryly replied that spares are one of their most
profitable lines of business.
Pyramids for health
Despite the fact that eBay has recently banned the sale of all spells and items
with purported 'magic' qualities, there is still a big market for 'new age' items,
so it is time to drop all those preconceptions and put your imagination into
We have already talked extensively about miniatures for doll's houses, and a
range of Victorian séance items would certainly be popular items. From simple
Ouija boards and phrenology busts to complex ether collecting electrical
devices, you could really let your imagination run riot here.
Perhaps an easier place to start might be with Pyramid connectors. Many
people believe that pyramids have ancient powers beyond the understanding
of modern science. Back in 1959 for example, Karl Drbal, a radio engineer from
Czechoslovakia was awarded a patent (No. 91304) indicating that that the
cavity of a little cardboard model of the Great Pyramid of Cheops can affect the
steel edge of a razor blade.
Apart from sharpening razors, other experiments have shown that pyramids
really do have some strange and inexplicable properties. These include
purification, dehydration, and preservation. For a longer list, consult this page
on the web.
A range of connector kits for various sized pyramids is a good way to start into
the metaphysics market. Start with a five-piece set, utilizing the same 51
degree 51 minutes angle as was used at the Great Pyramid of Giza. This makes
an ideal kit for making large pyramids for meditation or smaller pyramids for
healing. In fact, sizes of 1 foot to 12 feet pyramids are possible using these
connecting corners.
In China and South East Asia, it is becoming more and more common to see
solar powered Tibetan prayer wheels adorning the dashboards of both public
and private vehicles. Just like nodding dogs and fluffy dice before them, these
are quickly becoming hot items in the West. The number of different designs is
growing each year. What started with simple spinning temple bells has quickly
progressed to highly detailed representations of the goddess Shiva with a
hundred windmilling arms. The solar rotating displays used on the base
structures for these prayer wheels are available on eBay for just a few dollars.
While these designs are popular in religious locations such as Thailand and
Yunnan, there is certainly room for original 3D printed designs, as well as
adapting the technology to other religions and perhaps even other areas of
interest. While Tibetan prayer wheels might be preferred in pious locations such
as Lhasa, Chiang Mai and Shangri-La, Westerners might prefer to have a
revolving sports hero adorning their dashboards. Hello Kitties might be popular
in Japan and perhaps windmills in Holland. How about a small orrery for science
geeks amongst us and maybe even a section of Babbage's Difference Engine for
the computer nerds? The way that 3D printers are developing, putting together
a complex gear system that moves in multiple planes would not be out of the
question. The only limit here is your imagination.
While some people might laugh at the claims made for 3D metaforms, the
prices these items command justify serious consideration. 3D metaforms are
ideal for additive manufacturing processes. They are comparatively easy to
model in current software but are very difficult to sculpt, model or fabricate
with traditional methods. Believers claim that the 3D Star is an empowering
tool for experiencing higher consciousness and the prices paid for such items
reflect the level of commitment people have to this belief.
Some simple market research in the New Age arena will yield many possibilities
for an innovative fabber and their 3D printer. The 5D Star Tetrahedron is one of
the most basic shapes found in the three dimensional universe, and yet is
believed by some to take the ubiquitous, chaotic EMF radiation surrounding us
and move it into coherent life enhancing rhythms. Other shapes with more
impressive names boast an even wider range of claimed abilities. Star
icosahedrons are often associated with emotional healing properties, while the
metatron cube is a powerful form for manifestation and personal integration,
allowing mortal users to experience the divine power of creation. At least that is
what is says in the sales pitch.
Golden Mean Dividers are a tool for measuring artistic balance, using the
Golden Mean. This mathematical proportion (also known as Phi, The Golden
Ratio and The Divine Proportion) is a simple ratio (1 to 1.618) that is considered
aesthetically beautiful, and has been used in art and architecture for thousands
of years. It repeatedly shows up in nature and in the human body, particularly
the human facial structure. Working the same way as a drawing compass or
callipers, the dividers maintain the ratio of the distance from a to b as the
Golden Mean, as well the ratio between a, and whole width (a+b) as the same
An open source set of plans have been made available at ponoko.com, by Kiwi
designer, Nick Taylor of Weird Sky Designs, who has been manufacturing some
of the very best examples on the market or more than three years. His versions
come in three sizes, and include smart leather or wooden cases. His customers
come from a very wide range of professions; musicians, furniture-makers,
specialist artisans (potters, pipe-makers and woodworkers), architects, and
product-designers. Perhaps most interestingly, the largest and fastest growing
demographic of his customers are cosmetic surgeons.
All of these products, functional or not, offer opportunities to someone looking
to capitalize on their machine. As always, it is recommended that you pursue
markets that hold a genuine interest; your customers can tell the difference!
While some people might laugh at the claims made for 3D metaforms, they
might be laughing on the other side of their faces if they were selling such
items on a regular basis. I personally reserve judgement on this kind of product
and go with the philosophy of Japanese stem cell researcher and recent Nobel
prize winner Shinya Yamamato. In an NHK documentary, he described modern
science as the tip of an iceberg, with the vast majority of human knowledge
remaining submerged deep in the waters that surround us. If this kind of
viewpoint can bring about such important medical breakthroughs, then I am
quite happy to give all kinds of psychics, new agers and sacred geometrists the
benefit of the doubt. Just remember that the best selling book in history, the
Bible is believed by many to have mystical powers. If Gutenberg and his
contemporaries had demanded scientific proof of God, the afterlife and the
angelic host before printing copies of the Old Testament, then it is highly
unlikely that printing would have taken off the way that it did, and modern
society might be a very different place indeed.
Skulls and Bones
Filigree Skull
Back in 2011, Chicago artist Joshua Harker raised more than $77,000 for his
Kickstarter project entitled, “Crania Anatomica Filigre: Me to You.” The
exquisitely detailed 3D printed skull was featured in Forbes magazine. You can
find out the full details of the project over at the Kickstarter site, but suffice it to
say that these small 2.6" x 3.5" x 3.5" inch skulls are now selling for $495 per
piece on Etsy and $100 on eBay. This should be a clear indication that the skull
is a popular motif and will sell well in many different areas.
Because this is 3D printing, the focus here is on miniature skulls and their
markets first. Looking at the 1/6 action figure scale it is clear that skulls are a
popular item. A closer look at eBay completed sales shows that this is indeed
the case. A 1/6 scale action figure dealer from Guangzhou in China sells gold
and silver plastic skulls in this scale for $3.99 on a regular basis. Another
Chinese seller has sold a massive 524 sets of twenty 28mm scale skulls in the
last few months. Neither of these products have been customised or redesigned
in any way. They are just basic human skulls, but in miniature plastic form. An
American seller recently disposed of a pair of stunning, 1/6 scale set of male
and female vampire skulls, based on the horror comic book miniseries, 30 Days
of Night. These miniature reproductions were fashioned after real human skulls;
shown with jaws agape baring their sharp, flesh-tearing teeth. They measured
approximately 2.5" high and came with separate display bases, measuring
about 1.7" wide. Best of all they sold for $69.99 for the pair. The design was
much better, and I admit that they were produced by Hot Toys in a factory in
China rather than on a 3D printer, but whatever they can do, we can now
replicate. A collector in Houston recently sold a pair of 1/6 scale skull trophies,
part of the accessories for the Chopper Predator, a figure based on the Predator
movies, again by Hot Toys. They look like a couple of ritualistic voodoo staves,
two rope-tied skulls on short poles, but they sold for a whopping $114. The
original Predator figure comes with a number of skull trophy accessories, which
regularly sell for $20 a piece.
An even more impressive newcomer to the market is anatoys-kr on eBay. His
current best seller is a three piece, 1/6 scale handmade custom damaged skull
set. The skulls are designed cracked, corroded and bullet damaged, but they
are high quality pieces with great detail, and very popular with customizers and
collectors building their own diorama sets. In addition, this very creative seller
is selling an interesting selection of other 1/6 scale items including skeleton
parts and UAV drones. It looks like he is making $100 to $200 per week at the
moment, and this is quite impressive considering that he still has less than half
a dozen product lines.
Skulls and bones are surprisingly popular ornaments. Even at 1/6 scale, the
predator figures have a scaled down trophy necklace that commands a good
price despite its minuscule size. Skull necklaces and bracelets are consistently
good sellers among the Goth community, and skulls can decorate a great deal
more than that. Think about custom hood ornaments for cars and costume
embellishments for Cosplayers. You might be surprised to learn that skulls are
even popular with doll's house collectors. Regular scaled down examples sell
well but more imaginative creations will really excite potential bidders.
Because of this, one of my upcoming 3D printer projects is definitely going to
be 1/6 and 28mm custom printed skulls. Not the regular example from Hot Toys
that are all over eBay, but my SolidWorks designer is creating a batch of
demonic, alien and horned skulls that I can print off cheaply and easily. It turns
out that skulls are a very easy item to customise; tattoo artists have been doing
it for years. There are just so many configurations. Skulls with helmets, skulls
with crowns, and skulls with fangs. Skulls with tusks, skulls with arcane symbols
and skulls with candles. Dragon skulls, cleft skulls and shattered skulls, the list
of possible permutations just goes on and on. Look at companies like Alchemy
for more information and think creepy, dark and Gothic. Soon you will have
some of the hottest selling 1/6 and 28mm diorama accessories on the market.
Plastic parts for pet play areas
While it might not yet be profitable to print out an extra-large kennel for an
enormous Tibetan Mastiff, the pet market still has many opportunities for 3D
printers, as long the guidelines of volume and scale are followed. If you think
about smaller pets such as hamsters, gerbils, chinchillas and maybe even
ferrets, then there is plenty of scope for small printed accessories. To begin
your research, try finding out what twister hay holders are, and then look for
resting mats. If this area of the market appeals to you, begin by looking at small
animal housing. There are numerous brands on the market, including
Crittertrail, Habitrail and Hartz, and the possibilities for accessories, add-ons
and custom tubes are equally numerous.
Another interesting area to investigate is aquarium accessories. All kinds of
artefacts could be placed at the bottom of a fish tank, rather than the very
limited range of accessories that just a handful of manufacturers retail. It is very
easy to imagine crazy cultural anachronisms to half bury in the gravel, from
Corinthian columns to Easter Island Moai. Here is a chance to extend that range
as far as your imagination can stretch. Rather than mass produced Statues of
Liberty, you can now put almost any statue from just about any period in
history that you can think of, at the bottom of a fish tank. It does not matter
whether you have a couple of fun fair Guppies, or thousands of dollars worth of
expensive Aruwana, they can now swim around completely personalized
underwater environments. Bear in mind that smaller residents especially like
small holes to weave in and out of, so when you print out your new Escape from
New York underwater diorama, make sure that it is suitable for the fish as well
as being dystopian and apocalyptic.
Collectors of small animals not well-served by mass production industry.
Consider all the rare and exotic small creatures that people take care of as
pets: African pygmy hedgehogs, sugar gliders, pygmy marmosets, degus,
iguanas, frogs, toads, box/aqua turtles, sea horses and even pet spiders. These
are all small niche markets to which big factories just cannot cater, but are
almost perfect for a 3D printer. You might also be surprised to learn that there
is a very sizeable market for crickets in China. Traditionally, katydids were kept
in tiny holders fashioned from gourds and bamboo, while tiny gilded cages were
the height of domestic luxury for these creatures. A 3D printer could replicate
these easily, and produce some fascinating new designs for this niche hobby
that is currently undergoing a revival among the growing middle classes of
twenty-first century China.
For smaller animals, how about some scaled down agility training devices.
Hoops, weaving poles, teeter-totters and any obstacle that you can think of, are
a chance to print some interesting miniature designs. These are all popular for
dogs, and you could certainly produce some items for miniature breeds, but
what about other species such as hamsters and gerbils. In fact, any of the pets
that we have referred to so far might appreciate their own custom training sets.
Just as 3D printing will create many boons for the human health industry (see
below), these advances could also be applied to the species that we enjoy
keeping as pets. A simple starting point might be a pair of simple tick removal
tweezers, but might go all the way up to canine mobility units for those loyal
companions, who, through injury or old age have lost the use of their back legs.
Do not just think about biological pets. Technology based pets such as Hexbugs
and zhu zhus need accessories and habitats too (Hexbugs even have zip lines
and battle bridges.) If 3D printed parts are suitable for small pets then why not
micro pets?
Resolution: 4 Architecture have already designed and printed a number of
birdhouses inspired by the classic urban tennis-shoes-over-the-telephone-wire
trick. Sarah Rich of Inhabitat.com wrote about the birdhouses: “The geometry
and fabrication process create a continuous surface printable in one volume.
The holes both texture the shell and allow nests to peek through. They are also
scalable according to the size of the bird they are built for. The birdhouses can
be clustered in various sized groups and slung over a tree branches, creating a
(utopian) bird community…The birdhouse proves that nothing is too small to
test grand ideas.” Of course, birdhouses come in all kinds of wild shapes and
sizes, and this is a field where the imagination is the only limiting factor.
Without a doubt, a leading innovator in the pet field of 3D printing is Shane
Graber, or sgraber on Thingiverse. Shane has kept saltwater tanks for the last
twelve years, is a research scientist, lives in northern Indiana, and is a proud
Advanced Aquarist staffer.
“Picture this: It’s late Saturday night and you hear a noise coming from your
fish room. Upon investigation, you find your return pump is buzzing loudly and
not pumping water. “Huh? What’s going on here?!” You disassemble the pump
and discover that an impeller blade has sheared off, and you don’t have a
replacement on hand. … However, you are no ordinary hobbyist because you
have a 3D printer at your disposal. You fire up your favorite modeling program
and quickly model a replacement impeller then hit the [Print] button. The
printer begins spitting out molten plastic. Fifteen minutes later you are fitting
your replacement impeller in place and have saved yourself a lot of heartache
and worry—and possibly the lives of many critters in your tank.”
Amazingly he uses his 3D printer for making seahorses feeders, protein
skimmers, brine shrimp hatcheries, nori seaweed clips, sponge filters, and
custom power head nozzles. All of these are essential items for the advanced
aquarist and it is these niche areas that 3D printers are really starting to
Retail, brine shrimp hatcheries cost anywhere from $10 to $15 per piece. While
that is not expensive, 3D printing them costs just $2.00 for the plastic. That is a
cost saving of $8.00-$13.00 per hatchery. Sponge filters retail for $10 to $15
per filter. Again, they are not expensive but the cost will add up as more larval
tanks are setup. This part also costs about $2.00 in printing plastic. Your
savings: $8.00-$13.00 per filter.
Custom Items and Works of Art
The Nylon Airbike
It is always artists that first push the limits of a new media. A growing number
of individuals are already taking up the challenge and experimenting with this
new technology. Geoffrey Mann from London’s Royal College of Art for example,
has been creating lamps by capturing the flight of a moth trapped inside a
traditional light fixture, and printing out its path using plastic. His entire show
was apparently bought out within hours. The artist who has a fascination with
“transposing the ephemeral nature of time and motion” has created a studio
practice that “challenges the existing divides between art, craft and design.”
Rachel Harding's '3D lace' takes traditional textiles and transforms them into
three-dimensional objects. Fabrics including laces, tweeds and damasks are
extruded to create stalagmite structures, and while each retains a certain sense
of decorative grandeur when viewed from above, in profile they become
something both beautiful and terrifying.
Traditional mould manufacturing and machining techniques have been quite
limiting and cannot come close to the levels of meticulous detail and partwithin-part structures offered through 3D printing. Design rules have prohibited
the creation of products with hollowed sections, intricate centres, organic
curves and movable, interactive pieces. The introduction of 3D printing means
that we can defy some of the rules of traditional manufacturing. The world has
already been dazzled by Escherian prints, such as the ball-within-a-ball,
collapsible prints, foldable prints, and all kinds of kinetic puzzles. Rather than
simply list off some of these extraordinary prints, here is a list of the ten most
influential print artists.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the fabulous works of M.C. Escher have already been
realized as actual physical objects using a 3D printer. For examples of the
three-dimensional models that were designed and built using geometric
modelling and computer graphics tools Gershon Elber's site is a ‘must see’.
For more fascinating examples of pushing the design boundaries using a 3D
printer, here are a few leads that are definitely worth following up.
3D designer, Virtox has created a unique piece known as “Gyro The Cube”. It
consists of three cube-like pieces, interlocked together and when used properly,
this model will actually spin in the palm of your hand. This is one of the most
impressive kinetic models to date, and really needs to be seen on video to be
properly appreciated.
The Shakuhachi is an intricately designed flute that was fabricated in a single
print. While the piece is undoubtedly beautiful, it really begs the question, what
is next? There are already custom designed and 3D printed guitars, flutes, and
ocarinas, but what else can we expect?
Perhaps my favourite art piece at the moment is the iris box. This is a tube or
box container with five blade-like pieces that form the circular top, and are
twisted open, very much like an automatic portal in a science fiction movie.
Receptacles like this would be great for housing miniatures or other small
products that you are fabricating, and this leads into a whole new area that I
simply do not have space to cover here; the concept of custom packaging.
Cosplay conventions and festivals are already big business in the developed
world. The San Diego Comicon, the Tokyo Comiket and the Paris Japan Expo are
all major annual events, but none of these are growing at the same phenomenal
speed as their Chinese counterparts. Although the USA alone has more than
one hundred similar events annually, the largest of these drew only 130,000
this year. I attended the Kunming Cosplay Convention in the summer of 2012,
an event that has grown to exceed this number in just five years, whereas it
took the San Diego Comicon nearly forty years to reach the same levels of
attendance. The irony is that most people have never even heard of the city of
Kunming. Now that momentum is gathering, changes are happening very
quickly, the Economist reported nearly eight hundred thousand at Hong Kong's
latest Cosplay convention, and I personally saw even greater numbers at last
year's Guangzhou event. Next year, every provincial capital in China will has its
own major annual event, and we can expect major tourist locations such as
Lijiang and Guilin to use their beautiful natural surroundings to draw even
larger crowds of fans and collectors. Any Westerners looking for an opportunity
to make a dent in the massive trade deficit with China should sit up and take a
good long look at the possibilities for Cosplay.
In 2012, the best selling items at the mainland Chinese shows were cheap
plastic samurai swords, furry kitten ears, and bright pink dayglo wigs. Most of
the booths were carrying identical stock, and so there is still plenty of room for
new comers. Just seeing all the browsing teenagers with their Androids, iPads
and high end EOS digital SLRs made it obvious that they have sizable
disposable incomes to burn. Only one vendor was offering 1/6 scale collectible
figures from manufacturers such as Hot Toys, Sideshow or Soldier Story, and
nobody was selling high end costumes. An August 2011 article in the
Economist, described the meteoric growth of the Hong Kong Ani-Com and
Games Convention. With over 800,000 attendees, and 170 exhibitors, it was
reported that one small exhibitor alone took in over 5 million Hong Kong
dollars, selling figurines based on popular Hollywood films. Gatherings on the
mainland are often even larger, hardly surprising when you consider that China
has hundreds of cities with populations exceeding a million people, and dozens
more with a staggering ten million plus.
Cecil Harvey's Dark Knight Armour
The subject of Cosplay provides an opportunity to introduce the work of Neal
Bockhaut, namely his recreation of Cecil Harvey's Dark Knight armour, the main
protagonist in Final Fantasy IV. Harvey is captain of the Red Wings and the hero
of this classic Nintendo console game. The level of detail is mind-boggling, but
best of all, it was made with a 3D printer. The level of work that went into this
costume is prohibitive for people trying to make a living, though one
interesting aspect of the project was the use of a free software program called
Make Human to create a mock human form closely resembling his
measurements that was used as a virtual mannequin when designing the
armour. Using the best reference images he could find, he then modelled each
piece of armour in 3DS Max starting with low poly proxies, slowly adding more
and more levels of detail.
Most people know that Tony Stark 3D prints his Iron Man suits, both on-screen
in his personal sci-fi fab-lab, and also off screen in the special effects studios,
where the film production company uses that latest high end printers to make
those fantastic costumes. This is perhaps the first time that a fan working
outside of Hollywood has used similar techniques to achieve such impressive
results. While Neal is a truly a pioneer in the field, Cosplay is growing so fast
that I predict that there will be hundreds, if not thousands of equally impressive
outfits being printed out this time next year. Personal armour is an enormously
fertile field for inspiration, and Neal has only touched on the very beginnings of
what will be possible in the very near future. Back in the Tudor golden age of
plate armour, suits were seen as items of high fashion, and we are quite likely
to see a resurgence in this trend. The 'Almain Armourer's Album' was the
catalogue of master armourer Jacob Halder, who worked in England during the
reign of Elizabeth I. The ‘Album’ contains design drawings for some of Queen
Elizabeth I’s leading courtiers, advisors and military leaders including Robert
Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Sir Henry Lee and Sir Christopher Hatton. Some of
these examples were outrageously expensive and were the equivalent of
owning a private jet in today's terms. The BBC documentary 'Metalworks'
provides a fantastic insight into the world of Tudor armour, especially the
second show in the series which looks specifically at the Greenwich armouries
of Henry VIII.
Tudor Armour Design
Armour remains a staple of fantasy genres, from Japanese manga to science
fiction of the far distant future. Hollywood representations of body armour have
often been substantially scaled down due to budget limitations, a good
example being the costumes in the Starship Troopers movies, which bore little
resemblance to the original Heinlein novel. As fans gain the freedom to
experiment at home, we can expect to see more and more extremely complex
set ups. I personally like the classic lines of the Greenwich style, but I am also
excitedly anticipating the visually arresting examples of Daedric armour from
the Skyrim video games. At the last Chinese Cosplay convention I attended, I
was amazed by all the katanas, halberds and giant broadswords that I saw
being carried quite openly on the city subway. Surely it will not be long before
the same trains will be ferrying fully armoured fantasy knights from the
university campuses to the downtown convention centres.
Daedric Armour
Returning our gaze to China for a moment, to look at the serious business
implications of these Cosplay events; conventions in the PRC are growing at a
spectacular speed. But, as previously mentioned, there is a still lack of really
good products for the attendees to buy. Chinese fans have large disposable
incomes, but little to spend it on in this particular market. Screen quality
Imperial Stormtroopers, impressive Iron Man Mark IV suits and hulking, heavily
armed Space Marines have the potential to quickly become very profitable
items in China, especially if western designers can buy a 3D printer on site, and
print everything locally, and the legal issues can be addressed productively.
China is no longer the backward rurality that many Westerners imagine. The
economy has grown at an amazing speed. It was not so long ago when
Mercedes Benz and Porsche and BMW were practically unknown in China, and
now they can be seen in even the most remote parts of the country. China has
some three hundred billionaires, and over a million millionaires, most with very
spoiled offspring that are able to buy whatever the hell they like. China does
not have Halloween or Mardi Gras, but the long traditions and brightly coloured
costumes of minority cultures are desperately seeking a voice. Here is a hobby
where the younger generation can really express themselves and their ideas,
rather than just being big brand sheep. Below is a list of Cosplay conventions
scheduled for Southern China in 2013, just in case you are feeling adventurous.
The three largest events are as follows:
1. Hong Kong Fifteenth Ani-Com and Games Convention 31st July-04th August
2. The 2013 Guangzhou International Comic and Animation Festival 1st-5th
3. Chinajoy aka the Tenth Annual Shanghai China International Animation
Game Expo Shanghai International Expo Centre 26th-28th July
In addition to these, there will be Cosplay conventions at each of the following
southern provincial capitals.
Guangxi: 04/24/13 at Nanning
Hainan: 04/13/13-04/15/13 at Haikou
Fujian: 05/20/13 at Fuzhou
Hunan: 04/29/13-05/1/13 at Changsha
Jiangxi: 06/22/13-06/24/13 at Nanchang
Guizhou: 06/09/13-06/10/13 at Guiyang
Jiangsu: 04/25/13 at Nanjing
Printing parts for humans
While many seem to be waiting for chemical compound scale 3D printers that
can produce MDMA and DMT on demand, there are already plenty of ongoing
developments that are breaking boundaries in human health care.
Here are a few examples to inspire you.
Two-year-old Emma LaVelle was diagnosed with arthrogryposis, a condition that
limited the use of her arms due to underdeveloped muscles, and prevents her
from playing with other children. Now, with the aid of 3D printing, Emma can
lift toys and draw pictures with her friends. Stratasys has worked with staff at
the Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children to create a custom plastic robotic
exoskeleton, allowing Emma a freedom that she had previously never known.
Emma calls her exoskeleton her “magic arms” and the printed jacket can be
easily adjusted as Emma grows, just as easily as printing replacement parts—
breakages are an inevitability in the rough and tumble world of toddlers.
At the other end of the longevity scale, doctors at the University of Hasselt
BIOMED Research Institute in Belgium successfully implanted a 3D printed
titanium mandible into an eighty-three-year-old woman patient in Belgium. The
jaw replacement made from titanium powder weighs almost the same as an
actual jaw, and will allow the patient to eat and speak as normal once she’s
healed. With this innovative procedure, a world of bone-replacements will be
opened up, and it will be very interesting to see what titanium replacement the
researchers at Hasselt take on next. “Computer technology will cause a
veritable revolution in the medical world. We just need to learn to work with it,”
said Professor Jules Poukens after the surgery. “Doctors and engineers work
together around the design computer and the operation table: that’s what we
call being truly innovative.”
In a separate and equally important medical advance, Mark Frame, a trainee
surgeon in the UK has developed a program that can print 3D bones.
Traditionally, bone models cost thousands of dollars and took many weeks to
complete. The new 3D printed models run around $150, and take just a week to
complete and ship. Frame has been working with a Netherlands-based company
that has the capability of turning CT scans into real-to-life bone models.
