The Three Laws of 3D Printing

Years ago Isaac Asimov developed the “Three Laws of Robotics” to govern the behavior of robots. Do we need something similar for 3D printing?

The Eight Fundamental 3D Printing Prep Functions

3D printing a model is often not as simple as just hitting the “print” button. There are several operations you may need to do to your model before hitting that button.

3D Printing Hurts!

Everyone knows that personal 3D printing can be a ton of fun, but did you know it can also be hazardous to your personal appendages? We certainly do.

Hands On With Authentise’s Streaming Prints

Authentise now has public implementations of their 3D print streaming service. We tried it out. 

ABS Plastic On The Way Out?

We’re beginning to notice a significant trend. When looking at new emerging personal 3D printers we are seeing fewer that offer ABS plastic as an option as a 3D printing material. 
 
ABS was among the very first materials used by historic personal 3D printers,  as it was commonly available due to its heavy use in large-scale manufacturing. It made sense at the time. 
 
However over time problems persisted. The main issue is, of course, thermal warping. ABS has the peculiar characteristic of shrinking around 8% in each dimension as it cools from melt temperature. This results in not only scale issues (“Hey, why doesn't fit together?”) but also failed prints (“My object keeps popping off the print bed!”)
 
The solution is to heat the print operation and cool it down gently all at once when the printing is completed. But most manufacturers cannot do that because the heated chamber method is patented by Stratasys. 
 
So what do 3D printer makers do? They offer alternative plastics, like PLA, which don’t warp nearly as much and can often be successfully 3D printed in room temperature air. PLA smells much nicer when printing, too. 
 
But there’s another insidious problem with ABS: fumes. If you’ve ever 3D printed in ABS you’ll know what we mean. ABS fumes are supposedly not toxic, but they are definitely unpleasant, particularly in a closed room such as most personal 3D printers are being installed within these days. 
 
We’ve found personal 3D printer manufacturers shying away from ABS for the warp problem, but now we’ve seen at least one vendor who’s officially dropping support of ABS plastic due to fumes. While this manufacturer has included an air filter in their device, it just doesn’t do the job. 
 
We suspect manufacturers may be positioning against future lawsuits from consumers claiming damages from “toxic” ABS fumes. If you don’t support ABS, you won’t get sued. 
  

The Lightforge 3D Printer

Lightforge is developing a personal resin-based 3D printer, a device that apparently doesn’t have an official name yet. We checked out the machine, which was actually a “version 1 prototype”, built after some fifteen months of development. 
 
A spokesperson indicated they’re currently working on a version 2 prototype that may be part of a Kickstarter campaign expected in a couple of months. 
 
The machine uses DLP UV light to solidify photo-curable resin, much like several other resin-based devices do. Because the DLP tech enables curing of an entire layer at once, the unnamed Lightforge machine could be faster to print than laser-based devices in which the laser must ponderously trace each solid area of every layer. This means you could print a cube the size of the entire (large) build chamber in about 6.5 hours. 
 
The machine features a unique peeling mechanism. The company has obtained a “Patent Pending” on this new design. 
 
Other features include the ability to store models in the printer for offline production. Future versions of the machine will include network connectivity. They’re also making arrangements with NetFabb to produce customized slicing software. 
 
While they’re producing their own resins, it sounds like they will also permit “open resins” to be used in the device. However, Lightforge is developing multiple resins, including polyurethane and polyester types. 
 
The price of the unnamed Lightforge machine is unknown, but we’re expecting to see a price somewhere between USD$2-3,000, probably at the USD$2,500 mark. But you should pay attention to their Kickstarter campaign when it launches, as they may offer early bird special discounts. 
 

A Swashbuckling Update from Pirate 3D

Arr! The folks from Pirate 3D say they’re now in active production of their low-cost 3D printer, the Buccaneer. We’re not certain when it will ship, but it sounds like it will be very soon.
 