Renowned surgeon, Dr. Aman Khan recently told the BBC, “A model used to
cost more or less the same as the surgery itself and therefore it often wasn’t an
option. We couldn’t justify that kind of cost for a procedure which is already
very expensive.”
Teeth are a logical next product, and in fact are already on the market. A
number of companies use SLM technologies to make caps and crowns as well as
other devices. Even so, technology is right on the precipice of being able to
grow a new set of teeth from scratch. With bones, it will more than likely be
some manipulation of osteoblast production rather than outright replacement.
This is a far superior option in that it avoids surgery and simply means taking
another set of pills. 3D printing will have a lot to contribute as far as building
the supportive matrix and perhaps laying down the initial seed cells, but
optimal tissues and organs, particularly load-bearing ones, will need to be
grown. Imagine a 3D printed tree in a hurricane, the designer would have had
no way of knowing where exactly to apply extra material for strength, and
would end up overcompensating in the wrong places. A tree needs to feel and
be moved by the environment to know where and how to grow. The same
process may be important for teeth and bone.
Luis Daniel Ibarra, an industrial design student in Mexico has created an
ergonomic inhaler designed focused on toddlers with asthma. Toddlers often
have problems using common inhalers. Their tiny hands have neither the size
nor strength to reach or push down on the cannister. With this new model, they
can use both thumbs and both forefingers to push down firmly and not have to
struggle. In addition it is an attractive curvy design with a smiley face, which is
so much more amenable to children than the sterile looking dispensers with
which most of us are familiar. This could be a great starting point for new
design ideas. The traditional inhaler is often used in the media to represent
nerdiness, and is regularly featured at the beginning of bullying scenes in
Hollywood movies. Why shouldn't geeks have inhalers with cool designs, in the
same vein as cool phone covers and modded PC cases? I will be keeping a
careful eye on Grabcad and other design repositories to see what creative
solutions spring up in this area. I can definitely see some imaginative, cool
looking inhalers finding a solid niche in the open market.
Beyond the realm of bones and prosthetics, 3D printing has been used to print
chemical reaction vessels, print reagents as "chemical inks" in them, and create
new chemical compounds. The developers say that "people in far-flung regions
could make their own headache pills or detergent. More importantly the
technique might also allow people to print and share recipes for niche
substances that chemical or pharmaceutical companies do not make—because
there are not enough customers, or they simply have not yet dreamed up those
ideas." This has huge implications for remote areas and third world countries.
The technology is already here, but how long until it is widely used? How long
will it be before any patient can go into a suitably equipped clinic for a full
scan, and come out with a USB drive full of data that maps their own skeleton
completely? This information could be carried like a donor card, so that if you
do have a bad traffic accident, surgeons can immediately print out
replacements while you are still on the operating table. Take this a step beyond
healthcare; this kind of data can be used to collect measurements for personal
shopping. When a sales assistant asks for your shoe size, or glove size or an
inside leg measurement, just hand over your CT info on the USB, and your
purchases are immediately customized to your own specific size. You can
already take a scan of your feet to fashion design students Naim Josefi and
Souzan Youssouf, who worked with Materialise will make a made-to-fit Melonia
shoe. They can turn your scan into custom-printed shoes. In spite of their
skeletal, almost fragile look, they are strong enough to walk on, as
demonstrated by models on the fashion runway.
These products themselves have health implications. The economy of scale of
shoe production has to optimize itself in order to suit as many people as
possible. This leaves most shoes fitting only the statistical majority of people.
Custom fitting orthotic shoes for those with musculo-skeletal issues and for
diabetics can cost in excess of $400. 3D printing has the potential to reduce
these costs and shorten the wait time, as well as making custom-fit shoes, a
better product for everybody’s foot health, an affordable choice.
Crafting is one the largest untapped markets on eBay of which many people are
still completely unaware. All kinds of hobbyists are busy beavering away
making all sorts of handicrafts in the comfort of their own homes. Tatting (a
form of needlework) for example, has a surprisingly large and voracious
audience in these circles, even though the practice is relatively unknown. The
men and women who are really into scrapbooking, card making, and such will
jump at the opportunity to make their own napkin holders, salt and pepper
shakers, and other doodads. I expect to see Etsy filled with 3D printed items in
a few years. Spend some time, familiarize yourself with the craft market and
you will find many opportunities to monetize the output of a 3D printer. Here
are a few suggestions with which to begin:
Rubber-stamping is a surprisingly large niche market. The number of products
for this activity that a 3D printer can produce is enormous, including mounts,
handles, or even the stamps themselves. Then there are stamping wheels, easy
grip handles, and paper shapers.
Highly customized buttons are also an interesting possibility in the crafts field. I
recently saw a set of three identical vintage Toshikane porcelain buttons
depicting the face of Hanya, a vengeful female ghost spirit from traditional
Japanese masked Nô theatre sell for $50. The image had orange-red-coloured
skin, gilded teeth, eyes and horns, and black hair. The reverse was flat black,
with a small loop for thread. The Toshikane Company was located in Arita City,
Saga-Prefecture, and Southern Japan; for many years, between the period
1930s to 1960s, they produced some of the world's finest porcelain, and were
particularly famous for porcelain buttons. Nowadays, so many of the original
vintage pieces have chips or other damage, but there is still a big marketplace
for similarly stylized buttons. Think about different themes, such as western,
steam punk, Goth or designer suit buttons.
Molds are surprising profitable in this market. Rubber molds for concrete
garden ornaments fetch up to $500 dollars each, depending on their quality.
Have a look at the eBay seller known as rivers-edge-hunter for some inspiration
in this area.
A recent competition on instructables.com (these contests are a a fantastic
source of inspiration) involved a small 3D puzzle with just two plastic pieces.
Even though the competition is long finished, the puzzle design is still very
useful. It consists of two very simple pieces shaped exactly alike, that can be
assembled to form a pyramid and includes an stl file for six sets. The pieces are
small, fit into your pocket and like the competition organiser, will allow you to
take them with you to give away to friends and strangers alike. In his own
words “Trust me, you'll want a lot of them. They make great hand-outs.” The
puzzle itself is deceptively simple, just keep both pieces face to face, and rotate
one of the pieces by ninety degrees and the puzzle is solved. I can still
remember when I used to to go out clubbing, always carrying a couple of small
puzzles with me as a little icebreaker and they always did the trick, so I am
especially keen on these kinds of products.
Miscellaneous Ideas
The Reprap demonstrating its self-replication capabilities
Crafting is just one of many markets worth investigating. A good search of the
sports section can throw up some fascinating possibilities. Have you ever
thought about designing and printing your own frisbee? You might be surprised
at how much vintage discs can command in the online auction market. How
about custom fishing lures? Small, low density and easy to produce, these are a
great specialist line for beginning printers. How about custom grips for
bicycles? Plastic has revolutionized many areas of sports, and 3D printing may
do the very same.
One area that I personally am keen to pursue is that of reproduction electrical
switches for homes that still have that vintage look. On a recent trip to Yunnan,
China, I was lucky enough to stay at the Linden Centre, a fully restored
courtyard complex that was voted the best hotel in all of China for 2011.
Despite the beautiful surroundings, (the owner is an American oriental antiques
dealer) I was a tad disappointed by the modern white plastic light switches that
looked completely out of place in an otherwise beautiful renovation. I am
therefore keen to produce some very tasteful Georgian or Victorian
reproduction light switches for the many similar renovations that are now
taking place all over China. I am confident that they will also go down well in
the American and European steam punk and Goth subcultures. I have already
seen some rather tasteless light pulls in the shape of hanged men (the 'Hanged
Harry' range) and inverted satanic crucifixes, and I know that I do far better
than these.
Artist Jeff Lipton has customized his own personal fabricator into a gorgeous
steampunk style. Steampunk is an artistic image that developed in the late
twentieth century as homage to the look and feel of Victorian era technology.
Steampunk usually features classical materials like wood, iron, and polished
brass, and this custom job boasts all the necessary hard wood and gilded metal
While there are certainly myriad uses for this technology, one line of items that
will hopefully become a commonplace 3D printed product are Halloween
costumes. Holidays and festivals are going to become a huge pool of innovation
for 3D designers. Soon consumers will be able to have a string of custom
Christmas lights to your very own specification. There are already a dozen or so
designs available at Thingiverse and we can expect to see a whole lot more as
the festive season draws closer.
Having lived in Asia for such a long time, chopsticks are obviously very close to
my heart and to me having at least a couple of stylish pairs says much more to
me about their owner, than the latest model Benz or BMW. For both health and
environmental reasons, I always carry my own pair. In Japan, some 26 billion
pairs of disposable chopsticks are thrown away each year, which equates to
approximately two hundred pairs for every man woman and child. In China the
number is more than double this figure and rising at a much faster rate.
In Korea, one injection moulding manufacturer already uses ABS and PLA to
produce a range of these utensils, including some very cute Hello Kitty training
chopsticks. Another producer markets pairs of ABS chopsticks modelled on
katanas, the swords wielded by Japanese samurai warriors. These give a whole
new meaning to the phrase "food fight", and are must haves for fans of
Japanese culture, or those who delight in surprising their dinner guests. Hong
Kongers might be more impressed with a Bruce Lee inspired set of Nunchuk
chopsticks, complete with a small silver chain connecting the two lengths.
The Japanese toy manufacturer Kotobukiya recently released a fantastic range
of Star Wars Light Saber Chopsticks including both Darth Vader and Luke
Skywalker versions, both of which light up in their respective colours. The Darth
Maul Version even connects together to create his signature double bladed staff
of mayhem. In the USA, Arthur Court Designs produces a very collectible set of
Dragon/Griffin chopsticks that were probably inspired by his extensive naval
service in the Pacific and Far East during World War Two.
I have seen some really crazy designs in my travels, from a pair that looked just
like creepy millipedes to a Japanese commemorative set that were in the same
shape as the Shinkansen Bullet Train. I personally would like to have a travel
set, with the severed bowl of a miso soup spoon, that I could use as both a
container for dipping sauces such as soy sauce, but also as a stick rest. I once
saw a pair of wonderfully creative eyeglasses with telescopic chopsticks built
into the temple legs (the parts that go back over your ears).
Chopstick cases are just as important as the sticks themselves and so why not
design and print out a ninja-type dagger sheath, or a beautifully decorated faux
cloisonné holder that would be fit for the empress dowager herself?
Of course, this is just scratching the surface of the chopstick market, which is
growing enormously even as I write this. I will not go anywhere without my own
collapsible pair, and not only are they stylish, they are great conversation
I am predicting that there is going to be a considerable market in custom
printed USB covers. This is the ultimate twenty-first century tchotchke and with
a 3D printer, there is a unique design possible for absolutely everybody. Global
Sources, a Chinese Alibaba-type website, has a list of twenty interesting styles
that are already available all over Yiwu, but this should be good inspiration for
someone creating stylish designs of their own.
As you can see there are already guns, bombs and assorted ‘bling’, but having
seen the R&D departments of most Chinese factories, I know that every single
one of you can do better.
I recently met up with an old friend who has long had a business in Hangzhou
that makes figures and toys, primarily for gaming companies, as well as large
quantities of decorative wax candles. With the advent of 3D printers, he can
obtain 3D models from the client, print out the model the same day, with
accurate dimensions, colours and precision, make changes, and then send it off
to the factory to produce the moulds for production. Previously, each mould
would cost around $5,000 to make, with each change costing hundreds of
dollars—significant changes resulting in another $5,000 to restart the mould.
Cost savings aside, he also saves about six months in development time. The
clients love it, because they can see a physical version of their model almost
instantly; the boss loves it because he can work easily with the client to make
changes, and the factories love it because they have a final product and order
without months of delays.
Of course, as a home printer, you may not have access to your own factory with
full injection moulding facilities, but that does not mean that you should not
consider moulds as profitable finished items in themselves. There are many
kinds of small moulds that you can produce, many of which already have open
source 3D models available on the internet.
Let us start with sushi moulds. These are very cute items, mainly from Japan but
quickly growing in popularity in the West. Some of my favourite designs include
pandas, Pikachu and the inevitable Hello Kitty. Often they come with seaweed
cutters so that you can decorate your little kitty with nori faces and sliced
sausage hair bows. These moulds need not be limited to Japanese icons, but
you can use your imagination and come up with sushi designs from the entire
treasure trove that is our collective cultural legacy.
Whatever ideas you imagine, there is a pretty good chance that there is already
an ice cube tray in that particular design. There have in fact been so many
great designs introduced to this market over the last few years, many of these
could be used as inspiration for sushi moulds. Star wars fans are well catered to
with trays that produce ice cubes in the form of R2D2, Darth Vader, X Wing
Fighters and even Han Solo encased in carbonite. Some of my favourites
include miniature Titanics (sold under the ultra corny brand name of 'gin and
titonic'), scaled down brains (marketed as brain freezes) and some very cool
B52 bombs. I absolutely love the weighted ice cubes that float on top of your
drink in the shape of penguins, polar bears and even shark's fins. I also really
like those that are in the shape of diamonds, Lego bricks and ice space
invaders, but I think there is still plenty of room for innovation here. And not
only in ice cube trays but for lollipop moulds too. Just think of swords, dolphins
and gargoyles. Famous skyscrapers and Saturn rocket ships, basically anything
long and thin will do the job.
Do not forget about related items like ravioli and other baking moulds. These
are used extensively in China for making dumplings, but also come in very nice
apple-shaped designs for making fruit pastries. While all of this might be
obvious if you already blessed with an entrepreneurial nature, one innovation
that you may not have heard of is the fruit mould. These moulds are attached to
fruit while they are still on the tree. It is possible that the idea evolved from the
French Poire de Prisionnierre, where medieval vintners would insert young fruits
into brandy bottles while they were still forming on the branches, and then later
detach the bottle and fill it with Eau de Vie. These have evolved into plastic
moulds that seem to work well with everything from pears to pumpkins. Up in
the orchards of the Tibetan foothills, I have seen pears grown into the shape of
the mini Buddhas, and in Japan, where speciality fruit sells at high prices, there
are square, pyramid and even heart shaped watermelons. It probably will not
surprise you to learn that someone has already grown enormous phallic
cucumbers and honeydews, but even so, the moulds themselves are still quite
difficult to find and therefore a good product for a 3D printer.
On a final food note, there is also a large market potential for cookie cutters.
Again, the bounds of this market are limited only by the imagination. Actually,
cookie cutters have come a long way since those basic metal stencil shapes
that we all remember from our childhood. Modern plastic cookie cutters are
designed specifically for quarter inch cookie dough, and have a number of
added features that the home 3D printer can easily incorporate. These include
three dimensional imprint lines that create a very clear design on the finished
cookies. These make very useful design lines for when it comes to adding icing,
M&Ms and sprinkles. On the edges, you can incorporate air holes to prevent the
dough from sticking and you might even want to include a hanger hole so that
your cutter can double as an ornament. This is a good idea for Christmas cookie
cutters. Functional handles will also make a cutter more desirable because of its
ease of use.
Before you ask, yes, there are already dozens of Star Wars and Star Trek cookie
cutters on the market, but with your own 3D printer you can do small runs of
much more obscure images from classics of the past. How about a Ray
Harryhausen tribute set of harpies, cyclops and hydras? Maybe a Rocky Horror
set of transsexuals, groupies and balding butlers? Perhaps even a Merry Men
set featuring friars, maids, archers and other assorted denizens of Sherwood?
Golf tees fit all the requirements as a potential 3D printed product. They are
small, uncomplicated and easy to customise. It might seem that a simple small
piece of plastic would not have much to offer in terms of customisation but
most of the bulk production is very standardised. Novelty and custom pieces
are quite hard to find and sell very well in the gifts market. There are a few
examples around such as the naked lady tees, and tees that look like nuts and
bolts. I have even seen one in the form of a cheeky gopher. A couple of flat top
tees might make a nice gift for the practical joking golfer out there. There is
plenty of scope for experimentation in this area. My favourites so far are the
hand carved tees of Don Mertz, that look to me like Ents from the Lord of the
If Don can be this creative then we should be able to come up with plenty of
interesting designs. I am looking forward to trying miniature Corinthian
columns and maybe a tiny Bathsheba type vortex, but I am especially looking
forward to seeing the original designs of the growing 3D printer community.
To close this section, here are some interesting miscellaneous ideas of my own
that might also spark an entrepreneurial fire in a few readers:
One of the most interesting designs that I have found on instructables.com is
the Helical Shelf System by Edrawle. “This furniture explores how 3D printing
can unlock new possibilities in form, mechanisms and personal fabrication. The
shelf system is comprised of triangular helices, cogs, belts and wooden shelves.
The helices move together and cause the shelves to move up and down. The
helices and feet are great examples of the complex forms easily achievable with
a cheap 3D printer.”
The creativity of this design spurred me onto to thinking what other complex
forms are now practicable with additive manufacturing and how we can
redesign everyday objects with improvements in terms of both efficiency and
aesthetics. There is something about helices that are innately fascinating, from
the beautiful design of London's St Mary's Axe building all the way down to the
DNA spiral, proteins and even helical virii. We have all seen Da Vinci's
extraordinary design for a helical helicopter and even the cosmic motion of the
solar system itself is helical.
The first thoughts that came to mind were the vortexian experiments of Viktor
Schauberger, an Austrian forester, inventor and bio-mimicry experimenter. The
inventor of what he called "implosion technology", Schauberger developed his
own theories based on fluidic vortices and movement in nature. He built
actuators for airplanes, ships, silent turbines, self-cleaning pipes and
equipment for the cleansing and so-called "refinement" of water to create
spring water, which he used as a healing remedy.
I am currently re-reading Callum Coates' books on Schauberger's works and am
planning to print a number of items based on his extraordinary devices. These
will probably begin with a selection of helical water pipes, utilising his
vortextian theories to cleanse and re-energise a wide range of fluids. The
manufacture of such pipes was previously quite difficult, requiring sheets of
copper to be carefully cut into harmonious measures, and then welded
lengthways to embody the irregular ovoid design described by Schauberger.
Nature uses the spiral in many ways: hurricanes, twisters, tornadoes, streams
and ocean currents and yet up until now, our manufacturing processes have not
easily been able to take advantage of these forces. If these devices do actually
work, then I am keen to progress onto more complicated designs such as those
incorporating implosion technologies, rotational physics, centripetal forces and
the coanda effect. With the rapid growth of autonomous underwater explorers I
am keen to build a model with a propulsion system based on the lenticular
forces that Schauberger ascribed to swimming trout.
A more conventional use of the helical furniture introduced by edrawle is
popular among model railway enthusiasts who often use helical systems for
storage. As can be seen from the following forum discussion, these can be very
expensive and would certainly be much cheaper if some of the parts were made
with a 3D printer:
Prices start at €225 for the smaller 39cm versions and go up to €590 for the
50cm version. These examples use medium density fibreboards (MDF) which is
often needs extra support because it is inclined to dip in the middle, but
perhaps this could be resolved with acrylics or a little redesign. It is certainly a
very niche market, but at these prices, one that would see well worth
A more conventional technology that I am also keen to explore with my 3D
printer is the manufacture of complex gear mechanisms. My interests in this
area include epicyclic or planetary gears, harmonic drives and cycloidal drives.
Most of all, I am fascinated by double helical gears, or herringbone gears.
Precision herringbone gears are more difficult to manufacture than equivalent
spur or helical gears, and consequently much more expensive. They cannot be
cut by simple gear hobbing machines, as the cutter would run into the other
half of the gear, but this is no longer a problem with 3D printers.
Reprap Herringbone Gears
Herringbone gears overcome the problem of axial thrust presented by "single"
helical gears, by having two sets of teeth that are set in a V shape. This
arrangement cancels out the net axial thrust, since each half of the gear thrusts
in the opposite direction. Like helical gears, they have the advantage of
transferring power smoothly as multiple gear teeth engage and disengage
simultaneously. Their advantage over helical gears is that the side-thrust of one
half is balanced by that of the other half. The logo of the car maker Citroën is a
graphic representation of a herringbone gear, reflecting André Citroën's earlier
involvement in their manufacture. As can be seen in the photo above, the
maker community is already putting these precision gears to good use in the
latest iterations of the open source RepRaps, but I am sure that there are many
far more mind blowing uses, of which I would never have imagined.
Plastic Covers
While I have written extensively about niche markets so small that most people
do not even know they exist, this does not mean that I think the more obvious
mainstream products should be ignored, especially if there is a good local
market for them. I want to look at two products specifically before I wrap up this
Some of the most innovative 3D printer products out there at the moment are
for iPhone Covers. If I could gain access to a small shop in a popular tourist
town then these would make ideal products for all those shopping-crazy
My favourite so far is the Eye of Sauron iPhone 5 case designed by Shapeways
user joabaldiwn, "An iPhone 5 case for Lord of the Rings fans, in which the
Apple logo becomes the evil eye of Sauron, in the tower of Barad-Dûr, by the
fiery pits of Cupertino... I mean, Mordor. Succumb to the powers of the allseeing eye, rejoice in mass surveillance by your masters at Apple, give in to
your inner Nazgûl." I am not really sure that I can improve on a description like
Another design that I love to bits is the iPhone Cover for Engineers by Danny
Tas of Australia. Designed specifically for engineering/mechanical students, this
cover comes with all gears embossed with the number of teeth so users can
work out ratios, without even having to turn on the phone. This might well be
the very first analogue iPhone app and everybody that sees it will want to touch
it, feel it and spin those little 1.25 module gears.
Shapeways have recently teamed up with SoundCloud to take a favourite song
or voice recording and turn it into an iPhone case. The SoundCloud app creates
a picture of any audio clip, known as a waveform. Shapeways’s will then print
out an iPhone case that captures the unique hills and valleys of this waveform
for $25. The only limit here is your imagination. Your case could feature your
dog's bark or perhaps your lover's cries of passion. French 3D-printing company
Sculpteo also now features an app that allows users to design their own iPhone
cases. 3DPCase allows users choose from one of five available templates―there
are more in the works―and customize the design by tweaking the shape,
switching the colours, or adding images and text. The entire process can take
less than a minute, and prices start at $14.99. Various design firms helped
create the templates, such as the Society for Printable Geography, who
designed the concept for the terrain map “Geography” case.
Shapeways recently held a competition for the most creative iPhone case
design and there are nearly seventy entries up on the site from which you can
take inspiration.
Australia has just passed new legislation requiring all packets of cigarettes to
feature gruesome pictures of smoking related illnesses and deformities. This is
a law that has long been in place in Thailand, and now looks set to spread to
the UK and the US. This means that there will soon be a very large market for
attractive cigarette pack covers to keep these revolting images hidden. There is
no point in having a designer handbag, only to pull out a packet of smokes
emblazoned with a gangrenous pair of rotting lungs. Only a small handful of
Chinese producers are manufacturing silicone covers as yet, and so there is still
a limited window for 3D printer owners to take a foothold in this market, with
some suitably attractive designs. A two-piece box lasts much longer than the
flip-up style, and a quick look at iPhone cases should give some suitable
inspiration for places to begin. My favourites so far are boxes with devillike
faces and satanic horns.
And on that dark note, we conclude this trip through the fantastic possibilities
open to the budding entrepreneur. There is a wealth of opportunity in the 3D
printing marketplace that requires only an imagination to exploit and profit.
The ideas listed here are just the tip of the iceberg. Our modern world, flooded
with individualism, extended adolescence, high-speed communication,
disposable income and boundless curiosity is one of truly endless wonderment.
Part III
Storm Clouds on the Horizon
Overcoming Negativity
Long before computers became a ubiquitous part of modern society, an
abundance of industry experts planted both feet in their mouths with
statements that look incredibly misguided with hindsight. You might even be
familiar some of these:
Everything that can be invented has been invented.—Charles H. Duell,
Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899
I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.—IBM Chairman,
Thomas Watson, 1943
I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the
best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't
last out the year.—The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall,
But what... is it good for?—An engineer at the Advanced Computing
Systems Division of IBM, commenting on the microchip in 1968.
No one will need more than 637 kb of memory for a personal computer.
640K ought to be enough for anybody.—Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft,
Two years from now, spam will be solved.—Bill Gates, World Economic
Forum 2004
Many transformative technologies were initially greeted with skepticism. A
McKinsey report in 1980 advised AT&T that mobile phones would remain a
niche technology and have little widespread impact. Even now there are plenty
of self-proclaimed experts making similarly negative claims, in fact many more
than ever before, thanks to the appearance of blogs, forums, Twitter and
Facebook. Some, for example, claim the 3D printers they have seen so far are
all good fun, but nothing that could actually be useful in everyday life. This
myopic viewpoint prevents many people from seeing the possibilities; these
machines print out custom items tailored to the needs of the individual. By
definition, what is essential to one person may not be useful at all to another. In
fact, the internet is full of critics and pundits with varying credentials who insist
that 3D printed products are hit and miss affairs, very brittle, extremely time
consuming, messy and being good only for prototyping, not manufacturing.
Arguments commonly begin with phrases along the lines of “As a practicing
engineer...” or when addressing an enthusiast, condescension is evident:
“Spoken by someone who, I am willing to guess, has never actually worked in
manufacturing...” There are numerous comments along the lines of “Please get
advice from expert engineers etc. before writing such utter tosh.” One must
wonder if Gutenberg had to put up with similar criticisms from squinting scribes
that could not see beyond the end of their quills. Maybe they made similar
complaints that the new-fangled printers were monstrous, lumbering goliaths,
completely incapable of illuminating a manuscript to the level required for the
Lord's own book. Perhaps they argued that high volume printing only devalued
literary work, or that time spent carving inkblocks was a complete waste when
it should be used to apply gold leaf to the word of God. Humankind has always
been resistant to change and will always be that way, it is quite likely that there
were grunted arguments about the potential of flint over traditional sharpened
Of course, the latest batch of printed items is still somewhat basic and brittle,
compared to the products of advanced and refined mass manufacturing. Home
brew machines are especially adept at making examples out of a somewhat
weak plastic, (it isn't super fragile, but it isn't high-impact either) but the
technology is barely out of infancy. Our growing understanding of complex
geometry will quickly ensure that strength and substance meet the
requirements of the use of the product. Those who say that 3D printers are
useless for manufacturing make it clear that they have not grasped the most
basic concept of all. When anybody can print off any item desired, in the
comfort of their own home, then mass production manufacturing no longer
serves any useful purpose.
While it is true that 3D printers cannot compete cost wise or in production
efficiency with industrial mass production manufacturing on a large scale, their
real strength lies in limited small batch production and custom one-of-a-kind,
just-in-time, in-house design. But mass production has built-in overheads and
minimums. The ability to make only what is necessary, and to make it quickly,
makes digital manufacturing a clear choice for many.
Many entrenched thinkers are saying that 3D printing is only good for
prototyping. The real point is that it makes prototyping so much easier and
cheaper. When we reduce the time required to design, build and test
manufactured products by a factor of five or ten, then we will, at the same time
dramatically increase the number of product designers and entrepreneurs who
make things. Until now, where was the motivation to envision and design your
own products? Unless you had access to a multi-million-dollar production line,
how would you ever lift your ideas off the drawing board? Even if you were
willing to fly all the way out to Hong Kong and convince a factory owner of the
inherent benefits of your new design, chances are that you would need to place
a minimum order of ten thousand just to get the process underway. Chris
Anderson of Wired Magazine makes the idea of outsourcing for citizen
industrialists’ sound so easy. As he says, “Anybody with an idea and a little
expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than
some keystrokes on their laptop.” With comments like this, it is doubtful that he
has even seen the inside of an average Chinese factory, let alone make it
actually produce something. Anybody that believes dealing with Chinese
factories is an easy process should read 'Poorly Made in China' by Paul Midler.
Having been though this purgatory many times myself, I can vouch for almost
everything the book describes, from incompetent and dishonest owners to nonexistent quality control. If you arrive in Guangdong as a small entrepreneur
rather than a vaunted executive from Apple (or perhaps a journalist from a
glamorous Conde Nast publication such as Wired), then you quickly learn to
accept lies, and deception as the natural way of doing business. I would even
venture that so many repeated disappointments with Chinese factories that
have made me an evangelist for 3D Printers. With the advent of desktop
manufacturing, if you have an idea for a new product, it does not matter how
zany or fruit-cakey it might be. If a 3D printer can knock out just one, then
suddenly you have a working prototype.
Traditional mass production is based upon the economy-of-scale model. This
means that the manufacturing industry is stuck in a trend, moving towards
gradual refinement of processes and of products. Vertical integration, a process
where manufacturing begins to take control of both supply and demand, has
also reduced the number of choices, and the amount of diversity in the
marketplace. Even today, you can visit any one of a number of manufacturing
facilities and be confronted with the same processes, the same standards, even
the exact same machinery. No longer is there a need to consider a product
based on it's merits, all products are the same. The only factors now are
turnaround time and price. This has inevitably left the manufacturing industry
catering only to a statistical minority of potential clients, inadvertently creating
a new market out of what is likely to be one-third of the world’s population.
With three billion people who are potential customers, distributed digital
manufacturing has the power to capitalize on fads and trends faster than mass
manufacturing ever could. In fact vertical integration includes, in the bigger
picture, manipulation of these trends and fads to ensure fortuitous timing. We
don’t need to corner the market on product in a global sense any more, just the
one in which we live and work.
Of all the contemporary bottlenecks of 3D printing, size is possibly the biggest,
but this limitation never dented the popularity of Lego or Meccano. We can
always build big things out of small pieces, as long as we design the parts
correctly in the first place. Once the cumbersome processes involved in mass
manufacturing are eliminated from the equation, it does not cost any extra to
over-engineer, so there will be longevity gains in that respect, compared to
most of the shoddy products we currently buy based on low prices provided by
traditional mass manufacturing. It might turn out that few items need to be
serviceable and why should it be, when you can print out a replacement? But
that does not mean that waste will inevitably go up. Could we not process our
own plastic rubbish to 'feed' this? How difficult would it be to melt everyday
plastics into some form of 'injection rod'?
An inline recycling unit is feasible. Something breaks—junk in, replacement
part out. The base materials for plastics being a finite resource, then additive
manufacturing allows us to be far more frugal with them. Those base materials
aren’t necessarily even finite; it is not out of the question to picture a zerotransport production chain, where a crop is grown in the garden, processed into
a polymer and then fed into the printer in your living room. Then, when you no
longer need it, you can simply grind it up and make something you do need.
With organic plastics, waste can be composted to feed the next batch of PLA
crops. Part of the problem here—as already exists with current recycling
initiatives—is that for no very good reason, six or seven hundred different types
of plastic are currently used in manufacturing and you cannot just melt them all
down together.
3D printing technology is certainly new, glitchy, and not quite ready for prime
time, but that does not mean that it should simply be dismissed as an
expensive toy. The potential of this technology to cut energy and materials
waste in production is extremely promising. We are going to need to use more
advanced lightweight plastics in the future in manufacturing of all types of
vehicles for example. The lighter the vehicles, the less energy they require. This
process not only allows us to use less plastic in the manufacturing process, it
also allows the manufacture of designs that would have been impossible with
traditional techniques.
Conventional production is currently being subsidised by sweat shop Chinese
labour that works without health and safety regulation or basic forms of
worker's rights. Energy and materials are available at prices that are
magnitudes below their replacement costs, and the added costs of pollution,
environmental damage and waste are completely externalised, as though they
do not even exist. Even the most deluded economist can see that this cannot
last forever. The damage done by production doesn’t include the environmental
impact of shipping everything halfway across the planet. A recent study found
that one large container ship emits almost the same amount of cancer and
asthma-causing chemicals as fifty million cars.
Anybody thinking of printing coat hangers, shower rings and spatulas has
obviously failed to grasp the concept of additive manufacturing at all. This
technology will revolutionise high-end items, such as complex aerospace parts
and components for bespoke under sea pumps. 3D printers can produce
complex internal structures and mix multiple materials in precise ratios and
patterns, so a wide range of properties is combined in a single object. A simple
example would be printing a mallet; the handle would be full of a honeycomb
structure to make it light, and the head would be semi solid to give it weight, or
even filled with pellets to make a dead-blow mallet. Another trick is making ball
bearings, which these machines can build as single pieces. The printer creates
the ring around the bearings (with a thin piece of connecting plastic that is
snapped off). The bearings are not aircraft-quality just yet, but for many
applications, they are quite servicable.
The current generation of DIY machines certainly have their drawbacks but they
themselves are little more than prototypes, and will soon evolve into something
much more useful and efficient. The first generation of 2D desktop printers was
horrible. For the price of thousands of dollars, we got lo-res dot matrix printouts
on paper that had tractor-feed holes punched into the margins. It was not
pretty, but those early models paved the way for high-resolution, low-cost laser
printing. I would be the first to list of some of the many criticisms of current
machines. Build times are excessive. Leveling and squaring can still be
extremely difficult. Machine vibration can cause the screws to loosen which
requires constant maintenance, in fact, a single fastener, not properly
tightened, can lead to misprinted parts, cause instability in the printer, and
worse yet, cause other fasteners to shake loose. Despite these problems, we can
all see that these are little more than teething troubles. These are hiccups and
glitches that one must expect when pushing the envelope, but not inherent
faults of the technology itself. These problems are part of the learning curve of
an industry.
Just as there were those who said the computer would amount to nothing, there
is now a new generation of naysayers claiming that additive manufacturing is
fine for keynote speeches and think tank prognostications, but not the sort of
thing you would expect to turn quickly into a profitable business. I hope that
the previous section has shown you that there are far more opportunities to
quickly re-coup the costs of buying the 3D printer than you have perhaps so far
Some Interesting Analogies
The Economist states that 3D printing will "disrupt every field in touches."
Business Insider calls it "the next trillion-dollar industry." With such a media
feeding frenzy already in progress, every journalist and his dog are coming up
with imaginative analogies to illustrate the impacts of this amazing new
technology. Many of them are quite eye opening.
Some claim that the 3D printer of today is a lot like the VCR, or maybe even a
high end sewing machine. It has elements of robotics, complex control circuitry,
and many now also have an on-board LCD interface. But with all that
technological brilliance, it is what it does that matters the most. To watch a 3D
printer in action, is like witnessing art, science and engineering all working
together in glorious unison.
Could physical products take the same route as recorded music? Even with a
slow dialup internet connection, the value of a CD went from $15 to almost zero
practically overnight. Just as Napster and Torrents made the entire music
archive available for anybody with the knowledge to download it, the same
might very well happen with high-end designer products. How far away are we
from a time when even the scruffiest of mutts has a Le Corbusier dog kennel?
Will it be same as LV handbags and Ralph Lauren polo shirts, churned out in
boatloads from Chinese sweatshops, but with absolutely everything?
Peer to peer sharing, the kind that began in earnest with Napster, is a platform
that does share some similarities with the 3D printing world and one of it’s
features in particular has a striking parallel; many efforts have been led to curb
the practice, including massive campaigns by government and industry. In
spite of these efforts, the platform remains, like a hydra, when one head is cut
off another takes its place. This is because the peer-to-peer platform is
dependent upon the users. The various websites merely track the availability of
a file. 3D printing is a part of the distributed production spectrum, which makes
it a robust industry because it is not based on central facilities that are being
located farther and farther away from the marketplace with massive overheads
and the economic inefficiency of the mass production system. It is a dynamic,
responsive production system that uses common materials and works in an
almost surgical fashion, making only what is required.
A comparison can be made with the effect that digital cameras have had on
photography. In terms of new designs, will anybody be able to stand out, when
the market is flooded by enthusiastic students and amateurs just trying to be
seen, making their portfolios available for free? Will we be so spoiled for choice
by the free stuff that there will no longer be any need to buy anything? Just
think about stock photos today—the skilled photographers with 99 percent
brilliant photos in their portfolio are often impossible to find among the millions
with one good shot to their name, driving the prices down, as they are
desperate to sell that one photo so they can feel like 'pro'. Even if you do find
them, why pay them enough to be a full time photographer, when you can pay
pennies to an accountant who happened to take a good photo while on holiday
once? There is another side to this, however; in a sea of mediocrity a gem is
much easier to spot, competition allows the customer to see the difference
between each choice available to them.
3D printing is a new paradigm whose potential is just being noticed. The
RepRaps and Tinkerines are at the scratchy vinyl and typewritten fanzine level,
but they will bring us their own equivalents of Ian Dury, Vivienne Westwood, or
Malcom McClaren. Later, they will inspire a completely new generation to
combine spontaneous, ubiquitous cheap tech with old-school creative
education. On $100,000 high end Objet machines, the PhD laden equivalents of
bands like Queen and Yes will still be churning out design styles similar to the
overly intellectualised, self-indulgent prog rock of the seventies. RepRappers
and their successors, the rebels of this story, will be coming up with entirely
new genres. The digital design equivalents of rap, thrash, house, ska and hiphop will open up entirely new avenues of which we cannot currently even
One interesting industry that might show us where 3D printing is heading in
the future is that of micro brewing. Although the term "microbrewery" is
generally used in relation to size, it has gradually come to reflect an alternative
attitude and approach to brewing: flexibility, adaptability, experimentation and
customer service. Despite a backdrop of continuing pub closures in the UK for
example, (almost ten thousand pubs have closed in the past decade) the
Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) says there are now one thousand breweries in
the UK - the highest figure for 70 years. One hundred fifty-eight new breweries
opened in the past year alone, the highest number ever recorded in the lobby
group's annual Good Beer Guide.
Micro or craft breweries have adopted a marketing strategy quite different to
that of large, mass-market breweries, offering products that compete on the
basis of quality and diversity, instead of low price and advertising. Their
influence has been much greater than their market share (which amounts to
only 2 percent in the UK), indicated by the fact that large commercial breweries
have introduced new brands intended to compete in the same market as
microbrews. When this strategy failed, they invested in microbreweries; or in
many cases bought them outright.
Twenty million pints of beer are consumed every day in the UK and almost nine
out of ten are brewed in the UK, supporting around a million jobs in total. The
boom in new breweries has, in many cases, made the term 'micro' obsolete,
with some small brewers having become remarkably large, installing new
equipment and repeatedly doubling production to keep up with demand. Are
these the patterns that we are going to see with 3D printing?
While I have presented a number of contemporary analogies, I would also like
to look at some important historical events. These seem to share more than a
coincidental similarity with the situation that we are currently seeing with 3D
For his development of the first movable-type printing press, it is now widely
agreed that Johann Gutenberg was the greatest inventor of the millennium, and
that his printing of the first Bible, was a critical building block of our modern
civilisation. Thanks to his genius, labouring for two weeks to hand copy even
the simplest of books quickly became a thing of the past. Previously, a hand
written book such as the Bible was far beyond the reach of the common person,
costing an astounding $1 million dollars in current terms. The Black Death had
just ravaged Europe, killing as many as twenty-five million people
(approximately one-third of the population) including many of the all-important
monastic scribes. Gutenberg’s invention therefore came at an important
convergence point in human history that literally shaped the modern world.
Crusaders were returning from the Holy Lands with a wealth of ancient
knowledge that had been completely lost to educated Europe since the fall of
the Roman Empire, over a thousand years before. Scholasticism in the form of
the first universities was just gaining its first foothold, and all this new learning
needed a way to be easily disseminated. In fact, by 1470, just twenty years
after the introduction of the first printing presses, it is estimated that there
were already more than ten million books in existence, twenty million by 1500,
and the knock-on effects ever since, have changed our society beyond
recognition. Literacy in Northern Germany at the time of Gutenberg was
estimated to be a mere four percent of the population. It has now jumped to
almost universal levels all over Europe. At the beginning of the fifteenth
century, the prestigious Cambridge University had a grand total of 300 books.
This one university alone now houses more than 5.5 million volumes. The
British Library in comparison houses more than 625 kilometres of bookshelves
and has to add an additional nine kilometres every single year. What about the
original Bibles that were the very first books off the very first press? Bill Gates
recently picked one up at auction for a whopping $30.8 million.
Of course, this great invention that has so benefited the entirety of humankind
was not without its early detractors. The corrupt rulers of medieval Europe saw
knowledge as power, and were terrified at losing their monopoly on education
due to the spread of knowledge into the hands of the unwashed masses. Along
with the Church, who controlled the universities of the time, they quickly
became the most powerful bastion of resistance to change and the heaviesthanded censors. At the time, the Bible was available only in Latin, and the
clergy had absolute control on what the public thought and believed. The
printed text led directly to the Protestant Reformation, even though the Church
denounced printing as a ‘black art.’ It even gave second wind to the Inquisition
who specifically targeted printers, while ironically using the same technology to
publish their own Index Librorum Prohibitorum (list of banned books). Henry VIII
did everything that he could to prevent the expansion of this new technology,
and introduced a plethora of laws on censorship and prohibition. When Oxford
Scholar, William Tyndale travelled to the Netherlands to publish a translation of
the Bible into English, he was arrested upon his return for smuggling copies
back into England. Tried by the Royal Court in 1535, he was sentenced to be
publicly strangled and burned at the stake for his crimes.
Perhaps the most vociferous opposition came from the guilds of calligraphers
and illuminators, who were petrified that this new fangled wonder would put
them all out of business. It is therefore especially interesting to note that
exactly the opposite came to pass, and that historians now universally agree
that the sixteenth century became the golden age for illuminated manuscripts.
As more and more people learned to read, obviously more people learned to
write, and we saw great works of art created as part of this new information
revolution. Barely fifty years after Gutenberg’s initial print run, book fairs began
to spring up all over the continent, and entirely new professions came into
existence that were previously unheard of. Printers, editors, booksellers and
journalists began to gain influence, not to mention those whom we know today
as writers. The very first best-selling author was Erasmus. His Moriae Encomium,
(Praise of Folly) printed in 1509, was a satirisation of church abuses and
ecclesiastical ignorance, and went into forty-three editions in his own lifetime.
What important convergences are taking place today that will have equally
dramatic effects on 3D printing? Without truly psychic powers, it is impossible
to say but there are certainly a number of plausible contenders. I have written
earlier about the importance of open source. I have also spoken of crowdfunding, crowd-sourcing and micro-tasking. I am especially interested in the
concept of distributed networking. With so many game-changing influences all
coming together at once I wonder how long it will be before the Internet is
superseded by the Digital Matter-Net?
Despite all this over optimistic gushing, it is important to note that every
technological advance has a sinister side. The discovery of rocket science gave
us the opportunity to land on the moon but also gave us increasing political
instability, the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction. To quote Einstein;
"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not
sure about the former."
Printing on a Larger Scale
3D Life Size House Printer
Not everybody is printing at the smaller scales. Enrico Dini for example, is using
his prototype D-Shape printer to create buildings made of stone and eventually,
moon dust. Dini claims the printer is four times faster than conventional
building methods, costs one-third to one-half the price of Portland cement and
creates very little waste, so it’s better for the environment. The printing process
starts with a thin layer of sand. The printer then sprays the sand with
magnesium-based glue from hundreds of nozzles, which binds the sand into
rock. That rock is then built up layer by layer, eventually taking shape of
whatever object it is destined to become, be it a curvy Roger Dean inspired scifi dwelling or an entire gothic cathedral.
Although it is still in its early stages, the IAAC Stone Spray Robot shows great
potential for 3D printing ecologically friendly structures. The Institute for
Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, a research and education centre in Spain
developed this robot, similar to Dini’s. Dedicated to the development of
sustainable architecture, they hope to “push further the boundaries of digital
manufacturing and explore the possibilities of on-site fabrication machines.”
The robotic device blends soil sourced on-site with a binder (which is composed
of LEED-Certified components), and then sprays the mixture onto a surface. The
soil solidifies as the machine works, which allows it to create sculptural forms.
The robot is computer controlled and, unlike other 3D printers, the device runs
on solar power.
Inventor and USC engineering professor Behrokh Khoshnevis has developed a
contour crafting machine which will allow him to “print” a house out of concrete
in twenty-four hours. This is really a 3D printer on steroids, with a gantry crane
and a computer-guided cement nozzle on rails attached to it. The USC
engineering professor was inspired to build this machine after witnessing the
devastation of an earthquake that destroyed the city of Bam, in his native Iran.
A typical American house takes at least six months to complete, generating
about four tons of waste. It’s believed the contour crafter will be able to erect
most structures in about a day, generating far less waste in the process.
Furthermore, by automating the process, architects are free to create some
pretty wild designs—curved walls are just as easy to create as flat ones and
structurally just as sound. The professor explained the process in a speech at
the TEDx conference, which you can watch. (Start at 4:30 to see the animation
demo.) In the video, the professor demonstrates how the machine lays down a
concrete foundation, puts up walls, even inserts wiring and plumbing, and
eventually constructs an entire building. Khoshnevis believes that the contour
crafter will ultimately be able to create structures using adobe, mud and straw
dried by the sun rather than cement.
NASA recently awarded a team led by Khoshnevis $100,000 to test the concept
of 3D printing structures on the moon, including landing pads, roads, shade
walls, and dust barriers. In the lunar project, a mixture of lunar regolith (moon
dust), water, and cement (made from lunar rock with high calcium) would be
used to create walls and other structures, made out of ‘mooncrete.’
A South Africa-based company, Aerosud is working hard on realizing the world’s
fastest and largest prototype 3D printer. The printer will use powdered titanium
to make aircraft components ten times faster and forty-six times larger than
any other metal 3D printer. They are working with Council for Scientific and
Industrial Research’s (CSIR’s) National Laser Centre, and now Airbus.
Airbus designer Bastian Schafer has been working on a new concept plane that
would largely be “printed” using a hangar-sized 3D printer. “It would have to be
about 80 by 80 meters,” he told reporters. Apart from significant cost savings, it
would also allow for parts that are 65 percent lighter than those made with
traditional manufacturing methods. Naturally, the concept plane itself is also a
showpiece for a raft of other new technologies, including a transparent wall
membrane, a 100 percent recyclable cabin, and “morphing” seats that could
harvest body heat from passengers.
Not wanting to be left behind, Boeing has used additive manufacturing
processes to produce more than twenty thousand parts that are utilised on
military platforms, according to Daryl Stephenson, a company spokesman.
Some of those parts have been designed to be lighter. By reducing an
airplane’s weight by just one kilogram, an airline can save $1,300 in fuel costs
per year, according to an IBISWorld report. If it were possible to reduce the
mass of a commercial jet by just one hundred kilograms, it would save 4.5
million litres of aviation fuel over its lifetime.
The expense of carrying equipment into outer space is even higher, currently
coming in at about $10,000 just to bring one pound of equipment into orbit, if
one takes into account both the costs of fuel and the complexities of a full-scale
rocket launch.
Think back for a moment to Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning movie Apollo 13. In
response to the disastrous carbon dioxide removal malfunction, that threatened
the life of the crew, engineers at ground control used materials they knew were
on the craft to jerry-rig a solution. They then shared this information with the
astronauts. If the spacecraft had been equipped with a 3D printer, things would
have been very different. Instead of “Houston, we have a problem! it would
have been, ‘Houston, we have a problem, but send up a couple of CAD files and
we will be back on schedule in a few minutes.”
Printing Materials
The Nurdler
As we have seen, there are many choices of materials that can be utilised with
3D printers. At the smaller scales this is mostly some kind of plastic filament,
usually made from fossil fuels. Fortunately there are many alternatives
springing up, especially in the area of recycled plastics. Imagine how much
more profitable end products would be if they only used filament from recycled
bottles and other plastic products.
A recent Kickstarter project known as the Filabot raised $32,000, three times its
original $10,000 request. The “big idea” here is the ability to take recycled
plastic materials and turn it into filament that you can use with your 3D Printer.
Although the demo was a little basic, the idea is on the winning track. The price
will be $350 for an un-assembled kit.
The Desktop Factory Challenge on the other hand is a partnership between
business competition aggregator iStart and online fab supplies store
Inventables.com. This is a competition to build an open source filament
extruder for less than $250 in components that can take ABS or PLA resin
pellets, mix them with colorant, and extrude enough 1.75mm diameter +/.05mm filament that can be wrapped on a 1kg spool. The prize available is
$40,000 from the Kauffman Foundation and a Desktop Fabrication Lab (a 3D
printer, an FS Laser Cutter, and a Shapeoko CNC Mill).
Making filament is not that hard, but doing so consistently is much more of a
challenge, especially making it stay as a straight filament until it cools and can
be wound onto a spool. This is why extruded plastic filament can cost five to ten
times the cost of the raw resin pellets. There are China-based sellers that offer
lower prices but the quality is inconsistent.
Detractors claim that it is very inefficient to melt pellets into a straight filament
just to be melted again when coming out of the hot tip. A better solution might
be to make 3D printers that can accept pellets and colour as needed, with an
open source colour print head.
Although the contest does not close until May of 2013, a number of entries
have already been posted on Thingiverse. One of these is the Lyman Filament
Extruder which extrudes filament of 1.75mm and 3mm, with easy nozzle
exchange. Another, the Bottleworks entry, has a larger hot end with a 350-Watt
heater, automatic timing, fan ducting and adjustable motor speed on the
control panel, despite the fact that is constructed mainly form discarded parts.
Full details are available at:
All of the design competitions that we have been seeing, the 3D4D challenge,
GrabCAD’s design challenges, EvD’s Design challenges, are quite reminiscent of
the early 1900s, which saw the rapid development of the airplane. Just a
century ago, newspapers and wealthy sponsors were offering large cash prizes
to aviators, hoping that they could make planes fly further and faster than ever
before. These competitions made instant celebrities out of pioneers such as
Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and Louis Blériot.
Every week we recycle dozens of bottles and we hope that the recycling plant
does not simply throw them in the garbage. What we really need is a machine
where plastic bottles are dropped into one end, shredded, then turned into
usable filament at the other. This way Earth Cleanup Day will not just be about
cleanup, it will be essential for restocking our bulk plastic piles.
Users are looking forward to being able to reuse milk jugs, detergent bottles,
soda bottles, shampoo bottles, product packaging, and many more. The three
most common types of plastic that can be recycled are as follows:
PET or PETE is the most common type of plastic used in drinks bottles.
PE-HD or HDPE is used in milk jugs, five-gallon buckets, water pipes, juice
PE-LD or LDPE is used in parts that require flexibility such as snap-on lids and
six pack rings.
Perhaps our largest recyclable plastic resource is the North Pacific Gyre, or as it
is rapidly becoming better known, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an
enormous 'plastic soup' mass of marine litter trapped in the swirling vortex of
currents of the Pacific Ocean. Recent studies estimate an average of 46,000
pieces of plastic litter every single square kilometre of the world’s oceans. The
number of plastic pieces in the Pacific Ocean has tripled in the last ten years to
what the UN estimates at one hundred million tons worldwide, with current
trajectories predicting this figure to double in the next ten years.
Contrary to common expectations, the fact that plastic breaks down has far
more harmful consequences to the marine environment than most of us
imagine. Plastic fragments act as sponges for harmful hydrophobic chemicals
such as pesticides and fertilisers; with concentrations of up to a million times
greater than the surrounding seawater, they form little toxic pills. The plastic
resembles small sea creatures and enters the food chain leaching chemicals
into fishes’ fats and raising the toxicity of marine life. Samples from the Pacific
Gyre have shown a ratio of six pounds of plastic to one pound of plankton. It is
estimated that as much as 98 percent of this pollution is made up of nurdles.