According to a spokesperson, the number of orders have been “substantial”. This may grow even larger as we understand the company is set to release additional features on the printer in coming weeks. 
 
The Buccaneer includes a beautiful exterior case that looks far more expensive than the inexpensive USD$497 price of the Buccaneer. 
 
We’re also fascinated by the revolutionarily simple method of holding plastic filament spools - they’re just dropped on the top of the machine.
 

Cubify’s 3D New Content

Up to now Cubify’s 3D model content has been somewhat simplistic. Toys, simple personalized items and the like have been the staple of online 3D content within 3D Systems’s Cubify operation. But now they’re taking a different and far more serious direction. 
 
If you hit the Cubify site now, (dubbed “2.0” by 3D Systems), you’ll see much deeper content, specifically in the fashion and decor genres. To create all this content 3D Systems has hired a group of designers who are dedicated to producing outstanding 3D content. We spoke to one of them, Annie Shaw, pictured above. 
 
The fashions at this point are primarily accessories, such as the “pointy epaulets” worn by Shaw in this image. The designs are all capable of being produced on the new Cube entry-level 3D printer and can be made in a wide variety of colors. We understand they’re even working on dress designs that could show up in Cubify’s repositories this year. 
 
One angle we found very interesting was that the content is not exclusively directed to consumers. In the image at the top we see a 3D printed spiky heel. We understand that 3D Systems wants to offer 3D printed “components” to traditional designers who may incorporate them into their own product designs. In this case, the heel is 3D printed, but the upper can be whatever the shoe designer imagines. 
 
Content for consumers; Content for industry. We like it.
 
Via Cubify

Klone World

At CES we encountered Klone World in the 3D Systems’ booth. Klone World is a service that provides the increasingly popular ability to implant your 3D face on a figurine. Klone World offers a number of different figurine scenarios and poses, different than those offered by 3D Systems’ 3DMe service. 
 
Amazingly, the service works by uploading a single 2D image of your face. There’s no need for profiles or multiple shots. Somehow the software interprets the shadowing in the image into contours of the 3D printed face. 
 
Pricing is inexpensive for these items, ranging from as low as USD$4.99 up to USD$30. 
 
One terrific usage scenario for Klone World figurines is as personalized game pieces. Imagine that it’s actually YOU that’s moving around the game board. 
 

MakerBot’s Colorful Plastics

MakerBot is making a big deal out of their plastic selection, and they should. It’s a far cry from their initial selection of plain old colors years ago. Today you’ll find it includes a really terrific set of colors that they’ve grouped into: true colors, translucents and specialties. They offer ABS, PLA, dissolvable and flexible plastics. 
 
We got a close look at the selection at last week’s CES where MakerBot had literally printed out a bunny in every single material they offer. It’s then you can appreciate the huge spectrum offered. In all they now offer 23 colors of PLA, 20 colors of ABS, 20 colors of flexible filament and one color of dissolvable material. That’s an awful lot of bunnies!  
 
We’re particularly interested in the translucent colors, as you can see here in this figurine printed in translucent red PLA. Beauty!
 
3D printed objects often look best when produced in specific colors. MakerBot now makes the selection of colors much easier with their rather comprehensive product shelf. 
 

The Sweet ChefJet 3D Printers

3D Systems announced not one, but two edible food 3D printers last week, creating an entirely new genre of commercial 3D printing. 
 
The two models are the ChefJet and the ChefJet Pro. As you might imagine, the “Pro” version has more functions than it’s lesser sibling. 
  
The base ChefJet is a monochrome 3D printer that uses sugar as its material (image at top). The ChefJet includes the ability to mix one single color/flavor when printing, meaning you can punch out sugar objects flavored (and colored) with (so far) chocolate, vanilla, mint, sour apple, cherry and watermelon. These are simply regular food coloring and food flavorings that are injected into the object structure as printing proceeds. You’ll be able to 3D print sugar objects up to 203 x 203 x 152mm, although we strongly suggest smaller objects as the sugar structures are not particularly robust - and they have to fit into your mouth, anyway. The ChefJet is expected to be released in 2H2014 and will cost under USD$5,000. 
 