Although cricketers might be familiar with the verb form of nurdle, much of the
rest of the population are unfamiliar with this material, despite its enormous
effect on the environment.
Nurdles cover a wide range of micro plastic products ranging from the tiny
plastic pellets used in injection moulding, to the broken down remnants of
plastic litter. Sometimes also known as 'mermaid's tears,' many nurdles are
simply lost through spillage, such as the containers that were whipped offshore
in Hong Kong by Typhoon Vincente in 2012, but more often, it is simply a case
of poor storage and lack of regulations. More than 250 quadrillion (27 million
tonnes) nurdles will be made this year and the United Nations states that
thirteen thousand nurdles are floating in every square mile of the ocean. The
pellets are around 4mm in diameter, and their tiny size means they are not
picked up by waste systems. Being buoyant, they will float on the sea surface
taking over a thousand years to biodegrade, all the while resembling fish eggs.
Taking their inspiration from early Cornish miners, inventors in the South West
of England have come up with a design known as the Nurdler, a sluice-like
contraption that allows the sorting of vast quantities of marine debris quickly
and efficiently. The Nurdler consists of a hand-powered water pump and a
sluice that sorts the micro plastic collected from the strand line, or high water
mark, the area at the top of a beach where debris is deposited. Particulates are
graded by size and pass through a floatation tank to separate materials by
density, enabling users to separate the elusive plastic fragments to be recycled.
The Nurdler (also known as the Sea Chair) is being tested on Cornish beaches,
many of which are sink beaches facing the vast North Atlantic, from which great
swells bring in a enormous daily tide of exotic rubbish, revealing the true state
of our marine environment. Porthtowan Beach in beautiful Cornwall for
example, is currently the UK's most polluted beach for micro plastic.
The Nurdler could be very useful in the recently unveiled EU plans to pay
fisherman for plastic by-catch. A ‘fishing for litter’ campaign involved fisherman
from Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK who returned all litter
caught in their net to the shore, landing some five hundred tonnes from sixty
boats in 2004. By diversifying modern fishermen’s skills to restore our ocean
environment, it is hoped that schemes like this will help regenerate Britain’s
once strong fishing community.
The Nurdler is made entirely from recovered plastic has been constructed with
simple moulds and tools that would enable production at sea; the chair is
tagged according to its geographical coordinates and production number. After
sorting the marine debris, users are left with roughly a quarter of organic
material such as seaweed and wood. This can be compressed with a simple
hydraulic press that fits on a small fishing vessel, into briquettes to burn as a
bio fuel for melting the plastic.
Of course, that is not to say that some 3D printers are not already utilising
recycled plastics.
Student members of the University of Washington Fabbers, the UW’s 3D
printing student club, created the world’s first boat via a 3D printer and they
entered it in Seattle’s annual Milk Carton Derby. The 7-foot boat was made from
recycled, melted and extruded milk cartons that the students collected, and
then ran through a large, custom-designed 3D printer in the UW’s Mechanical
Engineering Building. They spent the last two months researching, engineering,
extruding, printing, and dumpster diving for the greater good, and eventually
produced a 40-pound (approximately 250 one-gallon milk jugs) “canoeyak”
capable of supporting 150 pounds.
The club aimed to be the first to print a seaworthy craft, but the judges of the
Derby weren’t sure what to make of their creation. Qualification was a problem
as the engineers had used recycled milk cartons for its buoyancy, but not quite
in the way that contest organizers had originally envisioned. It was eventually
decided that the boat should be entered as “an unofficial entry in the adult
open category”, and it eventually placed overall second in the race.
In a separate venture, two transparent Ultimakers at the Lowlands 2012
exhibition were used to create objects from disposable cups. As well as
enabling people to recycle on the spot, visitors were able to go through the
whole working process from washing, drying, shredding and melting of the
disposable cups to the final step of extruding the recycled melted material with
the Ultimaker.
Even this does not match up to the Dutch artist, Wieki Somers who is using the
ashes of dead people to create common household objects using a 3D industrial
printer. “We may offer Grandpa a second life as a useful rocking chair or even
as a vacuum cleaner or a toaster,” she said. “Would we then become more
attached to these products?” The artist claims that in excess of 465,000 litres of
human ashes are produced every day worldwide and that this is an alternative
to the traditional scattering.
Freedom of Creation recently announced a new 3D printing technique that
transforms sawdust into objects that closely resemble real wood. Using a
special glue to bind the sawdust together, the result is a solid object that is
every bit as strong as medium density fibreboard. Unfortunately, despite lots of
tweaking, the researchers have found that not all wood prints equally. They can
work wonders with teak and mahogany, but sawdust from soft woods does not
spread so evenly on the printer.
Mcor Technologies recently launched a brand new rapid prototyping machine,
The Mcor Matrix, capable of using plain or recycled A4 paper and water-based
adhesive. The machine selectively deposits glue on the sheet of paper: more
glue on the cross-section, less on the waste. It then uses a blade to cut out the
part profile. The vertical resolution is determined by the paper thickness. It can
use either twenty-pound paper, which has a thickness of .1mm, or forty-pound,
which is twice as thick, so it will build twice as fast. The final part can be sanded
and painted like wood. The idea is similar to LOM (laminated object
manufacturing), but those machines require specialized paper. It is very
refreshing to see a company intentionally target a lower cost of ownership, but
if they had used a laser, we would only have to worry about sourcing the glue.”
The Irish Times newspaper gives a pre sale price point of $25,000.
Markus Kayser's Solar Sinter is a remarkable 3D printer that uses only Saharan
sand and sun to make actual objects. Instead of using one of the regular
polymers, this device ingeniously makes use of the deserts other most plentiful
feature—sand. While this is a fantastic example of sustainable innovation, it is
still more art installation and ingenious hack than commercial project, but it
certainly does open up the future possibilities of the industry.
The next step will be the simplification of combining multiple materials to
create products that are more complex. Just as regular 2D printers mix red,
green and blue to print full colour, it will be a major breakthrough when we can
use a similarly small palette to create a wide variety of different substances.
According to extremetech.com writer John Hewitt “Most plastics are relatively
soft materials with low compressive and tensile strengths, low melting points,
and poor chemical resistance. Even the more expensive formulations like
polyimide or polyether ether ketone (PEEK) give only modest improvements
relative to metals. Plastics also become brittle when cold, and quickly age
through exposure to UV light from the sun. Their lack of hardness also means
that fine details cannot be rendered by traditional methods of manufacture
since they do not hold up to the forces required to create them. Fine detail is
also quickly degraded by repetitive use.”
The community is already experimenting with alternatives. Hackaday.com
features many articles related to the field, including the following: “Most
extrusion printers are designed to print with ABS (a very hard plastic that melts
around 220-230° C) or PLA (a somewhat softer plastic that melts at about 180°
C). One member of the Instructables site is working with Nylon 6, a very
slippery and bendable plastic that melts around 320° C (about 600° F). He’s
doing this with a hot end of his own design and a ‘spiky’ extruder bolt that
allows high-temperature thermoplastics to be extruded into any shape
The benefits of using low-temperature thermoplastics such as PLA and ABS are
obvious. Spools of filament are easily sourced, and the low melting point of
these plastics makes building a printer easier and safer. If we can crack the
higher temperature nut, then we can expect a much greater choice of material
to run in our printers, from easily machined Delrin to transparent
Polycarbonate. In the meantime, there are other obstacles to overcome.
One of the biggest problems is that melting nylon smells revolting and emits
hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide and other nasties. At the very minimum
the printer needs to be enclosed in an acrylic box with an exhaust fan and even
then, pumping it outside does not make the problem magically go away. It then
becomes a problem of poisoning your neighbours. The chemicals emitted are
toxic in very low quantities, as little as 10 ppm. This not actually the nylon but
the main additive fibreglass, which gives nylon it’s strength at high
temperatures and low densities. Worse still, it is bio-accumulative, meaning the
effects will slowly poison humans over a long period, even in low
concentrations. Fiberglass is cheap and as an additive, it reduces the overall
costs of the part being made. A win/win for injection moulding but not so much
for 3D Printers. The fibreglass and other chemicals added actually raise the
temperature needed to way beyond what raw nylon normally requires and at
those temperatures, all plastics become unstable. Add fibreglass to ABS, PLA,
PET, even PVC and it will burn and boil the base plastic.
While some complain that the resins most commonly used in 3D are quite
fragile, resin technology is quickly becoming more sophisticated, and many
other materials are now being used to make lightweight, high-strength and
functional components. There are now over twenty metal alloys commonly used
for additive manufacturing including titanium alloys, nickel super-alloys,
aluminium alloys, steels and others. New alloys are released for use on an
almost monthly basis. It is reasonable to project that by 2015, there may be a
hundred or more alloys in common use and still rising.
Plastics of course are just the beginning. We are now beginning to see the
introduction of low-cost metal powder additive machines. Unlike other UVbonded powder machines that currently cost about $50,000 or E-beam
deposition machines that are even more expensive, the Danish Blueprinter uses
a selective heat sintering technology in an office 3D printer that costs just
€9,995. The technique is similar to laser sintering, but instead of using a laser,
SHS uses a thermal print head. The powder bed is held at an elevated
temperature so the mechanically-scanned head only has to elevate the
temperature slightly above the powder's melting temperature to selectively
bond it.
For hobbyists there are at least two open source powder printers currently
available at around a tenth of the price of the Blueprinter. The Open3Dprinter
project in Russia has precious little information in English available just yet, but
desktop laser sintering is just on the horizon in the form of the Pwdr, an open
source powder-based rapid prototyping machine developed at The University of
Twente. A whole new range of materials becomes available for experimenting
with open-source rapid-prototyping; for example, when using the 3DP process:
gypsum, ceramics, concrete, sugar, etc. When the SLS process is fully
supported, plastic materials like ABS, PP, Nylon and metals will become
available as building material. A Hewlett Packard inkjet cartridge is used for the
deposition of binder. The cartridge can be refilled with custom binders using a
syringe. A custom binder of 20 percent alcohol and 80 percent water has
proven to work. The printer consists entirely of off-the-shelf components and
can be built for about €1000. Although it is very much a prototype, if it evolves
at the same rapid pace of the Reprap then we will likely see massive changes in
the desktop 3D Printing ecosphere. Look forward not only to cheap aluminium
or expensive titanium as a base metal, but stainless steel, sitanium, cobalt
chrome-moly, or nickel alloy, are all of which are available on laser sintering
DLS (digital laser sintering) is not new, most modern jet engines use parts made
this way, and it produces good results. These technologies, can print in metals
and give material properties superior to those of cast components, but inferior
to wrought metal. These processes allow superior geometry in the design and
speed in the production process.
Even if a casting made by a local foundry is required, rapid prototyping can
dramatically cut the cost of pattern making. At least one 3D printing company
offers 'printing' in brass, bronze and titanium, even in gold and silver. They use
a very old and well-known technique, the lost wax method - but the wax is
printed with a 3D printer. This is not only an amazing evolution on an existing
technology, but because the final products are not built up layer by layer, they
are structurally equivalent to anything coming out of a foundry.
High detailed stainless steel is already available from i.materialise, with the
strength of titanium but significantly less expensive. This material is suitable
for small, detailed, strong, and weatherproof models where accuracy is not yet
the initial concern, such as board game figures, miniatures, key chains,
jewellery and bolts. The stainless steel powder is deposited with a binder,
through a precision ink jet printer; the object is then depowdered and sintered
in an oven at around 1300 degrees. After cooling down the object is
mechanically polished before being sent to customer. Models need to be at
least 3 x 3 x 3 mm, up to a maximum of 40 x 40 x 35 mm, while detail
resolution is 0.3 mm and wall thickness 1.0 mm. As a guideline to pricing, a
model of 10 x 10 x 10 mm will cost just over €18, while a ring of 23 x 23 x 5
mm comes in at around €35.
There is even more interesting work being done in ceramic 3D printing, the
result being a product robust enough to work in jet engines. Ceramic particles
in a fluid suspension have a laser shined on the surface in the relevant shape.
This fuses the ceramic layer, the object is lowered a tiny amount and then the
process is repeated for the next layer. It is a few years off but will be
revolutionary. Just imagine the potential of creating semiconductor substrates
in your own workshop. If the home kit includes baking at controlled
temperatures with a way to exclude impurities, then away we go!
When some bright spark manages to 'print' using carbon rather than ordinary
plastic then the fun will really begin. The development of 'printed' solar cells
and 'printed' computer memory is cracking on and it looks like 'printed' stuff is
definitely going to be the next big thing. Exciting stuff—especially the
prospects for graphene and printable electronics
Legal Issues
The Botmill Reprap Glider 3.0
Intellectual property rights are intrinsically linked to 3D printing. The very
nature of the business is that a digital file will be printed as an object. This
makes it very clear that it is the file which is important, rather than the printer.
Powerful tools of production are now in the hands of anyone who cares to buy or
make a machine, and the dissemination of information over the internet means
that the knowledge required to build a 3D printer is minimal. This change in
technology alone will make things more complicated than ever before. There
are some simple facts relating to copyright that suddenly become very
important. The most notable of these is that whoever owns the copyright owns
the right to use the material and the right to prosecute violators. This rather
tragic circumstance arises from continued industry attempts to change
copyright in ways to benefit themselves, and the core of it always is about
money, or controlling the flow of it.
As the subject relates to 3D printing, what the reader, the prospective contract
manufacturer, has to consider is whether or not they will respect these laws
that have been forced through to protect large vested interests. Small
businesses in the additive manufacturing spotlight will need to have a solid
knowledge of what they can and cannot do as far as copyright is concerned,
and it is essential that 3D fabbers arm themselves with appropriate information.
There is also another angle to consider here, that of the 3D manufacturer as the
originator of a design. What can be done if you design something and want to
protect it? The legal protection is automatic, but supporting that protection
with evidence and backing it up with legal muscle is often the province of
massive, multi-billion dollar corporations, so what can a humble individual do?
Useful resources include the American Intellectual Property Law Association
(http://www.aipla.org), who offer a thorough guidebook covering many aspects
of innovation and creativity and how they interact with the law.
Copyright and patent law, both of which apply to the world of 3D printing, are
complex and riddled with grey areas lacking any precise definition.
A review of the history of copyright reveals a simple pattern. New and
revolutionary technologies arrive, technologies that permit the easy copying of
materials. These include the photocopier, the cassette recorder, audio and
video codecs and now digital manufacturing technologies. Historically we have
seen hysterical reactions to the kinds of activities that these technologies bring
with them—Crackdowns on unauthorised music recordings and copy DVDs,
increasingly more policed internet connections and DRM/DMCA takedown
notices for websites that host user-contributed content. This book is itself a fine
example of how the realm of copyright is changing. No longer does the author
need a printing press, a publisher or any other form of traditional printing
Activities that prompt these legal actions are widespread, and will continue
regardless of attempts to curb them by industries seeking to delay the
inevitable. The purpose of this chapter is to provide you, the prospective
entrepreneur, with an overview of the legal arena being entered and some
advice to help avoid troubles down the line, as well as an understanding of the
impact that copyright law has on creative endeavours.
Copyright law covers all variety of ideas; music, literature, art and any form
thereof. Almost anything can be copyrighted and the protection is automatic
once the idea is “fixed in a tangible medium”. Patents, however, could be
described as protecting functional systems without regard to the design. A
copyrighted design may be affixed to a medium that is independent of the
medium itself, such as a pattern on a piece of cloth, an image printed on paper
or an aesthetic styling of an everyday product like a car or a television. Remove
the unique design elements and all that is left with the medium. If we take all of
the unique styling away from a Jaguar car we still have a car—four wheels, an
engine and so forth. If we take an image of Mickey Mouse away from a poster,
we are still left with a piece of poster paper. What a patent does is to protect
the medium. The operational concept of a television could be patented, and as
long as the manufacture conforms to those principles it does not matter what it
looks like, it is still a patented product.
While some organisations are already seeking other ways of protecting
intellectual property, with ideas including Digital Rights Management (DRM)
built into 3D printers as well as monitoring of the internet for violations, but
ultimately it will be up to the individual to decide whether to commit a
violation. We have speed limits the world over, and vehicles are capable of
breaking them, it is only a matter of the will to do so.
Copyright is sadly touted as a protection for the artist creating the material, but
the truth is that copyright protects the profits of those who produce and
distribute the material. It remains an important method of controlling the
marketplace and the flow of profits.
All art, whether it be music, the written word or that strange lamp design you
just saw on the internet over your morning coffee, all art is communication. Its
purpose is to use the language of form to communicate thoughts and feelings.
This communication comes in so many different shapes and sizes, but the whole
point, the whole purpose is to make information available to other people. That
point is lost when the purpose of creating becomes solely about money. When
the bottom line dominates, the laws of economics take over and begin to
change the process. Record companies will sign artists for multiple album deals
spanning a set period, publishers will offer up advances for books. Many forms
of inducement serve to use financial rewards and contractual obligations to
direct an artist towards creating a product, yet once the artist has created the
work, it instantly becomes the property of the producer or publisher. Just look at
the back of one of your CDs, does it say “Copyright 2008” and the artists name?
No, its says; “The copyright in this sound recording belongs to XL Recordings”
or words to a similar effect. How can copyright laws, in their modern iteration,
be truly said to protect an artist? Publishers and music companies obtain the
copyright to these works through literally bribing the artist with what every
artist wants: to reach people, as many as possible.
Copyright law has changed so much that it is now possible for someone else to
own the rights to your work forever, and this is the problem, one which will
likely become a major issue in the 3D printing community very quickly.
Copyright should always belong to the creator, the originator of a work, and be
controlled by them, it should be non-transferrable. It can be licensed out to
others who think they can make money, but the ownership and the choice
about the fate of the product in question should always remain with the person
that created it.
What follows are some examples of the copyright system in action, some of
which appear to be questionable to anyone with a modicum of common sense.
Left image retrieved from
Right image retrieved from
One good example of these ideas is the case of Games Workshop, Ltd. issuing a
takedown notice to Thingiverse for a ‘Sentinel’ war machine 3D file uploaded by
a user. The Sentinel was an almost exact copy of Games Workshop’s own
Imperial Guard Sentinel miniature, which meant that users were able to create
this model without due credit or payment to the owner. This illustrates one of
the very fine lines of the law; the Sentinel is a copyrighted design produced by
Games Workshop, but the casual observer might find themselves asking “Why
didn’t George Lucas take action against Games Workshop?”, because the
Sentinel is a very similar machine to the AT-ST walker featured in the Star Wars
universe. This question is complicated and requires a little background to
answer. Firstly, the Sentinel design falls under the realm of copyright law
because it is a design, one of many possible variations of walking war machine.
Were the idea of a walking war machine central to the question it might fall
under patent law. There is a history of walking war machines that greatly
predates Games Workshop and George Lucas, whether they be the android
Cybermen from Doctor Who, ED-209 from the Robocop series, H.G. Wells
Martian invaders of War of the Worlds fame. We could even include the
legendary Golem in this categorization, and the Trojan Horse, the possible basis
of the four-legged AT-AT walker?
Had the user on Thingiverse created a walking war machine of his own design
for use in tabletop war games, even if it resembled the Sentinel in that it had
two legs, no arms and an armoured cab, then he would have been in the clear,
legally speaking. Copyright law allows for simultaneous creation of works and
only applies to a specific design. You can remove the design from the
underlying structure in this case and still have a two-legged walking war
machine, much like the users’ other upload, a copy of the Leman Russ battle
tank from the same range of models. A battle tank is not a new concept, not
one that is protected in any way, but the Leman Russ battle tank is the
intellectual property of Games Workshop, and to make a copy, digital or real,
and distribute it would be a clear violation of copyright law.
This illustration is not here for any moral or political purpose, it is merely an
explanation of what will put you into legal hot water. The same company
mentioned above, Games Workshop, Ltd, also publishes a magazine and a
website, both of which encourage hobbyists to make their own models from
scratch; war machines, soldiers or terrain features. Their publications offer step
by step instructions for making, converting and painting miniatures and there
is a thriving market for painted models that are painted in schemes created and
copyrighted by Games Workshop. While moral protest is fine, I cannot
encourage you to break the law BUT I do strongly urge you to become engaged
in, and instrumental in changing the way the intellectual property inherent in
design is administered.
Continuing with the science fiction theme we can also look at the case of the
Stormtrooper helmets. This case is interesting because it involved two countries
with different laws. The maker of the Stormtrooper helmets claimed to have
unearthed a set of original moulds for the helmet and began production of
replicas. He was successfully sued in California, but when Lucasfilm tried to
follow up in the UK the helmets were found to be protected differently from
other forms of artwork because they were film props. These are protected for
fifteen years in the UK and the helmets are still for sale, legally, in England. The
most interesting facet of this case is that the US courts defined the helmets as
sculpture, art in and of themselves, whereas the British courts found the film in
which they featured to be the work of art, and the helmets to be little more than
a production tool. This highlights the differences between the laws of the two
countries as well as bringing up the important question about the vague nature
of US copyright law.
What is most important about this case, though, is that the helmets were
specifically defined as not being sculptural works in and of themselves, but
utilitarian forms used to create the artistic work that is Star Wars. As copyright
law evolves, we can only hope that more nations will adopt standards that do
not offer blanket copyright protection to everything, thereby allowing market
innovations and a further spread of creativity and deeper enjoyment of more
Much like charity and social safety nets, this aspect of life is rife with the
possibilities of abuse, but much like those same ventures I do not think that it is
possible for us to have an economic system of any kind without some number of
innocent or dishonest people seeing and implementing ways to make or save a
few bucks by abusing trust. No matter what draconian measures are taken,
there will always be instances of abuse, theft and other criminal activity.
Enacting protections such as the notion of a BIOS DRM system in every 3D
printer is an over-reaction that will do more harm than good in the long run and
in a larger perspective. One also has to question the justification for such
actions, some of which seem reasonable on the surface but are decidedly
deceitful once numbers and evidence are examined. The strongest example of
this is the music industry, which claims file sharing has heavily damaged its
profits, but an examination of the facts points towards the business model of
the music industry, the industrial mass-production of music, as the real culprit.
In any industry attempting to adopt an economy of scale, it is inevitable that
the variety of products will diminish until only the most profitable remain, and
that those most profitable products will become so heavily commoditized that
there is no longer any substantial differentiation between them. Let’s not let
this model take over the digital manufacturing industry, an industry which has
the potential to unlock, nourish and sustain human creativity in ways that few
other technological advances have ever done.
The Printed Gun Controversy
The Virtual Handgun
Ever since second-year Texas law student Cody Wilson announced his
intentions to design and print firearms using a 3D printer, debate has raged on
the subject. This is hardly surprising when it encompasses discussions as
divisive and partisan as gun control, censorship and personal liberties.
Regardless of the current impracticalities of the project, I would like to devote a
few paragraphs to it, simply because the discussions are often interesting, and
sometimes even quite enlightening.
To begin with, let us be quite clear, just about anything can and has been used
to make a gun. There have even been instances where prisoners escaped from
jail by fabricating facsimiles of pistols from soap. Of course, they did not have
fully functioning firing mechanisms, but this has never stopped criminals from
using toy guns to hold up banks in the past.
People have made weapons out of blocks of stone, but does that mean that we
should outlaw building stone or concrete houses? Should we be nervous that
any Tom, Dick or Harry can head down to the hardware store and legally buy
steel piping with which to produce a zip gun or other kind of improvised
firearms. The Wikipedia entry on this subject is especially enlightening.
When Glocks were first released there were articles full of "The Plastic Pistol,"
stating that bad people would use them to evade security and metal detectors.
There is little mention of the fact that the metal spring is huge, and the barrel is
a large chunk of metal that is especially hard to miss. Hollywood has
perpetuated a similar myth regarding ceramic pistols. While I rarely fly, my
ceramic fruit knife is nearly always picked up by the X-ray machines at train
and bus stations.
Of course, the ammunition is the part that does the actual launching of the
projectile, the gun itself is just there to hold the mechanism and the bullets
together while they are being fired. It is almost like putting serial numbers on
hypodermic needles, but making heroin legal to sell at Walmart.
The real irony is that anybody can order a whole plethora of books, DVDs, and
full-scale schematics detailing almost any firearm ever made, along with
complete instructions on how to make them, from a huge selection of online
stores and mail order companies.
Cody Wilson's plan is to create a Wiki Weapons' page and use the Defense
Distributed brand to create an open-source schematic for a "WIKIWEP A,"
handgun that anyone can download. He has already used a 3D printer to make
the lower receiver of a semi automatic rifle, the AR-15, the civilian version of
the standard US army issue rifle. The lower receiver is the only part with a serial
number, every other part can be freely purchased in USA. This heavily
regulated part holds the bullets and is the only part that is legally considered a
"firearm," even though it takes the least amount of stress, and is already quite
cheap, costing from $50 for a basic stamped lower to $150 for a nicely
machined example. Interestingly, anybody can buy the rest of the parts such as
triggers, barrels, etc. completely off the books with no controls whatsoever. It is
also relatively easy to buy all the machine tools and heat treat ovens secondhand, to make your own real guns at home.
In practice, it is much more of a challenge to 3D print a barrel and chamber, the
business end of a gun, since it has to be made of something with the strength
of steel in order to contain the tens of thousands of PSI generated by off-theshelf ammunition. For the time being, printing guns simply is not practical. The
closest realistic option with the available technology would be to print
components required to reactivate deactivated guns.