The Pro ChefJet is different, although its standard 3D Systems style makes it almost visually indistinguishable. It is a multi-color 3D sugar printer, with full RGB color and multiple flavors available. The Pro is larger than the base ChefJet, having a huge print volume of 254 x 355 x 203mm. We suspect the Pro includes CMYK-like food coloring cartridges to produce the colors, plus additional cartridges to inject flavors. Apparently 3D Systems will offer chocolate, vanilla, mint, sour apple, cherry and watermelon “recipes”. The Pro will also be available in 2H2014 but will cost under USD$10,000. 
 
Both machines use a powder process, similar to 3D Systems’ other color 3D printers. Powder (sugar) is spread over a bed and infiltrated with binder (water? food coloring). It doesn’t look like much when printing in the above image, but when extracted from the print bed, you’ll be amazed at the results in the image below. 
 
It’s our understanding that 3D Systems will be preparing a series of pre-made 3D models suitable for printing (and eating) with these devices. We also expect 3D modeling software specifically designed for food preparation to emerge later this year. 
 
Will you use such a machine in your home? We think not - although some well-off folks might be able to afford the $5,000 price of the base ChefJet, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find many of those people with 3D modeling skills and sufficient interest to purchase the machine. Nope, these machines are likely destined, at least initially, for professional food kitchens where chefs will prepare unique and stunning cake toppers and candy delights for specific events. 
 
Take a close look at the cakes and candies during next year’s holiday parties. 

 

The Amazing 3DMe Photo Booth

We got a close look at 3D Systems’ new “3DMe Photo Booth” at CES and found a lot more than we bargained for. The system is set up to transfer a 3D representation of a subject’s face onto any of several pre-made fun 3D character models. 
 
We’ve seen the functionality of this before; 3D Systems and others have offered this type of service for over a year. But the 3DMe Photo Booth puts it all in a physical device.
 
It’s definitely a “photo booth”; you climb inside and sit in front of these six digital cameras, which take a simultaneous image of your face from slightly different angles. The software within the booth converts the images into a 3D model of your face - color included. This happens within minutes. 
 
Then the interesting part happens. You get out of the booth and visit the back side where you’ll see a touch-screen control panel. You’ll see your 3D scan among others that have recently been completed. You can then select which figurine you’d like to paste your face on, with some ability to select poses, colors, hair style, etc. Then by entering your contact information, an order for a physical 3D print of the model is completed and the data is sent to 3D Systems’ cloud 3D printers for production. 
 
The 3DMe Photo Booth provides a controlled environment where lighting and image quality are predictable, yielding terrific results every time. Often when submitting one’s own images to such services, results are not always great due to bad photography. 
 
When discussing the market for the machine with 3D Systems’ CEO Avi Reichental, it became apparent that this is not intended for homes or industry. It’s really a device for shopping malls or events. It seemed that it would be offered for lease or purchase in the future. 
 
We imagine the booth being pre-loaded with 3D character models specific to a situation, then setting up the booth at that event. The models match the situation. 
 

The Scoop on ABS and PLA

Most personal 3D printers use PLA or ABS plastic, but how much do you actually know about these materials? Aside from the fact that ABS’s melting temperature is somewhat higher than PLA, and that ABS is somewhat stronger than PLA, most 3D printer owners could be challenged to say more. 
 
Don’t fear: there is a solution. All you need to do is check out UL IDES’s Prospector Materials Database, which provides very detailed information on over 86,000  plastics and 9,000 metals. In their data sheets you’ll find information on melting temperature, thermal shrinkage when molding, weights, flow rates, strengths, water absorption and much more. 
 
Sure, you may be able to successfully 3D print, but what if you want to experiment with different types of filaments? Perhaps you want to print an object for a specific application and need to know if the plastic will be suitable? For these and many more questions, just check out the database. You can get started by looking at the ABS and PLA pages. 
 

A 100% Plastic 3D Printer?

Many designs of self-reproducing 3D printers have been produced and built; that’s the goal of the RepRap project. But are they truly reproducing themselves? 
 
Not exactly; the machines are - so far - only capable of reproducing most of the major  plastic components, such as the image above, which was apparently the very first 3D printer part produced on a RepRap machine. Some plastic components are beyond the temperature envelope of current 3D printers. Metal components have not yet been reliably produced by such machines, and certainly the complex electronics have not yet been produced by replicating 3D printers. 
 
But there is hope. Many researchers continue to work on this challenge and we see machines capable of 3D printing in metal and others experimenting with 3D printed electronic circuits. None of the electronics experiments are anywhere near capable of 3D printing the complex CPU and other chips, however. Once these technologies are developed, it then remains a task to put them all together into a single machine that can, finally, print all necessary parts for reproduction. 
 
But then, of course, you’ll have to assemble all those pieces. Self-assembly is yet another major challenge.
 
Image credit: Wikipedia

Five 3D Printer Buying Decisions

When you’ve decided to buy a 3D printer there are some questions you should ask yourself before proceeding. The current array of buyable 3D printers is the largest in the history of the world, so having some parameters to make a decision is a good thing. 
 
The questions are actually not about 3D printers, per se, but rather about you. Why? Because the choice of machine must fit its owner, and that’s you. 
 
  • Technical: How technical are you? Are you comfortable building electronics and mechanical assemblies? How do you feel if a machine breaks? Do you feel excited about the opportunity to fix it? Or are you struck with fear and asking yourself, “who do I know that could fix this for me?” The answer will help you determine whether to purchase a 3D printer kit or a pre-assembled unit.
  • Time: How much spare time do you have? How much of that spare time are you willing to put toward your 3D printing habit? If you don’t have a lot of time to devote to your machine, then perhaps you should seek machines that are pre-assembled and come with a reputation for reliability. On the other hand, if you don’t have very much time to spare, you might want to reconsider the 3D printing thing entirely.
  • Purpose: What do you intend on making? Is it artwork (PLA suitable)? Mechanical parts (ABS suitable)? How large might your desired objects be? If you can answer these questions, you will know the size and capabilities of your target machine.
  • Environment: Where will you situate your machine? Is it in an area that can be ventilated outdoors easily? If not, then you should not be 3D printing ABS plastic indoors and might require a PLA-only machine. Also, consider how much noise you can withstand. While most current 3D printers are pretty quiet, there are still a few noisy ones available. 
  • Wallet: What’s your budget? USD$500? $1000? $2000? The amount of money you can spend on a machine will quickly narrow your choices, so long as they are compatible with the answers to the previous questions. 
 
If you know the answers to those questions before shopping, you’ll have a much better chance selecting a 3D printer that will succeed. 

 

The Boiling Cauldron of 3D Printing: China

For some time now we’ve been interested in detailing the 3D printing space in China, but it seems that it’s a lot harder to analyze. Every time we take a look there seems to be new 3D printers and new 3D printing companies. 
 
That’s the norm in China these days: huge competition and a massive market. New companies pop up frequently. Sure, there’s a few notable 3D printing companies marketing popular devices in the West such as the FlashForge and Afinia’s products (which are manufactured in China), but there are many, many more companies. 
 
The limited enforcement of intellectual property greases the wheels for these companies, meaning you frequently see duplicated technology. A frequently seen pattern is duplicates of MakerBot’s machines, particularly the Replicator 1, which was published by MakerBot under an open source license. So the Chinese companies have replicated the Replicator. But the non-open source Replicator 2 has also been copied. And so has the Ultimaker. And no doubt others, too. 
 
The competition among Chinese manufacturers is fierce. If a new innovation appears, it’s rapidly copied. 
 