Even so, there are always armchair commentators on the internet, intent on
adding their own two cents. Statements like the following are quite common.
"When 3D printers can print rifled plastic at less than a twentieth the cost of
traditionally machined steel at the same strength I'll start worrying about it." Or
how about this:
“I fear that we now have a generation brought up with computers and plastic
junk who simply don't appreciate the importance of a material's physical
properties. They don't understand that even if their plastic firing pin did
manage to fire a bullet, their plastic barrel and chamber will be turned into
instant mush by gas pressure, friction and heat.”
Some detractors appear to be dismissing the danger of this gun due to its
plastic construction. One of the plastics that 3D printers can use is
polyphenylsulfone, which has a very high melting point, has a tensile strength
of around 8000 psi and is used in aerospace projects. Varieties of plastics are
available for 3D printers, and their properties vary greatly depending on the
mix. Plastics are amazingly useful and flexible materials. I am not saying that a
plastic gun would continue to work after repeated firings, but just a few
successful shots could be very dangerous.
For those who might pose the question “What about laser sintered printed
weapons?” there is a great deal of strength difference between sintered
"technically a metal, but barely" and a properly forged and heat-treated alloy.
Unless the technology improves substantially, 3D printed guns are only going
to succeed in stimulating the market for guns that are operable with multiple
missing fingers.
The forums on Slashdot.org were alive with debate on this subject, and
surprisingly informative:
In an ironic turnaround, Wilson's project suffered a decidedly non-technical
setback, when printer manufacturer Stratasys revoked the lease on, and
immediately repossessed his uPrint SE 3D printer. According to New Scientist,
the manufacturer cited Wilson's lack of a federal firearms manufacturer's
license as their reason for the repossession. Homemade firearms are not (in the
U.S.) illegal, per se, on a federal basis, though states have varying degrees of
"It is the policy of Stratasys not to knowingly allow its printers to be used for
illegal purposes," the company's legal counsel wrote in a letter, although this
probably translates more accurately into Stratasys being fearful of getting a
bad reputation as an enabler of terrorist groups and crazies. Regardless of
legality and logic, this is a serious public relations/political policy landmine the
company does not wish to step on. They probably have legitimate reason to be
concerned, the media will sensationalize these stories, and then people will
write to their Congressmen, suggesting we need government regulation of 3D
One net commentator joked that reading between the lines of Stratasys'
statement, the company's president clearly says:
"For the love of god please don't give us this kind of press. If we don't shut
this down now I'm going to have Homeland Security all over my ass. Don't
ever use gun and printed in the same sentence again. My hands are too
delicate for jail. Why are you doing this to me I'd like to continue selling
these machines without mountains of paperwork. If you're going to print
something illicit, please do it quietly, and make sure that you own the
printer you're using." (There were, of course, plenty of witty suggestions
that the joke was on Stratasys, as the machine seized was a clone that
Wilson made with his 3D printer.)
Despite the humour, this really is a legal minefield. Under federal law, hobbyists
creating pistols, handguns and some rifles do not have to register their
creations with the bureau of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives (ATF) as
long as they do not sell, trade or share their weapons. Since 3D printing
technology is so new, even the ATF does not have an answer for what the legal
status of a Wiki Weapon would be.
Despite the setback, Defense Distributed plans to press on with the project,
albeit on a different path. To protect them from prosecution Wilson has decided
to obtain a manufacturer's license and incorporate Defense Distributed into a
company. The paperwork will likely take a few months and cost a couple
thousand dollars, but Wilson said he would rather do that than risk going to
prison. This has not stopped the group, who test fired a 3D printed gun to
destruction in early December. The item was printed on a newly obtained Objet
printer, ironic considering that Stratasys had just announced the long awaited
approval on their proposed merger with Objet from the Committee on Foreign
Investment in the United States (CFIUS).
This is the second delay the project has encountered since it started. The
crowdsource funding website Indiegogo froze the Defense Distributed account
earlier this year, claiming the project related to the sale of firearms. Shortly
afterwards Defense Distributed secured the $20,000 it needed by using the
direct distribution platform Bitcoin.
It has been argued that the project was not just about printing a gun, but a test
of the limits of this particular emergent technology, and how it can be applied
to the specific domain. If the goal was just to obtain guns, there are shops all
over the country. There were even comments that the actions of Stratysys were
the equivalent of Toyota reclaiming your car because you drove to a bar and
you 'might' not be of drinking age in 'some' places, regardless of whether or not
you are of age where you live.
In reality, it is more akin to the directors saying "He's doing what? Is that legal?
(Gets seven different contradictory answers) Oh shit, we do not want to be
involved with this."
Can we really blame the company here, when there are lawsuits every time
someone sneezes in the USA?
As an aside, it did raise an interesting little fact about 2D paper printers that
most people do not know. If you try to counterfeit currency, some colour copiers
can shut down automatically, resulting in the need to call a technician to come
and reset the printer. Many higher quality copy machines and scanners have
built-in firmware that will recognize currency and refuse to scan it. (This news is
going to lead to an awful lot of tedious April Fools prank next year.) Could this
be the direction in which 3D printing is heading?
Debates about the legality of guns, receivers and 3D files continue unabated
and there will always be a voice of dissention claiming that many items are
never going to be printable, eg: CPUs and items requiring high strength. These
could end up as famous last words that may sound familiar. Remember this?
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”—Ken Olson,
president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), maker of big
business mainframe computers, arguing against the PC way back in 1977.
On a personal note, it was a Glock promotional T-shirt that finally decided my
own stance about the ongoing gun control debate. I was on a visit to Bangkok,
and had just spent a relaxing morning exploring Wat Suthat, one of the most
beautiful temples in the city, a natural sanctuary away from the suffocating
heat and traffic, with some of the most beautiful Buddhist murals that I have
ever seen. Exiting this haven, I found myself on a street entirely devoted to the
sale of guns, everything from Taurus pistols, all the way up to fully automatic
machine guns, hardly what I was expecting in the country known throughout
the world as the 'Land of Smiles'. What really caught my eye was the
aforementioned T-Shirt with a big Glock logo and the slogan, 'For those
occasions when you absolutely, positively have to shoot some c*nt in the face!'
I later learned that Thailand ranked third in the world in terms of firearms
homicide, following only South Africa and Colombia. Still, while many people
argue that "Guns don't kill people", they certainly do make it very easy. Haven't
we all read of cases, where what would ordinarily have been a black eye turns
into a homicide because some damn fool had a gun?
3D Printing in the Third World
The Lagos Maker Faire
Despite my own philanthropic leanings, much of this book is about using 3D
printing technology for personal gratification and personal profit, rather than
the more pressing needs of relieving poverty and encouraging innovation.
When these developments are given names such as personal fabricators and
home replicators, it is very easy to be caught up in the fantasy of what we
would like to make only for ourselves, and temporarily forget about the bigger
While Makerbot have received a fair amount of negative press recently, it
should not be forgotten that they have been heavily involved in solving Third
World problems with third world ingenuity. They recently donated a printer to
the Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CSIE) at the Indian
Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai, India. They also support the 3D4D
Challenge, a competition that awarded Washington Open Object Fabricators
(WOOF) a prize of $100,000 to develop a recycling process that will enable
waste plastic to be used as filament for 3D printing machines. The project is
focussing on recycling high-density polyethylene, the plastic used in milk
cartons, but the requests for finished products have been slightly different to
what might have been expected. You could be forgiven for thinking that many
Africans would want more mass-produced items such as buckets and plastic
bowls. However the project coordinators doubt that a 3D-printed bucket—even
one made from milk bottles—will ever be cheaper than one made in a factory.
The surprising alternative to buckets is actually boats. Most small vessels in
West Africa are made from hardwood trees, such as teak, that are becoming
increasingly scarce. Making them from waste plastic instead is an
environmental win/win: rare species are conserved and less rubbish thrown
away. The team estimated that if they had printed a boat from commercial
plastic filament it would have cost them $800. Instead, 250 clean, empty milk
bottles set them back just $3.20. With our Western cultural bias, it is often easy
for us to think that we know what is best for those in the Third World, but this is
a perfect example of why we need to keep a more open mind.
Other suggested printable products have similarly come as a surprise to
Western observers. Who in America or Europe could have guessed that one of
the the most useful items would be specially designed and printed shoes to be
worn by individuals suffering from foot deformities caused by the growing
problem of jigger fly infestation? There is often a vast chasm of thinking
between educated Western urbanites and those still trapped in rural poverty.
For example, when we think of shoes, we imagine a pair of expensive Nikes,
manufactured from a wide range of complex synthetics. In remote Chinese or
sub Saharan villages, acceptable shoes are more likely a simple pair of plastic
sandals, something that is both affordable and a step up from their current
barefoot status. 3D-printers are ideal for this kind of product.
Other printables are being introduced, but local partners are essential in
establishing which products are needed and how much local people are
prepared and able to pay. So far, these include toilets, water collectors and
simple, 3D printed solar trackers that work for both solar ovens and
photovoltaic electricity production.
South Africa’s ’The Star’ reports that The Vaal University of Technology (South
Africa) is developing a self-help laboratory that will be equipped with numerous
3D printers with installed designing software. The objective of the laboratory is
to empower students, staff members and the community to develop their
innovative ideas into prototypes. How long will it be before we see the ‘Made in
Africa’ brand or label for products, for sale on the streets of London or New
York? Africa already has a $1.8 trillion economy, and is forecast to have a
population of 1.3 billion by 2020. With the growth of the African middle class,
consumer demand is already very high.
It is widely known that the Chinese are investing all over Africa, estimated at
$15bn over the past decade, but is it the right kind of investment? All over the
continent, China has built roads, railways, bridges and airports, focussing
primarily on hardware and infrastructure. The rehabilitated 840-mile Benguela
railway line, which now connects Angola’s Atlantic coast with the Democratic
Republic of Congo and Zambia, and the newly announced coastal highway that
will connect ten West African nations are just the kinds of projects that match
Chinese expertise rather than meet African people’s needs. These projects
enable China to export more raw materials such as crude oil and copper,
products with profits that tend to benefit large corporations and ruling elites
rather than people and communities. At the same time, China is a major
importer of cheap manufactured goods to Africa, such as electronics and
clothes, causing some to accuse the Chinese of taking a neo-colonialist
approach to the continent, simply to exploit its rich natural resources, much
like the US has done with Asian labour. Many African nations now want China to
export much more than just resources.
While Chinese companies have invested heavily in Africa, they have not always
had a smooth time of it. One of the low points came in 2010 when a Chinese
mining boss in Zambia shot nearly a dozen local miners during a labour protest.
The Chinese industry focus on economic prosperity has led to massacres and
violent backlash in Indonesia, Myanmar and many other countries. While
Tibetan and Uighur resentment is well publicised in the west, similar actions in
Africa are not so well documented. While China has recently introduced several
measures to help rebalance trade ties, including zero tariffs for an expanded
range of African products and more trade expos to display African merchandise,
continuing to build mines and airports is unlikely to benefit few except Chinese
investors and their local cronies.
Africa needs a combination of improvements before it can begin to make real
headway. A legal framework to create a more hospitable environment is
perhaps the most obvious, but financing also plays an important role. Microfinance is growing rapidly, enabling grass roots entrepreneurship. Even so, it
usually tops out at about $500, so ventures in the next tiers that need $1,000
to $100,000 go unfunded. The global availability of venture capital and private
equity, according to last year's figures, was about 3 percent of GDP; in Kenya it
was a measly .07 percent; Uganda .05 percent. This suggests that, in East
Africa alone, a financing gap of $100 million a year still exists, which will
equate to more than $1 billion over the next decade, a figure that in some
respects seems small, but on a local basis is insurmountable.
This potential democratisation of the manufacturing industry is an exciting
thought in the context of the West, but in the developing world, this idea could
be even more worthwhile. 3D printing could help countries to ‘leapfrog’ into
new, distributed forms of production that create opportunities for better,
environmentally sustainable and more just forms of economic development,
avoiding some of the pitfalls our own economic model has uncovered.
In the same way that we are seeing the breaking down of the barriers between
an object, and the information carried within an object , we will also see 3D
printers and scanners as democratizing tools, where consumers assume the role
of designers copying, “tweaking,” and customizing existing designs. If
consumers can easily wield the software to modify an openly shared design,
they are no longer forced into incentive to purchase an original one. Not that
“democratization” of design will kill design or that designers will cease to be
relevant. On the contrary, this technology will allow innovative designers to
evolve and improve their craft. 3D printer technology permits us to manifest
what would otherwise have stayed firmly in the mind. We are already seeing a
new wave of innovation and creativity driven by the ability of the average
person to make whatever they can imagine. Parts of the internet will quickly
mutate into global suggestion boxes for online designers, so that we can all
contribute to eliminating those irritating design features that annoy us so
There is of course the risk that the “democratization” of design will slow
innovation if it moves towards the current Western democratic dialog, where a
small lobby uses the illusion of democratic choice to create divisiveness and
partisanship. This does not only mean contractors and builders on one side
yelling at architects and designers on the other. I am thinking more of the
heavily entrenched interests fighting hard to maintain the status quo. This has
been clear in the areas of digital photography, desktop publishing, and digital
music creation, where myths such as piracy have been introduced and
popularised to create the impression that this change is damaging and
Huge sums are paid to lobbyists and lawyers, as content owners wage war on
their very best customers. Once these industries realize that it is much more
sensible to swim with the current, they begin to experience rapid growth as
suddenly everyone wants to try the technology, be it digital garage recording,
digital photography etc,. When most people realize that they do not have
superior talent in that medium, there is a spike in legal and illegal “clip art” and
“sampling” use. Soon thereafter, things settle down to a new normal where
most people respect the rights of others.
We then begin the process of finding more constructive ways to innovate that
value design, while promoting and not penalizing risk taking in fabrication.
In Small Is Beautiful, British economist E. F. Schumacher stated “the poor of the
world cannot be helped by mass production, only by production of the masses.”
While the Times Literary Supplement ranked Small Is Beautiful among the one
hundred most influential books published since World War II, it has so far had
little impact on mainstream economic thinking. Schumacher believed that the
modern industrial technology of the production line had deskilled and
dehumanised work, rendering it meaningless. 3D printing could have the power
to reverse this. In conjunction with other technological developments, such as
distributed energy generation and the expansion of the internet, 3D printing
could provide local communities with the access to facilities they need to
produce and market their own products.
This kind of revolution seems much likelier to find traction in the developing
world where communities can start their own local economies from scratch. The
best parts of Neil Gershenfeld's book, Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your
Desktop—from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication' describe his
adventures setting up experimental fab labs in places like Ghana and India.
Encouraging locals to try making tools that are unavailable or unaffordable;
portable solar collectors that can turn shafts and wheels, inexpensive electronic
gauges farmers can use to measure the quality of their crops, giving them an
edge when they haggle with the brokers. It is clear that 3D printing could have
a very interesting Third-World dimension, one that might even revolutionise
manufacturing in many Third World nations. 3D printing could provide local
communities with the access to facilities they need to produce and market their
own products.
There is good reason to be optimistic: A successful Maker Faire event was
recently held in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria and the largest city in Africa. For
those that are interested to see how this plays out, an interesting site to watch
is Afrigadget.com, which features creative ideas and innovative technologies
coming out of Africa today. Created by a group of African bloggers from around
the continent, Afrigadget.com chronicles everyday people making
extraordinary contributions to their community and the larger world. Much of
the international development news that occurs in Africa does not make it to
the big networks such as the BBC, Fox and CNN, who are more interested in
stories that are closer to home than sustainable inventions taking place in
Africa. Recent entries have covered 3D printing developments, along with
efforts to create biodiesel fuel out of local pine nuts in Sierra Leone, and a
deceptively simple device designed by four schoolgirls that successfully
extracts usable fuel from urine. For other good sites addressing sustainable
development in Africa check out the African Uptimist and Timbuktu Chronicles.
The Disruptive Power of 3D Printers
The 3D printers available today are still rather primitive in comparison to our
personal computers, and hardly anybody actually 'needs' one, but what about
ten years from now? Many tradespeople will see their industries completely
upended. Old school sign painters were just one small group who had to face
competition from relatively unskilled newcomers with personal computers and a
vinyl cutter. Skills that took a lifetime to learn no longer provided any
competitive advantage. The 3D printing revolution promises to be similarly
wrenching. "It's like a new industrial revolution," claims Siert Wijnia, a founder
of Netherlands-based Ultimaker. "[3D printers] are where the microcomputer
was 30 years ago."As a technology it is disruptive, energetic and cannot be
ignored. Why? Because up until now, the domineering forces in manufacturing
have been economies of scale. The upfront costs of "tooling up" to manufacture
anything—whether it is roller bearings or automobiles—using conventional
materials and assembly methods are huge, so factories must stamp out many
thousands of identical products in order to bring the individual price down to a
reasonable level. With 3D printing, the tooling-up costs are much less—
essentially consisting of the costs of building the computer model of the
product. Since it is becoming so easy to tweak a computer model—it is just
software, after all—small production runs suddenly become economic. This
technology could enable a shift from the mass production bequeathed to us by
Henry Ford to what some people call "mass customisation". Actually, attributing
this advance to Henry ford is almost as misleading as ascribing the invention of
the light bulb to Edison. Mass production was given to us by Maudslay and
Brunel in the Portsmouth Blockmaking factory a century or so before Henry
Ford was even born. It really does not matter how much we argue about who
the founding fathers of traditional manufacturing were if it all becomes a
bygone technology in the next twenty years.
The disruptive significance of this has yet to dawn on many governments and
corporations, but some observers—for example, writers for that great
cheerleader of capitalism, the Economist – are trying to attract their attention
by dubbing digital-driven manufacturing the "third industrial revolution".
"Three-dimensional printing ... may have as profound an impact on the world as
the coming of the factory did," and "Digital technology has already rocked the
media and retailing industries," it continues, "just as cotton mills crushed hand
looms and the Model T put farriers out of work. Many people will look at the
factories of the future and shudder. They will not be full of grimy machines
manned by men in oily overalls. Many will be squeaky clean – and almost
deserted... Most jobs will not be on the factory floor but in the offices nearby,
which will be full of designers, engineers, IT specialists, logistics experts,
marketing staff and other professionals. The manufacturing jobs of the future
will require more skills. Many dull, repetitive tasks will become obsolete: you no
longer need riveters when a product has no rivets."
The whole notion of industry changes if we no longer have big manufacturing
facilities any more, but instead new micro-distributive facilities. This may all
take place in just a few short steps. It will start with the larger manufacturers
expanding the use of 3D printing, and then the shift to smaller and mid-sized
manufacturers. Then we may see things like auto-body shops and parts
suppliers begin to move into the realm. At least for the next ten years, it may
be more of a Kinkos model where we will see small, franchised 3D print shops
that print up components and parts for the genral public. Perhaps these are
niches into which all the new hackerspaces will evolve?
Just suppose for a moment, that the Economist is correct – that digital
manufacturing really does wipe out the low-level manufacturing jobs currently
provided, here and overseas, by older technology. What then happens to the
hundreds of millions of people who will have no employment (not everyone can
become "designers, engineers, IT specialists, logistics experts", after all), and
who, incidentally, will have the disposable income to purchase the wonderful
products created by digital manufacturing?
More importantly, if mass production and economies of scale are no longer
necessary in order to produce something at a low enough price, and if unskilled
labour no longer figures in the cost equation, then there is no need to outsource
manufacturing abroad. Just think how this affects children’s toys for example.
No more Chinese labour, lead paint and international container shipping. Many
of the jobs this type of manufacturing would replace are now based in China.
Developing a domestic infrastructure using cutting-edge rapid prototype
machines would probably create more jobs in Europe and the US than lose
them. Will this finally put an end to seeing all those "Made in China" labels?
Some might argue that China is more capable of adapting than the US, because
China is not yet a fully developed country. Those who have spent any length of
time on the Mainland might not be so optimistic.
3D printing might not be cheaper then a factory, but it could be cheaper then a
factory and its distribution network. The cost of keeping small piles of stock far
from the factory is immense, and this alone makes 3D printing cheaper. Printing
also saves time, as I can print a coat-hook or washer faster than I can go and
buy one from the shops. We will still need to transport the plastic pellets that
3D printers need to make stuff, but think of all the associated savings involved
in local manufacturing. We have already discussed the reduction in waste of
the printers themselves, but then there is the cost of shipping the product ten
thousand miles to the store, all the packing and packaging required, and the
repeated mark ups every time another business is added to the supply chain.
I would like to take a moment here to explain how many of the costs involved in
manufacturing and mass production remain invisible. We all know about the
cost of raw materials and shipping, but what about the unseen human
suffering. Brutal working conditions and almost non-existent pay help keep the
prices low. If we as consumers want prices to stay low, then 3D printing
technology might be the only option, as cheap labour in China may not be able
to last much longer. Much of this cost is borne by the workers themselves, many
of whom pay with their lives. The exact number of annual work-related deaths
in China is unknown, as even Beijing acknowledges, “it is much more costeffective for owners to buy-off the families … than risk closure by reporting an
There are many web-based resources attempting to document the full breadth
and depth of the horror workers suffer in order to produce our cheap goods for
us. FactsandDetails has an entire section devoted to the subject:
Industrial accident and death rates in China are in fact among the highest in
the world, killing more than 100,000 people every year, which works out at 380
deaths per day, or almost 50 per hour. The highest number of fatalities is on
river barges, in transportation and in mines, but factories are not far behind.
Workers have repeatedly died in fires, because owners locked the doors out of
fear that the workers would steal the products they were making. According to
government statistics thirty workers lose a limb every day in Shenzhen’s
10,000 factories alone, just one of Chinas many cities dominated by industrial
production. In most cases, the factory owners pay a token compensation and
hire new workers for another $50 a month. When off-shoring their production,
western companies often ship out their old equipment that would be too
expensive to run in the West. These shoddy machines no longer have any
maintenance engineers, and quickly become death traps for innocent workers.
The China Labour Bulletin recently spoke with a worker who caught a finger in
some equipment and was sent to a local hospital. It was cheaper for the
company to compensate the unconscious worker than to surgically repair his
finger. When the worker woke up in the hospital, he found to his horror that his
entire hand was gone.
Factories workers live in cramped dorms, with up to twenty in a room, some
saying that prisoners in jail live in better conditions. These conditions are
sometime worsening rather than improving. Production companies are
responding more to the demands of big retailers such as Wal-Mart to cut costs,
rather than calls by human rights groups to improve working conditions.
Taiwanese and Korean factory owners have the worst reputations of all,
sometimes paying wages as little as 12 cents an hour or $15 a month. The most
draconian do not allow their workers to leave the factory compound, deny
workers bathroom breaks and demand regular sexual favours. At one prison-like
Taiwan-owned factory that had a hundred guards watching 2,700 workers, one
worker was killed during an escape attempt. There are endless stories of
managers that force workers to work until midnight, fire them when they
complain and beat them up if they try to claim their paycheck, often using their
police connections to counter any complaints. Dickensian conditions keep
prices artificially low. It is hard to imagine workplaces in the twenty-first
century where workers are only allowed to shower once a week, and are kept
locked inside buildings that have their windows covered and the doors bolted
shut. In some cases the meals are cabbage and potato soup served three times
a day. Some factories require that workers provide a deposit of two weeks pay
and turn over their ID cards. Some Korean employers in China have been
accused of beating and humiliating their workers. In one extreme case a woman
was locked in a cage with a large dog and put on public display in the factory
compound. According to a Chinese newspaper nine out of ten spontaneous
strikes in the city of Tianjin occurred at Korean-owned factories.
No-one visiting coastal factory cities like Quanzhou and Wenzhou, will be
surprised to learn that many of the shoe factories are filled with fumes ten
times above safe levels. While pollution is a fact of life in all Chinese cities, the
noxious odours that assail visitors to these industrial concentrations are
apparent well beyond the city limits. The same fumes that permeate the entire
district poison teenagers that glue soles on shoes. The Washington Post
interviewed one poor woman who worked gluing sneakers for seventeen hours
a day. After only a few months, she began to experience numbness in her
fingers and ankles, which quickly spread up her arms and legs. By the time she
realized that the glue she was using was destroying her nervous system she
was paralyzed from the neck down. In 1995, an explosion at a chemical
explosives warehouse in Hunan province killed ninety people, injured four
hundred and left a crater one hundred feet in diameter and 30 feet deep. Many
of those killed were children playing at a video arcade next door to the
warehouse. China has no independent unions, only the All-China Federation of
Trade Unions, which generally sides with the state and employers so that
workers essentially have no voice. While a good number of us in the West may
hate our jobs, none of us are forced to endure conditions such as those which I
have just described, many of which are still commonplace in China, Indonesia
and Bangladesh. These are the true costs of low prices. Next time some know-itall claims that 3D printers will never be able to print washers as cheaply as a
Chinese factory, remember that human misery far outweighs the petty financial
costs to which they are referring.
The longer-term socio-economic reifications of this technology are complex
enough to fill an entire book but I would like to touch upon them briefly here.
The usual "machines will replace workers, so what about the jobs?" question is
an obvious point, brought up countless times for every technological advance.
So what happens to the people who lose their jobs on production lines? They
cannot all become 3D-printer repairmen.
Surely this is already happening, and has been going on for the last thirty or
forty years. We have seen jobs replaced by automation, by internet
applications, and Chinese slave labour, and there has been little done to
replace them. It is possible that what we are seeing now is not a recession or a
depression, but the end of capitalism.
At the risk of sounding Marxist, progressive immiseration of the workers is
inevitable, as business increases surplus labour value, here via automation.
This began a few decades ago in the West, so we already know how the market
for products is maintained and the immiseration concealed: via mounting levels
of debt. A business makes itself more "efficient" by automating in the hunt for
more profits and increased share prices, forgetting the fact that when you sack
a worker you are also sacking your customers. A good illustration of this: Henry
Ford showing off a piece of automation at his factory quipped to a visitor "This
machine doesn't go on strike." The visitor replied "But the machine won't buy
your cars."
Go back a few centuries back rather than a couple of decades and things like
pottery, weaving and metalworking were all rapidly turned from small
operations in to city-wide industries. Others might also argue that off-shoring
was begun around the same time. The use of 'convicts' was just one of many
ways to produce things more cheaply overseas, and at the same time deal with
a surplus of farm workers. Could it be that this is now coming full circle?
The first two industrial revolutions made people richer and more urban. Now a
third revolution is under way. Manufacturing is going digital. This could change
not just business, but much else besides. The factory of the future will focus on
mass customisation, and may look more like those weavers' cottages than
Ford's assembly line. There could be a sort of fragmentation of business into
little artisanal operations. Could we be witnessing the revival of a spirit that had
been fading since the Industrial Revolution: that of the artisan? While
corporations like Microsoft and Oracle were employing droves of programmers
to homogenize products for the mass market, these technological craftsmen
were working on a personal scale. Crafting their code in home workshops, they
enjoyed the same satisfaction that comes from building a bookshelf or caning a
chair. Could 3D printing technology continue this trend, returning us to the
days before "art became separated from artisans and mass manufacturing
turned individuals from creators to consumers"? That is certainly a very
romantic but appealing point of view.
Technology has always been about the abolition of mundane activity. It is a
waste of any human being to spend their time standing on an assembly line. In
reality, the 'right' to work is no more a right than the 'right' to own a slice of the
earth we live on. It is all moot when the food, clothes, shelter, infrastructure we
need could be provided automatically, and better, than if we try to do it
manually. The real question is why has it not happened earlier, and been
offered to everyone? (Capitalism/selfishness/greed is the answer, in case I have
not made that obvious.) The fact that we need money to survive is an
increasingly abstract societal problem. The things we really need to watch for
are vested interests attempting to prevent the inevitable by legal suppressive
measures, as without scarcity, there is no power. The copyright maximalists
that control our government are already resorting to the dirtiest low down tricks
in the book to maintain their illegitimate monopoly on a cultural legacy that
rightly belongs to us all. This is the elephant in the room that no politician or
pundit wants to tackle. Is capitalism so entrenched that we would rather face
global collapse than risk replacing it with an improved system?
Of course, there are still some people who feel protective of soul-destroying,
mundane "work". Many of these modern day luddites know that overall it will be
beneficial, but cannot help lament the loss of manufacturing jobs. After all, who
wants to live in a country where we are all cappuccino frothers and insurance
salesmen. Perhaps the rest of us will be limited to repairing "Classic PrePrintables: 1950 - 2015" in the museum. The reality is that jobs are going
nowhere, except into oblivion. The biggest threat facing us all is redundancy
hitting us at an earlier and earlier age, as one disruptive technology after
another picks up speed.
Ever increasing levels of unemployment are in fact just one side of the coin. The
other is the rapid ageing of prosperous populations. If our amoral economic
systems continue to disenfranchise younger people, who do still actually want
to work, how will it react to the growing numbers of society who feel that it is
part of their entitlement to work no longer, and instead rely on the
contributions of others? In the US, there are currently forty million over sixtyfive years of age. In twenty years, barring disaster, it will be eighty million over
eighty. If we look at China, it has an even greater ageing population that is
unprecedented in human history. Currently, there are 180 million people over
age sixty, about an eighth of the population. If we jump ahead twenty years,
they will have over 360 million people over age sixty. In 2000 there were six
workers for every person over sixty. By 2030, there will be barely two. This
makes anti-communitarian ideology increasingly unworkable and even
Another factor is simply the glaring success of managed capitalism in contrast
to relatively unmanaged varieties. The arguments about European failure ring
increasingly hollow—despite the economic turmoil; the reality is that European
managed capitalism continues to deliver the highest standard of living in the
world by every meaningful (non-ideological) measure. American politics is
deeply dysfunctional, of course, and change will take some time, but there will
be increasing impatience, even among conservatives, with economic policies
that fail for more than a generation. The word "socialism" will simply be
replaced with some alternate formulation such as "managed capitalism" which
allows the majority to climb aboard.
3D Printing is an early glimpse into the post-scarcity economy that has the
potential to revolutionize our way of life and progress of humankind. In theory,
it should release the workers from a life of drudgery and monotony, and herald
a new era of advanced technology and eco-inspired architecture. If we look
back at the evolution of buildings, bridges, transport and many other familiar
objects, we can see a link between manufacturing process, materials and
design. If you change one, you have to change the other two, or at least have
the opportunity to do so over time. Even if 3D printing is a complement to,
rather than a replacement for mass production, it will be important in
generating new economic activity—otherwise known as growth. 3D printing
technology is developing during a time where we have this archaic, dangerous
capitalist model, which threatens the environment, the financial security of
millions and leads to increasing resource scarcity in the vain pursuit of
"perpetual growth". In practice, will those who possess the means of production,
exploit it to boost profit incentive at the expense of human misery? This
technology is, by its very essence, labour-augmenting: The reason it makes
things cheaper is because it increases the capital to labour ratio of production.
By removing the manufacturer, another margin is also removed. The economies
of scale simply transfer to the materials retailer, and their scale would dwarf
that of any manufacturer. Those who profit more conspicuously will be those
who control economic resources, and those few who are bright and
knowledgeable enough to come up with innovative ideas out of which large
profits will be made, and those to whom I am referring are essentially you, the
readers of this book. This will be much more than investing in the right
fledgling company, so that your next ten generations can spend their time
snapping up Van Gogh's for the price of hospital wings. What most
entrepreneurs share is the conviction that this technology is the next big thing
—big enough, many argue, to be this century's most disruptive invention.
Whether it results in an ever-increasing wealth gap or an entirely new economic
paradigm is mainly up to us.
The Future of 3D Printing - How Far Could All This Go?
A concept home 3D printer envisioned by the IDI-Lab graduate design team at Zhejiang
Even the most cursory glance shows that the 3D printing industry is growing at
a frightening pace, and four trends are immediately visible:
1. The prices of the technology are falling fast, both for high end industrial
machines, but we are also seeing the first wave of affordable (even though
the phrase 'low end' does not do them justice) machines that are suitable
for home users.
2. The open source community is a now a huge influence that never existed
on such a scale when the first home computers were introduced back in
early eighties. The introduction of, at viral speed, new personal and
professional 3D printers is highly accelerated due to the modern nature of
almost instantaneous internet connections.
3. The largest bottleneck is going to be convenient 3D software for making
great digital designs easily and quickly.
4. 3D Printing services are already playing an important role in creating
innovative new businesses and exciting new business opportunities.
We have all seen the breathless predictions of 'desktop manufacturing, one in
every household!' While this technology is obviously here to stay, for many the
value proposition of actually owning one, rather than renting a tiny slice of
somebody's much more expensive machine over the internet, seems about as
mainstream as the economics of owning a high quality large format photo
printer or an entire machine shop. Ownership is certainly something that some
professions would certainly consider, and definitely something that a hobbyist
would want access to; but not necessarily the right option for everybody.
Most towns would benefit from a high-end printer, charging customers
relatively modest sums when they need something like a discontinued
dishwasher part. Perhaps this is how the industry will develop, and production
will become much more localised. Every neighbourhood will have a small
fabrication shop that can produce an enormous variety of products at a
moment's notice. This is similar to advent of digital photography and home
printing that many thought signalled the death of high street photo shops.
Consumers still choose to print photos taken on their smartphone and camera
at a shop, but prefer the high quality glossy finish to anything they could
manage on their low-cost home printer.
People do not usually keep large-scale copiers at home. If they need a
document, they simply bring an original from home and run a copy, just as they
will with 3D printers. Moving manufacturing to the consumer, to the end of the
supply chain, is a major cultural paradigm shift that might take some time to
displace the current mindset. If we consider fast food for example, it does not
take much to make a burger, but people still go out to McDonald’s simply for
the sake of convenience. Even when a fab lab can be shrunk to the size of a
suitcase, most people will probably content themselves with what is offered at
the future equivalent of Wal-Mart, just as they do with what is broadcast on the
TV networks. In reality, places like quick print shops will take up the slack. By
using this as a bulk usage service, the cost of the machines will be viable, and
we will all be using it as a service.
Consider the similarity to printing glossy 6x4 photos at home. It is certainly
possible, but it remains much easier to have them printed down at the mall for
a quarter of the price of buying the paper. In fact, there seems to be a growing
trend of houses and families that do not have 2D printers at home these days.
When I had a printer, the majority use was for school assignments, but even
schools are moving towards electronic assignment submission. Anybody that is
banking on every house having a 3D printer in the living room might want to
take a quick retrospective look at Kodak and their recent problems, before they
completely commit themselves.
The office supplies chain, Staples, has already jumped on this bandwagon by
announcing that they will be making in-store 3D printers available in Belgium
and Holland at the beginning of 2013. We are speculating that this service is
being rolled out in Europe first rather than the highly litigious States due to
potential copyright issues. The Staples announcement differs from other 3D
printing services in a number of ways: Firstly, the company has decided to use
Mcor laminated object manufacturing technology based on paper rather than
plastic printing. The company claims that paper prints cost less than a fifth of
the price of their plastic counterparts. Secondly, the company operates over
2,300 stores in twenty-six countries throughout North and South America,
Europe, Asia and Australia. This major high street presence is very different
from other 3D printing services, and means that customers will be able to
collect their products rather than having them shipped over long distances.
Home 3D printing will certainly take place in the longer term, it’s just a
question of exactly when. Even the transition steps will be extremely exciting.
Will your grandma have a 3D printer by the end of 2013? Maybe not, but she
does have another piece of personal fabrication equipment in her living room—
a sewing machine. In this day and age, she might also have a microwave, a
blender and mixer in the kitchen, and so the step up to a 3D printer is not
completely infeasible.
Before every home has a 3D printer, I personally am looking forward to the day
when every education facility has one. So far, a large chunk of existing 3D
printer sales have been to schools, colleges and universities. Never mind
individual homes having one of these machines, if each high school had a 3D
printing and CNC requirement added to the Home Economics course, then that
would certainly spell trouble for factories world-wide. CNC machining is pretty
damn cool and far more mature—but 3D printing has even more to offer when
we consider its ability to create pre-assembled products, materials with
complex internal structures that make them stronger and lighter than milled
pieces. If we were to put the tools to design and make just about anything (e.g.
3D printers, TechShops, Maker Sheds, FabLabs) at the fingertips of every child,
not only would the economy change, but the entire world would be a
significantly different place. Enabling and empowering a generation of
“makers” will serve to spur the creative juices of an entire new crop of product
designers who know exactly how to, and what to, create. Imagine how different
society would be if manufacturing were to become cool again, instead of being
downplayed in favor of 'services' and 'financial engineering'. Putting 3D
capture, modeling and manufacturing technologies into the hands of students
will unleash the next generation of entrepreneurs and demonstrate, in a very
tangible way, that education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and
Math) subjects is not only interesting, but incredibly fun as well. Letting
students “feel” their digital models, through haptic-touch enabled devices, then
printing physical representations of those creations, will unlock imaginations
and unleash incredible creativity.
So, unlike many other pundits, I do not for the time being, predict a 3D printer
in every home. I do foresee a rapid proliferation of 3D scanners, perhaps a
simple app, or maybe a small stepper motor device so that any camera or
phone for that matter can create accurate .stl files. With suitable algorithms,
not only will it digitally model the item, it will optimize its volume so that parts
print with the highest efficiency, creating only the least possible waste. Why
print any more than is necessary, when software can efficiently hollow out
unnecessary interiors or ergonomically improve an item to a user's pre-stated
preference? Once armed with an algorithmically optimized digital model, then
the customer simply emails it off to the local print shop.
In the same way that eBay and Amazon made hard-to-find items much more
easily available to people in remote locations, this might be one of the first
trends that we see with 3D printers. Just think how useful this would be on
remote Pacific islands, deployed military forces or eventually, lunar base
It is interesting to note that up until now, companies well outside the
traditional printing arena are manufacturing all the 3D printers on the market.
The 2D desktop printer giants are still holding their cards close to their chest,
watching the game develop. Their previous strategies have already created a
great deal of enmity among consumers. 3D printers, partly because of the
terrible experiences with 2D printers, do not impress everybody. As one
anonymous forum poster vehemently complained, “I thought home printers
were going to revolutionize printing. I was going to print out my own books, but
with 3 decades to get good, all we have still is crappy printers, paper jams,
computer stalling, print jobs frozen and super expensive ink that still has not
gone down in price. I bought a laser printer, but still get paper jams, piece of
The big players may be waiting for what they see as being an opportune
moment to move into the sector, but the current exponential pace of growth
might signify that they have already missed their chance in all three markets:
industry, office and home. Another surprising factor is that the leading
suppliers of 3D printers are currently in Europe and not the USA or Southeast
Asia. China is already losing its manufacturing dominance. As the early tax and
land benefits given to the large multinationals are beginning to expire and
labour costs continue to rise, companies are moving away to significantly
cheaper locations. The country has so far failed to make the jump from low end
to high-end manufacturing and, looking at the terrible state of education it is
unlikely that this will ever happen. For anybody that has ever done business
with Chinese factories, the ability to produce independently in your home
location will be such a relief from all the lies, cheating and corruption that is an
integral part of doing business in the PRC.
In the next phase, biological materials and components will join plastics and
metals, which will broaden the engineering possibilities even further. One
interesting view of the future is already in full operation at the campus of
Virginia Tech. The DreamVendor is essentially a 3D printer vending machine,
and it allows students to fabricate prototypes for their academic, and even
personal, design projects. The faculty thinks of it as a vending machine with an
infinite inventory. Simply insert an SD card that contains 3D printer code and
DreamVendor then prints a 3D part and dispenses it when it is finished. For the
time being, they are not asking people to pay to use the machines, but being
located in an academic building is not the same as being in the mall. While it is
probably great for public relations, I wonder how long it will be before some
young nerd decides to print out a complete set of parts for his new RepRap.
How long will it be before we can turn our thoughts into actual 3D objects? Not
as long as you might think according to Tinkerthing founder Brian Salt. The
visionary team is already working to build tomorrow's intuitive interfaces of the
mind, to literally generate real objects by thought. After working on the
development of the first 3D engine on the ARM 9 chipset, and more recently
collaborating with blue chip medical companies and the British military on
virtual reality visualizations and simulations, Brian has some radical ideas
about the future of 3D modelling. In a recent media interview, he spoke about
interfacing directly to the imagination.
"Our first prototype will utilize the EmotivEPOC, a high resolution neuro signal
acquisition and processing wireless neuroheadset to collect signals from the
brain. Our software will allow the user to evolve 3D models with the power of
thought, which will then be created in ABS plastic using a MakerBot."
Just imagine how incredible it would be to imagine a thing and have it appear,
ready made. The aim at ThinkerThing is to create the software to interface the
latest neuro-technology equipment with the latest in 3D printing machines to
make objects with the power of thought. This might still seem like science
fiction, but, amazingly the technology needed to make this a possibility is
already in existence today, all that is missing is a creative approach to build the
interface between mind and machine. Here is how Salt puts it. “ As any parent
will tell you a child’s imagination is boundless. My own son, Noah, currently
lacks the motor skills to use a pencil well, yet he finds it easy and intuitive to
navigate a touch tablet interface. What if we could create interfaces directly to
the imagination, allowing the creation of real physical objects from thought.”
What indeed?
With the possibilities that lay before us in this new age of technology, we must
always look to the past for lessons and parables. Isaac Newton once used the
phrase; “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." A
humble way of saying that his intellectual leaps were only possible because of
the work of others before him. The giant at the top of the beanstalk, however,
wanted to consume Jack, the curious young fellow. Open source, hacking,
filesharing and the many other democratic uses of technology are the giants
upon whose shoulders we can see the future. Copyright, mass production,
centralized control of knowledge and production are the giant at the top of the
beanstalk that threatens to consume us all.
Part IV
Forums, Blogs and Wiki’s
Further Reading
1. Articles and eBooks
2. Physical Books
TV and Video
Miscellaneous Software
3D Printing Related Fiction
Distributed Networking
Understanding Miniature Scales
3D Printing Personal Wish Lists
Gift List for a 3D Printer
Forums, Blogs and Wiki’s
The RepRap Wiki is an excellent place to start. The RepRap was the very first of
the low-cost 3D printers, and the RepRap Project soon kick-started the opensource 3D printer revolution. It has become the most widely-used 3D printer
among the global members of the Maker Community. Since many parts of
RepRap are made from plastic and RepRap prints those parts, RepRap selfreplicates by making a kit of itself—a kit that anyone can assemble given time
and materials. It makes objects from a cheap plastic made from corn starch, so
is well within school budgets. It also means that—if you have a RepRap—you
can print lots of useful stuff, and you can print another RepRap for a friend...
One interesting function of the site is an interactive map that lists DIY printers
and laser cutters all over the world. It is surprising that there are people
scattered all over the map and yet so far, not one member in China.
Considering that the PRC is touted as the workshop of the world, I wonder if
they are going to be left behind when economic clout has more to do with good
design, than cheap labor, non-existent health and safety and zero pollution
The RepRap Forums (not to be confused with http://www.reprap.pl/ which is the
Polish language specialist site) is an absolute treasure house of information.
There are so many interesting sections including “Look what I made!”, “Let's
design something! (I've got an idea ...)”, “So, I took apart this printer ...”, “Hello,
I need something designed for money, as well as ‘For Sale’ and ‘Wanted’
sections”. There are loads of 'Working Groups' and even a good selection of
foreign language User Groups.
The eMaker Forum was created to encourage the growing community of fabbers
and reprappers to collaborate in making printed parts and designs available to
all. The Mendel-Parts Forum is a similar forum with nearly 3,000 registered
Fab@home is a platform of printers and programs which can produce functional
3D objects and which will change the way we live. It is designed to fit on your
desktop and within your budget. Fab@Home is supported by a global, opensource community of professionals and hobbyists.
There are at least two useful Flickr groups showcasing the work of 3D printers.
Flickr RepRap Group has fifty-four members:
Flickr Art of Printing failure Group has 57 members:
http://www.flickr.com/groups/3d-print-failures /HYPERLINK
Buildlog.net goes way beyond DIY 3D printers and into CNC mills, laser cutters
and assembly bots. This is the site that you might prefer if you have a very
practical engineering bent and prefer action to lots of armchair discussion.
As well as being an interesting blog, Fabbaloo has one of the best resource
pages on the web. This is a very well-organized links page that covers many
important subjects. If you cannot find something in this short ebook then the
Fabbaloo resource page is the next logical place to search. Subjects covered
include, About 3D Printing, Hobby Printers, Commercial 3D Print Services,
Popular Books, Crowdsourcing, Artists, Commercial Software, Free Software,
Web-Based Tools, Printable 3D Models, Scanners, Accessories and Blogs.
Once you become more interested in the subject of printers, their resolutions
and their capabilities, then you might, as I did, find a micron to millimeters
conversion table to be invaluable.
While there are many blogs out there looking at the development of 3D
printing, my current favorite is Scoop.it. This site is curated by Kalani Kirk
Hausman and is a social content creation tool. Users can curate information
about any topic they want. That falls somewhere between a content
management system, a bulletin board system, and a weblog.
3Ders.org provides latest news and developments in the field of 3D printing
technology, and information on 3D printers. In addition, they have a very
comprehensive directory of nearly one hundred printers all with feature
descriptions and price comparisons. A very useful page.
Instructables, launched back in August 2005, specialises in user-created and
uploaded do-it-yourself projects, which other users can comment on and rate
for quality. While the site's scope goes far beyond 3D printing, it is a
fantastically useful resource, focusing on step-by-step collaboration among
members to build a variety of projects. Instructions are accompanied by visual
aids including photos, diagrams, video and animation to help explain complex
terminology and mechanisms in clear and understandable terms. They are
written in such a way that they easily allow other members to replicate, and
share with the rest of the community. Instructables employs a full-time staff,
and has a volunteer group made up mainly of "Pro" members who pay about $2
to $4 a month. One of the highlights of the site are the monthly contests, each
one with a unique category and often featuring very attractive prizes from large
corporate sponsors. In August 2011, Instructables was aquired by Autodesk.
Make Magazine
Make is an American quarterly magazine first issued in January 2005, marketed
at people who enjoy making things and features complex projects that can
often be completed with cheap materials, including household items. Rather
than Home DIY such as bedroom furniture and kitchen remodeling, it focuses
more on projects that involve computers, electronics and robotics. It is also
available as an e-zine and Texterity digital edition on the Web. Cory Doctorow is
a regular columnist for the magazine, and Bruce Sterling was a regular
columnist for the magazine's first eighteen issues. The Primer section is a
frequent feature teaching skills in areas as diverse as welding, electronics and
mould making. The magazine has also launched a number of public annual
events called Maker Faires, the first being held at the San Mateo Fairgrounds in
2006. It included over one hundred exhibiting Makers, hands-on workshops,
demonstrations and DIY competitions, and has since spread to Austin, Detroit,
New York and more recently Cairo and Lagos.
In addition to all the above, I found the Hackaday site, The Slashdot forums and
the Guardian newspaper online sites very useful when researching this book.
3D printing is a very hot topic and any news stories related to the subject are
soon repeated on hundreds of different sites. What made these three sites
different were the rich communities associated with each one, and the wide
variety of opinions and comments that they generated.
Further Reading
Despite the fact that 3D printers have been around for at least thirty years, it is
only in the last couple that the real breakthroughs have transpired, finally
bringing $100,000 machines down to just a few hundred dollars. It is for this
reason that there are not yet many books or documentaries devoted to the
subject. As I have found, it is difficult to compile reliable information, when the
situation is changing so fast. Even so, many things are available that are worth
reading and watching and you will probably find more as your research
1. Articles and eBooks
It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual
Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology by
Michael Weinberg
An excellent discussion of the swathe of problems that is likely to face the
development of 3D printers. A must read for anybody keen on becoming
professionally involved in the field.
“Rise of the Replicators”
This interesting article, from 2010, focuses on the home-brew side of the
market and introduces many of the important industry terms and personalities.
Again, important background reading for those just getting started.
“The Printed World”
Three-dimensional printing from digital designs will transform manufacturing
and allow more people to start making things. This is a very useful introductory
piece, with an equally useful explanatory article of how the processes actually
“The Future of 3D Printing” by Janice Karin.”
This piece is from the aptly named site Thefutureofthings.com. More great
background as well as some equally useful 'Interviews with Three 3-D Printing
“The Technology Liberation Front”
Despite being more than a year old now, and being a little bit out of date in
terms of the fast moving technology, this article is still worth a read for its
discussion of what the future holds in terms of future capabilities, regulations
and coming controversies.
Additive Manufacturing, 3D Printing, and the Coming Stock Market
Boom by Dr. Alexander Elder
Dr. Elder's book is a short but easy-to-read volume that focuses on long-term
financial investment in this fast growing sector. The author has created a true
eBook complete with embedded video links so that readers can actually see
how 3D printers work. There are two long but uncomplicated sections on the
basics of the technology and the machines themselves, and then the remainder
discusses possible stock market plays. This could be a very useful book once
you are making a good income with your 3D printer and you want to reinvest
your profits.
Addictive Manufacturing, 3D Printing, and the Coming Stock Market Boom
“3D Printing, IKEA and the Lessons to Be Learned From the Music
A very interesting piece by an author that is obviously well ahead of his peers
in this field, and therefore well worth a read, especially if you are interested in
the legal quagmire that lies just ahead of the 3D printing industry.
2. Physical Books
Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop—from Personal
Computers to Personal Fabrication by Neil Gershenfeld
Gershenfeld manages MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms and predicts that
computers will soon upgrade from PCs to PFs, or personal fabricators. Instead of
shopping for existing products, a programmable PF will make it possible for
users to design and create their own objects. Gershenfeld discovered the
interest in such cybercrafting back in 1998, when he offered a course entitled
How to Make (Almost) Anything course, and was inundated with applicants, all
of whom were interested in "fulfilling individual desires rather than merely
meeting mass-market needs." After discussing some of those students' unique
creations, Gershenfeld offers a history of how things are designed and made,
from the Renaissance to industrialized automation, and then goes on to provide
an overview of the technology and its social implications this science involves.
The book contains over 150 explanatory illustrations. Gershenfeld's
extrapolation of these futuristic wonders is a visionary tour of technology, tools
and pioneering PFers, even though it is now a good ten years out of date. In
addition, it often seemed unfocused, with Gershenfeld rambling from one point
to another without a logical transition. If you enjoy the topic, the book will
certainly be interesting.
Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing is a new paperback from Hod
Lipson and Melba Kurman that is being released by Wiley at the beginning of
2013. The authors are well established experts on 3D printing. Lipson
coordinates a lab at Cornell University, which has pioneered research into the
subject, while Kurman is a technology analyst with a proven track record in
game–changing technologies. Their book is based on detailed research and
dozens of interviews with experts from a broad range of industries, Fabricated
promises to be an informative, engaging and fast–paced introduction to 3D
printing now and in the future.
Disruptive Technologies is currently being written by Anarkik3D CEO and
founder Ann Marie Shillito. It will be published by A. & C. Black in early 2013.
Make magazine published its first 3D printer buyer's guide at the very tail end
of 2013. This is very brave move on behalf of the editorial staff, considering
how many new models of 3D printer are being announced every month.
Undoubtedly a good start, but a book that that will need updating even more
often than this one. At the time of writing, the book had not yet been launched,
but there was a very appealing desciption on the Amazon pre-order page:
The 3D printing revolution is well upon us, with new machines appearing at
an amazing rate. With the abundance of information and options out there,
how are makers to choose the 3D printer that's right for them? MAKE is
here to help, with our Make: Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing. We brought 16
of the top printers to our headquarters and hosted a weekend-long printer
shootout staffed by the editors of MAKE and a number of luminaries in the
field. We documented out-of-box experiences and subjected the printers to
a number of print and torture tests. This issue presents our findings for you
in a clear, concise manner.
TV and Video
In terms of video, I am still looking for a documentary dedicated solely to the
technology of 3D printers. The devices are often featured on science news
shows, but rarely feature in any great detail. An exception is the excellent TED
Talk series that is freely downloadable from the web.
Here are a few to start with:
Klaus Stadlmann: The world’s smallest 3D printer
What could you do with the world’s smallest 3D printer? Klaus Stadlmann
demos his tiny, affordable printer that could someday make customized hearing
aids—or sculptures smaller than a human hair. (Filmed at TEDxVienna.) Klaus
Stadlmann was pursuing his PhD at Vienna's Technical University when a
broken laser system gave him some unexpected free time to think. Instead of
working on his thesis, he decided to build the world's smallest 3D printer.
Lisa Harouni: A primer on 3D printing
TEDSalon London Spring 2011
2012 may be the year of 3D printing, when this three-decade-old technology
finally becomes accessible and even commonplace. Lisa Harouni gives a useful
introduction to this fascinating way of making things—including intricate
objects once impossible to create. Lisa Harouni is the co-founder of Digital
Forming, working in "additive manufacturing"—or 3D printing.
Dale Dougherty: We are Makers
America was built by makers—curious, enthusiastic amateur inventors whose
tinkering habit sparked entire new industries. At TED@MotorCity, Make
magazine publisher Dale Dougherty says we are all makers at heart, and shows
cool new tools to tinker with, like Arduinos, affordable 3D printers, even DIY
satellites. A technology and publishing enthusiast, Dale Dougherty founded
Make magazine and created the world's largest DIY festival, Maker Faire.
Paola Antonelli previews "Design and the Elastic Mind"
MOMA design curator Paola Antonelli previews the ground-breaking show
"Design and the Elastic Mind"—full of products and designs that reflect the way
we think now. Antonelli is on a mission to introduce—and explain—design to
the world. With her shows at New York's Museum of Modern Art, she celebrates
design's presence in every part of life. "The idea of being able to build things
bottom up, atom by atom, has made [scientists] all into tinkerers. And all of a
sudden scientists are seeking designers, just like designers are seeking
Lee Cronin: Making Matter Come Alive
Before life existed on Earth, there was just matter, inorganic dead "stuff." How
improbable is it that life arose? And—could it use a different type of chemistry?
Using an elegant definition of life (anything that can evolve), chemist Lee
Cronin is exploring this question by attempting to create a fully inorganic cell
using a "Lego kit" of inorganic molecules—no carbon—that can assemble,
replicate and compete.
With his research group, Lee Cronin is investigating the emergence of complex
self-organizing chemical systems—call it inorganic biology.
Currently, the only DVD that I know of relating to the subject of 3D printing is
the following:
Rapid Prototyping Solutions (with 3D CAD/ ProE, the Zcore, the Stratasys Fused
Deposition Modeling (FDM), the 3D Systems StereoLithography, (SLA), and the
Helisys Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) methods with in-depth practical
Edited by Professor Paul G. Ranky, PhD, NJIT
Filmed and edited by the staff of the world famous research group which hosts
the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Additive Manufacturing in
Nottingham, England. This is a fifty-three minute documentary that was
released way back in 2005 and yet still costs an enormous $79.99. At the time
of writing, I am still trying to obtain a review copy, as I am very interested in
giving this DVD a full review, based on the excellent reputation of Nottingham
University and its proximity to highly relevant manufacturers such as Games
If you plan to go use your printer to enter the custom toy market then a few TV
shows might be useful in terms of background research;
The Toys That Made Christmas
In December 2011, Robert Webb took a light-hearted look back at playthings of
the past, offering fortysomethings the chance to reminisce about the days
before PlayStations, laptops and iPods. It was a more innocent time when FuzzyFelt and Spirograph brought out the artist in everyone, girls spent hours with
Barbie and boys were engrossed in trying to bolt together their impossibly
fiddly Meccano models—to name just four of the toys mentioned
100 Greatest Toys
If you can put up with the smarmy insincerity of Jonathan Ross, then 100
Greatest Toys is a 2.5 hour countdown of a nation's favourite toys and games.
From Action Man to Yahtzee, and from Barbie to Trivial Pursuit, inventors and
toy-makers tell the inside stories of their creations and success. To fully explain
the impact of these toys and games, the children of yesteryear—today's
celebrities, authors, actors and journalists—reveal exactly what it was that
made them love a particular toy.
James May's Toy Stories
This show provides interesting background material for those unfamiliar with
vintage brands. In the first six episodes, he attempts to prove that traditional,
old-fashioned toys are still relevant by pushing them to the limit in spectacular,
supersize challenges.
1. James takes model airplanes to a new level when he tries to make a full-size
Spitfire out of Airfix. The venture soon hits problems when it becomes clear
the giant 36’ pieces may not be strong enough, and nobody knows how
they will fit together.
2. James tries to make a garden entirely out of Plasticine and then enters it at
the Chelsea Flower Show. He persuades thousands of members of the
British public to help make the thousands of Plasticine flowers he needs,
but will it be enough to persuade the guardians of the world's most
prestigious horticultural event to let him make a garden with no real flowers
in it?
3. James joins forces with Edwina Currie to build a full-size bridge from
nothing but Meccano. Top engineers pitch incredible designs, but the
project soon careens out of control when the Meccano does not arrive and
James realises the structure will take longer to build than he imagined. A
last-minute accident also means that James's bridge may never see the
light of day.
4. James May continues his quest to show what is possible with old-fashioned
toys by using them on a scale never seen before. James attempts to build
the biggest Scalextric track in the world, nearly three miles long, on the site
of Britain's oldest grand prix track at Brooklands in Surrey. The track will
have to go through people's gardens, over ponds and rivers and even
negotiate a business park. Who will win the race of the century, the plucky
locals or the team of Scalextric experts?
5. With thousands of people and over three million Lego bricks, James
attempts to do what no one has ever managed—to build a two-storey house
out of this colourful toy.
6. James attempts to build the longest ever model railway track—a whopping
ten miles long. He builds it in Devon, linking two towns, Barnstaple and
Bideford, which last had a train service over forty years ago. Thousands of
people turn out to help, but nature and the odds look to be against the
plucky little engine in what is certainly James's most ambitious idea yet.
The Toy Hunter
In the US, a new show featuring Jordan Hembrough, a toy dealer and collector
with more than twenty-five years of experience in the business, provides an
interesting introduction to the subject. The renowned toy fanatic takes toy
picking to a new level as he visits collections from some of the most popular
cities on the East and West Coasts. Toy Hunter premiered on the Travel Channel
in August, 2012, and has been renewed for a second season with six new
episodes added to the freshman season. The show was produced by Sharp
Entertainment, and the episodes are very much in the vein of Pickers or
Oddities, but entertaining and educational all the same.
Miscellaneous Software
For the last ten years, I have found the Extreme Picture Finder (EPF) software to
be one of my most useful research tools, especially when seeking out new
product niches. First produced by Extreme Internet Software back in 2001, the
company focuses on creating image processing and multimedia content
distribution software for everyday use. The founder is a graduate of Kharkiv
State Polytechnic University of Radio Electronics and always provides first class
support and updates for his products. Over the years, I have built up a personal
library of over a hundred thousand images in more than a thousand different
categories. I much prefer this method of collection to services such as Google or
Bing images, as I can just set my searches running and then view them off line.
EPF has a much broader range of search than either of the bigger online
engines and always provides me with inspiration that I would never have
otherwise expected.
3D Printing Related Fiction
It would seem that this field is moving so fast that we are becoming reliant on
science fiction writers to see what is just around the corner.
Long before now, this technology was the idea of science fiction writer Zenna
Henderson, in her short story "The Anything Box"—be careful what you wish
for! Modern Science fiction writers have been quick to pick up the baton.
Cory Doctorow thinks the copyright war in the last twenty years of internet
policy turns out only to have been a skirmish, and in the coming century the
war will be against the general purpose computer.
His 2007 short story collection Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present,
published by Thunder’s Mouth, a division of Avalon Books includes the 3D
printers and MakerBot themed story “Printcrime“. His novel "Makers" offers us
an imagined world of printed objects and an emergent culture of 3D makers
who directly challenge many of the core assumptions of industrial society.
Doctorow is a regular contributor to Boing Boing where he often comes up with
interesting pieces such as “3D printer jargon in action.” He also wonders, "Will
3D plans for bongs become illegal, too?" Thingiverse recently had its first
modular bong design uploaded, raising the question: if it is illegal in some
jurisdictions to own or sell a bong, will it become illegal to own or sell the 3D
design for printing a bong on your desktop 3D fab?
Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age revolves in large part over efforts to
overcome the restrictions on nanotech-powered “matter compilers,” intended to
prevent users from compiling weapons or harmful substances. While the novel
is critically acclaimed, it is let down by the setting. Much of it was supposed to
take place in Shanghai, where I was living at the time, and while he wrote
competently about 3D printers, the background was nothing like the Shanghai
that I knew or could imagine.
One of the very first treatments of self-replicating machines was written way
back in 1955 by Philip K. Dick and titled "Autofac". Set a number of years after
the apocalypse, only a network of hardened robot "autofacs" remain in
operation to supply goods to the human survivors. Once humanity has
recovered enough to want to begin reconstruction, the autofacs are targeted for
shutdown since they monopolize the planet's resources. Unfortunately, the
ability to control the autofacs was lost in the war. This leaves the future of
humanity, and the planet, in uncertainty as the autofacs consume every
resource they can attain to produce what they perceive as needed. The story
involves the human survivors as they try to steal the supplies they need and
search for a way to take the power of production back into their own hands.
While many authors have done a lot of interesting writing in this area, I am
most impressed by the work of Bruce Sterling as an insight into what the future
might hold. In his novella Kiosk, (Ascendencies: The Best of Bruce Sterling), the
main character, Borislav, is a humble, limping man from a cold, Eastern
European country who owns a street kiosk selling 3D printed tchotchkes. A
young girl called Jovanica is a regular customer—returning day after day with
her pocket-money to buy 3D printed barrettes, hair clips and scrunchies—she is
the trend setter of the area. She picks out the coolest hair toys and leads the
next hair toy craze - with Borislav's kiosk being the only supplier.
The fabrikator was ugly, noisy, a fire hazard, and it smelled. Borislav got it
for the kids in the neighbourhood. One snowy morning, in his work gloves,
long coat, and fur hat, he loudly power-sawed through the wall of his kiosk.
He duct-taped and stapled the fabrikator into place. The neighborhood kids
caught on instantly. His new venture was a big hit. The fabrikator made
little plastic toys from 3-D computer models. After a week, the fab’s dirtcheap toys literally turned into dirt. The fabbed toys just crumbled away,
into a waxy, non-toxic substance that the smaller kids tended to chew.
Borislav had naturally figured that the brief lifetime of these toys might
discourage the kids from buying them. This just wasn’t so. This wasn’t a
bug: this was a feature. Every day after school, an eager gang of kids
clustered around Borislav’s green kiosk. They slapped down their tinny
pocket change with mittened hands. Then they exulted, quarreled, and
sometimes even punched each other over the shining fab-cards. The happy
kid would stick the fab-card (adorned with some glossily fraudulent pic of
the toy) into the fabrikator’s slot. After a hot, deeply exciting moment of
hissing, spraying, and stinking, the fab would burp up a freshly minted
dinosaur, baby doll, or toy fireman.
The 'Kiosk' story has already been the inspiration for real world developments.
With its Kiosk project, Antwerp-based design studio Unfold explores a future
scenario in which digital fabricators are so ubiquitous that we see them appear
on street corners, just like fast food is sold on the streets of New York City. The
rapid prototyping kiosk enables customers to “get a custom made fix for your
broken shoe, materialize an illegal download of Starck’s Juicy Salif orange
squeezer that you modified for better performance, or quickly print a present
for your sister’s birthday”.
Perhaps the most inspiring piece of Streling's work that I have ever come across
was this excerpt from a speech that he gave at the Computer Game Developers
Conference, back in March 1991, in San Jose, California, entitled: "The
Wonderful Power of Storytelling." More than twenty years on, it seems as
relevant to 3D printing entrepreneurs now as it did to computer programmers
back then.
Follow your weird, ladies and gentlemen. Forget trying to pass for normal.
Follow your geekdom. Embrace your nerditude. In the immortal words of
Lafcadio Hearn, a geek of incredible obscurity whose work is still in print after a
hundred years, "woo the muse of the odd." A good science fiction story is not a
"good story" with a polite whiff of rocket fuel in it. A good science fiction story is
something that knows it is science fiction and plunges through that and comes
roaring out of the other side. Computer entertainment should not be more like
movies, it shouldn't be more like books, it should be more like computer
I don't think you can last by meeting the contemporary public taste, the taste
from the last quarterly report. I don't think you can last by following
demographics and carefully meeting expectations. I don't know many works of
art that last that are condescending. I don't know many works of art that last
that are deliberately stupid. You may be a geek, you may have geek written all
over you; you should aim to be one geek they'll never forget. Don't aim to be
civilized. Don't hope that straight people will keep you on as some kind of pet.
To hell with them; they put you here. You should fully realize what society has
made of you and take a terrible revenge. Get weird. Get way weird. Get
dangerously weird. Get sophisticatedly, thoroughly weird and don't do it
halfway, put every ounce of horsepower you have behind it. Have the artistic
*courage* to recognize your own significance in culture!
Okay. Those of you into SF may recognize the classic rhetoric of cyberpunk
here. Alienated punks, picking up computers, menacing society.... That's the
clichéd press story, but they miss the best half. Punk into cyber is interesting,
but cyber into punk is way dread. I'm into technical people who attack pop
culture. I'm into techies gone dingo, techies gone rogue—not street punks
picking up any glittery junk that happens to be within their reach—but
disciplined people, intelligent people, people with some technical skills and
some rational thought, who can break out of the arid prison that this society
sets for its engineers. People who are, and I quote, "dismayed by nearly every
aspect of the world situation and aware on some nightmare level that the
solutions to our problems will not come from the breed of dimwitted ad-men
that we know as politicians." Thanks, Brenda!
That still smells like hope to me....
You don't get there by acculturating. Don't become a well-rounded person.
Well-rounded people are smooth and dull. Become a thoroughly spiky person.
Grow spikes from every angle. Stick in their throats like a puffer fish. If you
want to woo the muse of the odd, don't read Shakespeare. Read Webster's
revenge plays. Don't read Homer and Aristotle. Read Herodotus where he's off
talking about Egyptian women having public sex with goats. If you want to read
about myth don't read Joseph Campbell, read about convulsive religion, read
about voodoo and the Millerites and the Munster Anabaptists. There are
hundreds of years of extremities; there are vast legacies of mutants. There have
always been geeks. There will always be geeks. Become the apotheosis of geek.
Learn who your spiritual ancestors were. You didn't come here from nowhere.
There are reasons why you're here. Learn those reasons. Learn about the stuff
that was buried because it was too experimental or embarrassing or
inexplicable or uncomfortable or dangerous."
Distributed Networking
One important result of 3D printers is going to be the greater importance of
distributed networks, and this subject is well worth reading up on. I would
recommend that you start with Wikinomics.
Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don
Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams
This book explores how some companies in the early twenty-first century have
used mass collaboration (also called peer production) and open-source
technology, such as wikis, to be successful. Chapter 6 is especially relevant
even though it does not go into the kind of detail for which most of us are
Global Plant Floor recognizes that manufacturing has become more open
and able to support mass customized products. This is essential for new
products to get to market effectively.
Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of
Business by Jeff Howe
In his prescient 2006 article in Wired, Jeff Howe coined the term
"crowdsourcing" to describe how the Internet has enabled large,
distributed teams of amateurs to do work that was previously the domain
of isolated experts or corporations. Linux and Wikipedia are only two of
hundreds of examples of this phenomenon. Howe's article in Wired focused
on two innovative companies who had successfully harnessed the power of
crowdsourcing: iStockphoto, a community-driven source for stock
photography, and InnoCentive, where corporations offer cash prizes for
solving their thorniest research and development problems. Two years
later, Howe has expanded his article into a 300-page book.
Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis
and Steven Kotler
We will soon be able to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man,
woman and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp. This
bold, contrarian view, backed up by exhaustive research, introduces our
near-term future, where exponentially growing technologies and three
other powerful forces are conspiring to better the lives of billions. Since
the dawn of humanity, a privileged few have lived in stark contrast to the
hard scrabble majority. Conventional wisdom says this gap cannot be
closed. But it is closing—fast. Diamandis will address how progress in
artificial intelligence, robotics, infinite computing, ubiquitous broadband
networks, digital manufacturing, nanomaterials, synthetic biology, and
many other exponentially growing technologies will enable us to make
greater gains in the next two decades than we have in the previous two
hundred years. We will soon have the ability to meet and exceed the basic
needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet. Abundance for all is
within our grasp. Diamandis explores how four emerging forces—
exponential technologies, the DIY innovator, the Technophilanthropist, and
the Rising Billion—are conspiring to solve our biggest problems.
The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing by Lisa Gansky
In this painstakingly researched, fun to read book, Gansky has outlined a trend
that has been around but often overlooked. The internet has turbocharged our
ability to share. It has created a platform for business models based on
community use of expensive objects and services. We are now coming into an
era where easy access to shared and personalized goods and services is going
to be an integral and ubiquitous part of the new economy. In an increasingly
crowded, economically uncertain, and environmentally damaged world, people
are becoming increasingly wary about the financial and personal burden of
buying and owning stuff. Aided by social media, wireless networks and data
crunched from every available source, people are moving towards sharing
goods and services at the point of need. I especially liked VC David Hornik's
comments, “Gansky's book is an important read for anyone who cares about the
planet or is looking to make a ton of money."
Of course, no discussion of the subject of the future economics should be
considered without at least some input from Kevin Kelly, the original founder of
Wired magazine
Any of his books are well worth reading, but this article is particularly relevant
to the future of 3D printing.
An alternative starting point might be his 1994 book, Out of Control. This work
was way before its time, and word has it that it is one of those unusual books
that sells better each year. Described as a 'sprawling odyssey' that provokes
and rewards readers across a wide range of disciplines. Former publisher and
editor of Whole Earth Review, then executive editor of Wired, Kelly's works are
an essential starting point for anybody that wishes to understand and exploit
the trends of the future.
Kim Eric Drexler is an American engineer best known for popularizing the
potential of molecular nanotechnology (MNT), from the 1970s and 1980s. His
1991 doctoral thesis at Massachusetts Institute of Technology was revised and
published as the book Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery Manufacturing and
Computation, which received the Association of American Publishers award for
Best Computer Science Book of 1992. He was the first person to come up with
the term "clanking replicator" to distinguish macroscale replicating systems
from the microscopic nanorobots or "assemblers" that nanotechnology might
one day become make possible. He also coined the term grey goo.
No discussion of replicators and 3D printers would be complete without
discussing the possibility of a von Neumann space probe. This concept was
named for the Hungarian American mathematician and physicist John von
Neumann, who rigorously studied the concept of self-replicating machines that
he called "Universal Assemblers" and which are now often referred to as "von
Neumann machines". If a self-replicating probe finds evidence of primitive life
(or a primitive, low-level culture), it might be programmed to lie dormant,
silently observe, attempt to make contact (this variant is known as a Bracewell
probe), or even interfere with or guide the evolution of life in some way. While
von Neumann never applied his work to the idea of spacecraft, theoreticians
since then have done so. This has obviously provided very fertile ground for
science fiction writers who have expanded this idea into many different areas.
Understanding Miniature Scales
Understanding the various scales of miniatures can be a little bit confusing at
first, as there seem to be so many. Even so, if you are considering printable
miniatures, it is essential that you appreciate the difference between each of
the scales, and their importance to collectors.
Scale model is often a catch all phrase for an item that depicts reality in smaller
or larger scale. People who prefer a particular scale will refer to collecting 1/18
scale diecasts, rather than scale model cars. Railroad scales are referred to by
name, rather than calling an HO locomotive a Scale model train. The term scale
model is so loosely applied that it now tends to stand for toys, or items built
from boxed sets of pre-cast modeling parts.
With metrication in the United Kingdom, United States manufacturers began to
use the metric system to describe miniatures, as opposed to the previously
popular imperial units, so that their tabletop wargaming models would be
Scales of 20 mm, 25 mm, 28 mm, 30 mm, 32 mm, and 35 mm are the most
common for role-playing and tabletop games. Smaller scales of 2 mm, 6mm 10
mm, 15 mm, and 20 mm are used for mass-combat wargames. Painters and
collectors commonly use larger figures of 54 mm or more. Just to complicate
matters further, the use of scale is not uniform and can deviate by as much as
33 percent. A manufacturer might advertise its figures as 28 mm, but their
products may be over 30 mm tall. A contributing factor is the difference in
methods used to calculate scale. Some manufacturers measure figure height
from the feet to the eyes rather than the top of the head. Therefore, a 6-foot
(1.83 m) figure in 28 mm scale would be 30 mm tall. As a result, 15 mm figures
can be variously interpreted as 1/100 scale or 1/120.
A further complication is differing interpretations of body proportions. Many
metal gaming figures are unrealistically bulky for their height, with an
oversized head, hands, and weapons. Some of these exaggerations began as
concessions to the limitations of primitive mold-making and sculpting
techniques, but they have evolved into stylistic conventions. The large head,
disproportionate models are referred to as ‘heroic’, a term used as a suffix to
the intended scale. In the table below, figure height alone (excluding base
thickness) is the feature from which approximate scale is calculated.
Sometimes scale is given as a ratio, (i.e., 1:300 or 1.300) or a fraction (i.e.,
1/300). The number on the right of the pair indicates how many units (inches or
centimeters) on the original are equivalent to one unit on the replica. For
example, with a 1/300 scale miniature, if the miniature is one inch long, then
the original was three hundred inches in length. One scale inch is equivalent to
approximately 1/200th of an inch, 0.005 inches and 0.127 millimetres. One
scale foot is equivalent to approximately 12/200th of an inch, 0.06 inches and
1.524 millimetres. One scale yard is equivalent to approximately 1/36th of an
inch, 0.18 inches and 4.572 millimetres.
Scale became more important in the 1970s as people sought more accurate
and interchangeable pieces for their collections. Early examples or antiques
may vary widely from a scale size. Many railway model scales have gone out of
production as the hobby changed from carpet railroads to smaller modern
tabletop layouts. As height and fashion changed across history, miniatures
changed as well. An antique doll that seems small today may accurately
represent someone from her period.
Converting Between Scale Types
To theoretically convert ratio scales into height scales - and assuming here that
height scales measure to "eye height" while ratio scales measure to "head
height" - divide 1610 by the scale. For example, 1/285 figures are pretty much
the same scale as [1610 / 285 = 5.65] 6mm figures. The reverse is also true: to
obtain ratio scale, divide 1610 by the height scale. Thus, 25mm figures are
equivalent to 1610 / 25 = 64.4, or 1/64 scale (which is within spitting distance
of 1/72 scale, another common scale). This means that 15mm toy soldiers are
probably about 16.5mm tall overall, which makes them closer to 1/110 scale
than 1/120. N-gauge figures (1/160) are about 11.25mm tall to the top of the
head, which makes them about 10mm scale toy soldiers.
Where does the Magic Number 1610 Come From?
To obtain the magic number, all you need to come up with the "eye height" of
the average person, measured in millimeters. The number we use is 1610 mm
(about 5' 3"). In the simplest case, we take real life - 1/1 ratio scale, eye height
of 1610 mm - and multiply 1 x 1610 = 1610. Therefore, 1610 is the constant.
For a manufacturer who measures height scale to top of the head, rather than
to eye level, Simply the height of the average man in millimeters - 1730 (5' 8").
Doll House Miniature Scales
The Doll House Miniature Scale that is referred to here is mostly is called 1/12
scale. This dollhouse scale is the most popular in the miniature dollhouse world;
when a dollhouse miniature is referred to in general conversation this is the
scale most often and usually assumed to be the scale of the discussion. Half
inch scale (half inch to the foot or 1/24 scale) is fast growing in popularity
throughout the art of dollhouse miniatures. 1/48 is a smaller dollhouse scale
sometimes called 1/4 scale (1/4 of the regular 1/12 scale). Playscale or 1/6 is
the scale used for fashion dolls. A 1/12 scale toy dollhouse for inside a 1/12
scale dollhouse would be 1/12 x 1/12 or 1/144 scale. In addition, there are some
common model scales created by particular toy makers. Lundby, a Swedish
company famous for their range of sturdy play dollhouses used a scale between
1/15 and 1/18 for their items.
Railway modelers not only have to deal with scale, but with gauge, which is the
measurement of the space between tracks. Railway modelers sometimes divide
themselves into Narrow Gauge and Standard Gauge groups. Narrow Gauge in
real railways are typically 3 ft. 6 in. (1067mm) between the rails and are used a
lot for private industrial railways or railways in mountainous areas. Standard
Gauge railways have 4 ft. 8 1/2in. (1435mm) between the rails and are the
most common of the world's commercial railroads. There is an enormous range
of miniature railroad scales in both main gauges. Even within named scale
groups such as HO there may be huge variation in the ratio. HO may vary in
size from 1/72 to 1/90 depending on the manufacturer. Z scale at 1/220 and N
scale at 1/160 are the tiniest model railways. The largest for indoors are G
gauge/scale at 1/22 to 1/25, often used in garden railroads. Outdoors even
larger scales are the ride-on steam trains you see in amusement parks. Some
half scale 1/24 dollhouse builders use G scale railway components in their
dollhouses, as the scales are similar.
More accurate scale miniatures are called finescale, a term that appears mainly
in dollhouse and model railroad miniatures. Finescale miniatures are accurately
detailed to exact scale.
Model ships may be a standard scale for gaming, 1/2400, or sized to be placed
on a mantelpiece, something modelers call FTB or Fit the Box Scale, a scale
whose parts can be packed easily by a company.
Collectibles in Mixed Scales
Some collectables use different scales within the same range. One popular
series of Christmas villages has buildings which are approximately HO scale
(1/87) or S railway scale (1/64) in size with trains in O scale (which varies from
1/43 to 1/48). O is a common size for Christmas and toy trains. The same village
may have cars and other vehicles slightly larger than O scale and people who
are G scale (1/20, to 1/25). Mixed scales make it hard to purchase pieces from
other ranges to match your set unless you know what scale they are.
Proportion Without Scale
While architectural miniatures and miniatures built to be exact scale examples
for furniture or ship building may be accurately scaled down to the thickness of
the paint, the majority of items we call miniatures are not built to any particular
scale. Scale model builders sometimes refer to these as TLAR scale, for That
Looks About Right. Collectible cottages, famous building models, tourist
miniatures, Christmas ornaments, miniature books and many decorative
miniatures fit the TLAR category.
Translating millimeters to inches
One inch = 25.4 millimeters so it is easy to sense how large a humanoid figure
would be in these various scales. In the 25/28mm scale a human would be
about 1 inch tall which equals 6 feet in size. In the 54 mm scale a humanoid
would be a little over two inches tall which equals 6 feet in size.
3D Printing Personal Wish lists
Here is a 3D printer question that I hear repeatedly; “If I have one of these
machines, what can it make that is so useful?” Undoubtedly, this really
depends on the individual, but I can already think of lots of goodies that I would
like to have printed out in the privacy of my own home. I have tried to keep the
rest of this book as realistic as possible, but this is my chance to let my
imagination soar. All of the previous sections have been extremely careful in
my research, ensuring that everything is verified and double-checked. I make
no apologies for the pure fantasy of the material that follows. Perhaps you have
a similar wish list in mind. I have put together two lists here, one of my top ten
stocking fillers, smaller items that should be relatively easy and quick to print,
as well as a big ticket list of projects that make my mouth water just thinking
about them. Let’s take a look at the smaller goodies first.
Stocking Fillers
1. I still have quite a lot of CDs and jewel cases, as I am sure you do too. Can
somebody please come up with some printables to help me upcycle these
items into something more useful than a bicycle reflector or a wind chime?
2. When I was still a boy, I can vividly remember an uncle who had served in
the Royal Navy, and spent a lot of time in Hong Kong and the Far East. Of
all his exotic souvenirs, the one that fascinated me the most was a Chinese
puzzle box, an enigma that would stump me every time I visited his home.
It did not matter how many times he showed me the secret, I had always
forgotten how to open it by my next visit. All these years later, I would now
love to see something similar, utilising the full capabilities of a 3D printer to
create complex, and yet almost invisible mechanisms. In Japan, they are
known as Himitsu Bako or personal secret boxes. They do exist in
contemporary culture, with one example being the puzzle box from the
movie Hellraiser. These are undoubtedly stylish items, constructed as they
are from mahogany and etched brass, but at only three inches in height,
they are of little practical use except as a stash box. What I am looking for
is a box similar to the one featured in the The Gift, the visually stunning
online film that was made for Philips from DDB London, RSA Films and
director Carl Erik Rinsch, and which won the inaugural Grand Prix in the
film craft category at Cannes. Now that is what I call a puzzle box.
3. Another favourite toy from my youth was that classic children's game, the
Bucking Bronco. I saw this again recently and was disappointed by the
roughly formed parts and the monochrome accoutrements. Now that we are
well into the twenty-first century, I would like to see an updated version of
this classic toy. I was thinking a Star Wars version featuring maybe a
Tatooine Bantha or preferably a Tauntaun. This was the Luke Skywalker's
mount on the ice world of Hoth, as featured in The Empire Strikes Back, and
I can just imagine it being loaded up with all kinds of blasters, light sabres
and other Star Wars gizmos. Just please don't anybody tell all those
spoilsport lawyers.
4. When I am not writing, I spend a lot of time out hiking, often exploring
ancient historical routes such as the Tea Horse Road and the Opium Trails.
Unfortunately, I seem to spend an awful lot of the time picking up the
detritus of other less responsible tourists. Please can somebody design and
print me a rugged but light telescopic litter picker. Ideally with a trigger
mechanism akin to an automatic umbrella (or maybe even a light sabre) so
that I can keep it in a holster, instead of having to go rummaging through
my day pack every time I see somebody's discarded cigarette pack or
empty plastic bottle. A durable but dexterous claw, and preferably an auto
retract mechanism, making it easier to bag the offending items. I enjoy
keeping the trails clean, but I am getting older and do not want to put my
back out stooping to pick up some other lazy sod's garbage.
5. Although I do not yet have a pair of Google's new iGlasses, I will be a lot
more keen to invest in the technology if some bright spark out there can
develop a printable digital glove, with which I can virtually manipulate all
the data that is served up to me. Something nice and lightweight please,
ideally custom printed to my own specific measurements. If I need to have
some magnetic finger implants so that I can register force feedback, then
that is a sacrifice that I would be willing to make, but this keyboard
technology that I am using now is well over a hundred years old, and I
desperately want to move into the current millennium.
6. I read recently about some German hackers that made 3D copies of police
handcuff keys. Two students, Will Langford and Matt Keeter, made master
keys, without access to the originals. Some reports claim that they were
master keys that can unlock anything from baggage padlocks to police
shackles. My inner 007 would love to have a nice set of lock picks,
preferably nicely concealed in an ordinary looking credit card, so that they
are not accidentally discovered by customs, causing some rather
embarrassing questions at border control. I could also use a pair of printed
handcuffs, for the next time I visit Shanghai. I have one particular lady
friend in Pudong that has a tendency to turn all 'sa jiao' and pouty, like a
true PRC princess, whenever she does not get her own way. A nice gaga
pink pair, with her name custom printed on the back in svarowski crystals,
would be great for those intimate occasions when I have to reprimand her
bad behaviour with a light spanking, just to remind her who is boss.
7. Back in 1981, Jerdon Industries of Richardson, Texas produced an awesome
looking "Model 357 Magnum, The Authentic Western Gun Hair Dryer." It was
incredibly cool, with a finish that resembled intricately inlaid silver and
even came with a white leather holster. It had three heat settings, Style,
Dry, and Quick Dry, and it is such a desirable piece that those still in
existence now fetch $300 or $400 a piece on eBay. Although I have looked
at having some reproductions made in China, I would not trust most of
those jokers not to scrimp on the internals, leaving me with a product that
gives a deadly jolt rather than a simple blow dry. In addition, both Europe
and the US have ridiculously complex safety codes for the manufacture of
such items. Therefore, can someone just design me a case that I can print
off at home, which I can then use to upgrade my cheap twenty dollar dryer
into a piece of classic Americana?
8. Despite boasting an extensive collection of historically significant baseballs
and basketballs, even super-lawyer, Harvey Specter displays them on
simple plastic dimple stands that can be picked up at just a fiver for twenty.
Given the capabilities of 3D printers, I would like to see some intricate
stands, like those that the Imperial Chinese used to display their finest
porcelain. Ming dynasty scholars would display their very best pieces on
equally ornate stands, carved from rare and exotic hardwoods with names
like purple sandalwood, yellow rose wood and even phoenix tail wood.
While these tropical timbers are now on the verge on extinction, I would
like to see the tradition of beautiful display stands return, perhaps even
utilising what some people refer to as gaian or sacred geometry.
9. While I do not have an iPhone, I might very well consider buying one if I
could print out an iPhone Theater add on. Conceived by Mike Enayah, a
designer based in Miami, the iPhone Theater was designed with the iPhone
5 specs in mind and basically scales the iPhone screen to the same size as a
movie theater screen. It is perfect for train rides and flights. It resembles a
retro virtual reality device, but it actually offers a mini movie watching
experience, with a pair of headphones and an attachment that holds the
user's iPhone in order to provide a more visually immersive experience. It
lifts up when not in use and is adjustable to allow for optimal vision
distance. Perhaps the limitations of smart phones would make a pair of
straight video glasses a better option. In terms of specifications, I would like
a 92" virtual screen between ten and twelve feet away. (The Sony HMZ-T1
features two 0.7inch 1280 x 720 resolution (HD) OLED panels to project a
750 “ theatre screen from a distance of twenty meters away.) Dual screens
to support 3D movies, in 1080 HD resolution if possible, and the option to
read documents, and play music in the background. Ten or twenty GB of
local storage to cope with the latest blue ray rips, and a good three or four
hours of battery time as a minimum.
10. I have always enjoyed activities that involved speed and movement
through self-propulsion. I always loved bicycles for example, and have
recently found great enjoyment in grass skiing. As a youngster I spent
many happy hours on roller skates, lining up trolleys in the local
supermarket car park, to practice my jumping skills. This was long before
the introduction of in-line skates, and ever since then I have been waiting
for someone to reinvent the roller skate wheel. With the arrival of 3D
printers and their ability to print very complex structures, I am looking
forward to someone building an Omni directional pair of skates using the
Mecanum wheel. Sometimes called the Ilon wheel after its Swedish
inventor, Bengt Ilon, this is a wheel that can move in any direction. The US
Navy bought the patent from Ilon in the eighties and put researchers to
work on it in Panama City. In 1997 Airtrax Inc. paid the US Navy $2,500 for
rights to the technology, to build an Omni-directional forklift truck that
could manoeuvre in tight spaces such as the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Omni wheels are similar to Mecanum wheels and have revolutionised the
very nature of the wheel. They are often used in small robots, giving them
the ability to move in all directions.
Big Ticket Items
1. My first priority is power generation, to off-set the consumption of my
printer. I have seen domestic wind turbines, but I am looking for a design
that is more suited to a small home, where aesthetics plays a role in
addition to functionality. I was hoping for some custom designed airfoils,
perhaps some horizontal carousels that can collect updraft as well as
breeze. Alternatively, I would like to try some kind of electricity producing
kite, perhaps using torque to power 3D printed gears. Dogs were used
extensively to power machinery in the medieval period, and I would like to
see this practice resurface, especially in pounds and kennels where the
canine guests can have a good exercise as well as providing the
establishment’s electrical energy. While I would probably have the
oversized hamster wheel fabricated in metal, can somebody please design a
gearing system that I can use with it to power a generator?
2. I recently discovered the work of Jean Pain and his discoveries concerning
bioenergy and pyrolitics (wikipedia.org link) His set ups were relatively
bulky, and so I am looking ardently for a 3D printed device that can capture
similar amounts of energy and transfer it to my needs. Preferably,
something like a wormery but with an adaptation that produces energy
rather than just liquid fertilizer.
3. Orreries are some of the most beautiful artifacts to come out of the
Renaissance period, and yet many people still have no knowledge of them
whatsoever. Their intricate gearings could be easily printed out in one
sweep and the bodies themselves printed with accurate topographical
features. Most orreries have been two dimensional in representation, but I
see no reason why a printer could not design a version that moves in all the
spherical planes. I would definitely print one of those. I was not entirely
surprised to see that one imaginative artist has already had similar
thoughts. A contributor known as 'IMVU-Whystler', has already printed a
terrestrial orrery complete with proportionate Mercury, Venus, Earth, the
Moon and the Sun on an Objet machine. It will be interesting to see what
the open source community can come up with on their Repraps and
Rostocks. http://imvu-whystler.deviantart.com/art/3d-Printed-TerrestrialOrrery-135923200
4. I watched a short video segment of the EADS guys and their printed bicycle
with great interest. It was a piece of the British show Inside Out West in
2011 and is available here on youtube. The result was more like an early
hobbyhorse with wheels, rather than the streamlined racers that we already
have today. Of course, I am looking forward to the day when high quality
bikes can be printed, but I am also itching to print out one of those human
powered flight cycles. There is already a MakerPlane project to make it
cheap and easy to build an airplane. Being able to print airplane parts will
still cost a pretty penny, but it will be a heck of a lot cheaper than buying
them individually. The printed plane will be a single-engine sport aircraft
that can seat two, that only takes twenty hours of instruction and a few
tests until you are licensed to fly alone. The folks behind the MakerPlane
expect to have a working prototype up sometime in 2014. I know that some
guys would prefer a James Bond type gyrocopter (and I am sure that those
too will quickly drop in price following more advanced drone technology),
but I would prefer to print out the an updated version of the Japanese
Coolthrust or the University of Maryland’s latest Gamera human powered
helicopter. Once one of the two existing Kremer prizes
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_powered_flight) has been awarded
then hopefully we will start to see some really practical designs. The
Sunseeker Duo is billed as the world's first two-passenger solar aircraft but
is actually a motor glider. Launched in the fall of 2012 as a Kickstarter
project, the team responsible did not seem to understand the motivations
of their potential backers or even their future customers. Only ninety-six
Backers pledged $15,198 out of a $70,000 goal, partly because the rewards
were unattractive, but also because the design was lacking so many
innovations. For example, backers pledging $50 or more were to receive an
A4 size Sunseeker Duo print signed by project coordinator. Whoop-de-doo!
$75 would have got you an embroidered patch. I have commissioned many
custom patches in my time, and can tell you that an 8-inch patch does not
cost 75 cents to actually manufacture, let alone 75 dollars. While $100 got
you a T-shirt, $250 gained you exclusive access to the Sunseeker-Blog and
$500 entitled you to a DVD about the Sunseeker's history. The $1,000
pledge reward was so ridiculous that I have to quote it here. “Big pledges
deserve big rewards. As a Gold Supporter, you will receive a desktop model
of the Sunseeker Duo with base.” Maybe their next project should be a book
about how to fail dismally on Kickstarter. Anyway, while the concept was
interesting, it was missing way too many features. It needed an inflatable
float landing gear to takeoff/land on water, as well as headlights for night
landing, so that users can fly all day, then land at sunset, hopping from lake
to lake. A rig at the back of the passenger pod to connect a propanepowered generator would also have been a good back up idea.
5. How long do I have to wait to print my own Segway? I refuse to pay $5,000
or more for one of these things and there do not seem to be many Chinese
copies zipping about that I can find. I want to print all the bits, except
maybe the engine, plus I want to be able to print spares and accessories.
Surely 3D printers will have finally come of age when we are all printing our
own Segways.
6. I know that vacuum forming is more efficient, but I would really like to print
some imperial storm-trooper outfits for my friends and myself. At $1,000 a
time for the current examples available on eBay, I would like to find a way
to be able to print these amazing suits of armour at a discount price. If I
could make an 80 percent saving, it would be well worth having George
Lucas and his SWAT trained litigation team on my tail.
7. When is somebody going to design and print a gravity engine? I really do
not mind if it uses telescopic ball slides, counter weights or even magnetic
spheres as long as it works effectively. That means over-unity at the very
least, which is going to challenge the current laws of perpetual motion, but
3D printers are meant to be genuinely revolutionary anyway. Forget Picard
and his hot cups of Earl Grey, this is a wish list, and so I want at least to be
changing the basic laws of physics.
8. OpenROV is an open-source robotic submarine for exploration and
education that could drastically change the future of ocean exploration.
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/openrov/openrov-the-open-sourceunderwater-robot The brainchild of Eric Stackpole, who wanted an easy way
to explore a cave that was rumored to contain sunken treasure near his
home, amateur and professional engineers and scientists from over fifty
countries have now contributed to this design. Structurally, OpenROV is
designed to go to one hundred meter depth and the interface is hosted as a
webserver that allows you to control its movements with your computer's
keyboard and see its feed on your screen, just like playing a video game.
The only downside of this project is that a fully assembled OpenROV
currently costs $1,200.
9. Underwater gliders differ slightly from conventional autonomous
underwater vehicles (AUVs), in that they utilise an innovative buoyancybased propulsion system that can extend ocean sampling missions from
hours to weeks or months, and to thousands of kilometers of range. They
use small changes in buoyancy in conjunction with wings to convert
vertical motion to horizontal, following an up-and-down, sawtooth-like
profile through the water, and thereby propelling themselves forward with
very low power consumption. The most recent models are capable of
harnessing energy from the thermal gradient between deep ocean water (24 °C) and surface water (near atmospheric temperature) to achieve globecircling range, constrained only by battery power on board for
communications, sensors, and navigational computers. On December 4,
2009, one of these gliders, RU-27, became the first to complete a
transatlantic journey, traveling from New Jersey to the coast of Spain in 221
days. In August 2010, a Deep Glider variant of the Seaglider achieved a
repeated 6,000-meter operating depth. At present a wide variety of glider
designs are in use by Navy and ocean research organizations and typically
cost $100,000. I would like to see the same exponential progress that has
been achieved with aerial drones applied to underwater gliders, specifically
in an open source project that brings down size and cost within the reach
range of hobbyists and amateur environmentalists. The ArduPilot Open
Source software/hardware, with its built in sensor stabilization, GPS
navigation, programmable 3D waypoints, in-flight reset, and programmable
actions, would seem to be ideal for this purpose. It would need to have a
user-friendly interface that could bring environmental data to the public for
"crowd-sourced" dissemination and use social media platforms to serve as
publicly accessible online "cloud" repositories of time-series datasets. On
board sensors could perform a range of useful tasks from monitoring water
quality conditions and alerting authorities when conditions are ideal for
harmful algal blooms to occur, to acting as a submersible metal detector on
the lookout for sunken Spanish galleons. It could do anything from pollution
monitoring to species identification in Antarctica. “The potential for marine
biotechnology is almost infinite,” says Curtis Suttle, professor of earth,
ocean and atmospheric sciences at the University of British Columbia. “It
has become clear that most of the biological and genetic diversity on Earth
is—by far—tied up in marine ecosystems, and in particular in their microbial
components. By weight, more than 95% of all living organisms found in the
oceans are microbial. This is an incredible resource.” I personally would like
to see a function that can also identify Japanese whaling ships and send
location details to groups such as the Sea Shepherds.
10. My own personal submarine. A natural progression would be the DeepFlight
Super Falcon, a winged submersible designed by Graham Hawkes that
allows travel to the deepest parts of the ocean. Hawkes is a former civilian
ocean engineer designing submersible vehicles for both the oil industry and
those in the scientific research sectors. You have probably seen his work in
the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, or James Cameron's Aliens of the
Deep. It is capable of a maximum cruise speed of 6 knots (11 km/h; ) with a
payload of 230 kg (510 lb), or two persons. Of course, what use is a
personal submarine if you have nowhere to store it? While I was not able to
attend the The Seasteading Conference 2012, held at San Francisco’s Le
Méridien, I am fascinated by the entire concept. Seasteads are permanent,
stationary structures specifically designed for long-term ocean living, and
when it comes to jumbo size printing projects, I am definitely looking
forward to having my own sovereign community out in the open ocean. I
realise that a full-sized seastead is well beyond the capability of the current
generation of 3D printers, but surely they would be ideal for experimenting
with scaled down prototypes. Back in 2009, forty-one designs were
submitted to compete for a $1,000 seasteading prize along with four
additional $250 prizes for specific categories. To be honest, I found most of
the designs a little disappointing, perhaps due to the lack of publicity and
relatively low prize funds. The majority seemed to be post modern Tokyoesque nightmares where we will all be hamsters living in archival housing.
Still a lot can change in just a few years and I am sure that if the
competition is repeated in the next few years, we would see a much higher
standard of entries. Perhaps the Chinese government would like to sponsor
the contest, so that they can begin populating some of the thousands of
remote uninhabited rocks to which they are suddenly laying claim.
Gift List for a 3D Printer
Even if my own wish list does not pan out in the foreseeable future, maybe I
should take another tack. Instead of putting these machines into the hands of
lunatics that only want to print out firearms, I would like to see 3D printers
being put to work by some of the more creative individuals with whom we
currently share the planet. I am sure that you have your own contenders for
whom these folks are, but this is my book, so here is my list. Of course, I would
love to hear your own nominations for those imaginative individuals out there
that might put these new machines to best use. Anyway, until I have the means
to buy ten printers and start handing them out gratis, this is going to remain
strictly a thought experiment, but I still encourage you to join in.
1. Tomas Saraceno is a visionary artist who aspires to bridge the gap between
art and science. Knowledgeable in the principles of physics, chemistry and
architecture, he has made use of high technology to design cities in the air.
He had already experimented with the possibilities of passive solar energy,
and built and flown the largest geodesic balloon ever built. Saraceno’s
vision proposes a network of habitable structures that float in the air. Will
the social intercourse of humans, we may ask, improve with altitude? A true
follower in the footsteps of Buckminster Fuller.
James Acheson is a British costume designer. Acheson worked on Doctor
Who in the 1970s, and has also worked on the Spider-Man films and
designed the titular costume for Daredevil. He has won three Academy
Awards for Best Costume Design: The Last Emperor, Dangerous Liaisons and
John Mollo is a specialist in European and American military uniforms and
author of several books on the subject. This led him to costume design, first
being an advisor for the movie Charge of the Light Brigade in 1966 and
later a costume designer, his first film being Star Wars in 1977. It was Mollo
that was responsible for the iconic designs of the Imperial Stormtroopers
and Darth Vader, as well as creating the wonderfully atmospheric eeriness
that made Alien one of the best science fiction movies in history.
Bill Mollison is widely known as the father of modern permaculture. He is an
incredibly knowledgeable naturalist, whose writings will inevitably become
bibles when we finally decide to do something about the resolving the rapid
deterioration of our planet. He is also a noted curmudgeon, and would
probably provide compelling arguments that would counter almost
everything that I have written in this book. With a perspective that is often
well away from mainstream thinking I am sure that Mr Mollison could find
uses for a 3D printer that nobody else would even dream of.
Trevor Baylis OBE is an English inventor, best known for inventing the
wind-up radio. Rather than using batteries or external electrical source, the
radio is powered by the user winding a crank for several seconds. This
stores energy in a spring, which drives an electrical generator to operate
the radio receiver. He invented it in response to the need to communicate
information about AIDS to the people of Africa. He has been openly critical
of TV shows such as Dragon's Den and The Apprentice, complaining that
they "mock, bully and demean" inventors and other creative individuals.
Syd Mead, is a "visual futurist" and concept artist, best known for his
designs for science-fiction films such as Blade Runner, Aliens and Tron. The
following sentence is one of his most memorable quotes, "I've called
science fiction reality ahead of schedule. His books, including Oblagon,
Sentinel and Kronlog have quickly become collector’s items.
James Ng (pronounced Ing) is currently the world's leading oriental
steampunk artist, most famous for his Imperial Steamworks series and is
regular favorite at science fiction and fantasy conventions all over the
Jem Stansfield is an inventor and television presenter, most famous for his
appearances on shows such as Scrapheap Challenge, Planet Mechanics and
Wallace and Grommet's World of Invention. He has also worked on special
effects for the movies Lost in Space, The Avengers and Van Helsing. Among
his inventions are a compressed-air powered motorcycle, and boots that
walk on water (for which he won a New Scientist prize).
9. Alan Moore is an English writer primarily known for his work in graphic
novels (a term he coined and help popularise), including Watchmen and V
for Vendetta. Frequently described as the best graphic novel writer in
history, Moore is just my kind of contrarian, as well as being an occultist, a
ceremonial magician, a vegetarian and an anarchist. A good overview of his
thoughts and philosophies can be gained from looking at his wikiquote
page, (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Alan_Moore) and is just the kind of
person that would push 3D printers into the realm of something that the
rest of us could never have possibly imagined.
10. Dean Cameron is an ecologist living in Queensland, Australia and is the
inventor of a number of award-winning innovations including the Joinlox, a
mechanical fastening system and the Biolytix Filter, a sewage treatment
system that mimics the intricate conditions of nature. I was lucky to spend
a week or so with Dean and his family in a refurbished temple at the height
of Yunnan's mushroom picking season back in 2011. He has a computerfilled invention den, partly open to the elements, in which he does his
serious work, and I would love to see what amazing prototypes he could
come up with if he had a 3D printer among his tools.
About The Author
Christopher follows the favourable climate throughout Asia, from the all year
round sunshine of the Himalayan Plateau, to the snowbird beaches of Southern
Thailand. He is currently exploring the spectacular Opium Trails of North West
Guangxi for a forthcoming hiking guide.
Other books by Christopher D. Winnan
88 Easy Ways to Improve Your English - Longman (Chinese only)
Frommers' China - Frommers' Complete Guides
China: Yunnan Province - Bradt Travel Guides
Intercontinental's Best of China - Intercontinental
Forthcoming in 2013
Secrets of an eBay Nomad
China – Texas Hold 'em's Wild Frontier
An International Buyer's Guide to the Wholesale Markets of Guangzhou
Lijiang Twilight - A Tibetan Vampire Tragedy
Opium Trails - A Victoriental Steampunk Travelogue
A Rough Guide to the Torrentsphere
101 of the Best Reasons to Live in Yunnan
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