While this may sound unfortunate, it actually may do some good. Due to the intense competition the quality of the machines is rising dramatically, since that’s one of the few characteristics that companies can compete with. We’ve read reports of machines that truly do work “right out of the box” and have reasonable reliability. 
 
The question is, when will these advanced machines be permitted to be sold in the West? 

 

MakerBot’s Digital Content

While Thingiverse has been a wonderful source for 3D models for the initial wave of 3D printing, it’s not exactly consumer-friendly. It has a large number of models (over 218,000, according to a recent statement by MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis), which is good and bad. It’s good because the model you want is somewhere in Thingiverse. It’s bad because the number of models makes it difficult to search. 
 
Once you find a model it is uncertain whether it will successfully print. Model geometries are sometimes just pathological. 
 
To solve this MakerBot has launched a digital store catering to those who don’t want to spend time searching for the perfect model. Just select a model from the relatively large collection of custom made 3D models in MakerBot’s new Digital Store and you’ll be able to print them immediately without issue, as they’ve been specifically designed for easy 3D printing. 
 
MakerBot has hired a special in-house team to create these models, which do not require supports to print, nor any glue to hold multi-part models together: all multi-part models are snap-fits. 
 
At launch some six “collections” of objects are offered for paid download, with prices ranging from USD$0.99 to USD$2.99, depending on the object. You can also purchase an entire set. The sets available today include: 
 
  • Around Town: a collection of quirky figurines in various roles (see red dude above). 
  • Chunky Trucks: mini-construction equipment and personnel, superb for a child’s sandbox
  • Cosmic Cadets: Rocket parts that can be assembled into larger units
  • Dragons of Glastonbury: Knights, Wizards, Damsels, Castles and of course, Dragons
  • Famous Flyers: Notable aircraft from history, ranging from a Montgolfier-like balloon to an F-117 stealth fighter
  • PetPals: Strange pet-like creatures and their habitats
 
We think this is a great idea; the last thing MakerBot (or any in the 3D printing community) needs is someone to purchase a 3D printer and be disappointed that they can’t successfully print things due to poor 3D models. Now that's far less likely to happen. 
 

Battle of the Mini 3D Printers

Some say the pricing of assembled 3D printers from the major manufacturers has risen, and in some cases they have, but usually accompanied with a series of new useful features. To counteract the “price barrier”, as perceived by new members of the 3D printing community, the majors have developed “mini” 3D printers. 
 
The first was 3D Systems’ Cube, first released some two years ago and now in its third generation. Last week MakerBot joined the party by releasing the tiny MakerBot Replicator Mini. 
 
But which one is the right one for you? There are a number of similarities and differences in the two devices: 
 
FeaturesReplicator MiniCube 3
VOLUME 1250cc 3851cc
PLASTICPLA only PLA and ABS
CASEBlack Black or White
LAYERS 0.200mm 0.075mm
MATERIAL Generic PLA Cubify only
PRICE USD$1375 USD$999
WARRANTY Optional 90 days
PLATFORM Windows/Mac/Linux Windows/Mac
EXTRUDERS One Two
 
While there are similarities, the key differences seem to be: 
 
  • The Cube has two extruders, has higher resolution, can print ABS as well as PLA and is substantially less expensive
  • The Mini uses inexpensive filament that over the long term may make it less expensive to own
 
The decision is easy only if you absolutely must have a white machine. 

 

Cubify’s Advanced Material Cartridges

Cubify’s new Cube 3 includes a fascinating new feature: extremely simplified material loading, made possible only through the development of a new way to handle plastic filament. 
 
The new cartridges are quite different from any generic spool you’ve seen before. They’re sealed to prevent dust and dirt from contaminating the filament (which eventually clogs up your extruder). They include a tube running from the spool housing to the attachment point, meaning your filament is enclosed during its entire journey from spool to extruder.  
 
The attachment point is much like an earphone jack. Just insert it into the Cube’s extruder and you’re done. No need for heating up to change them, either; they’re literally plug and play. 
 
But perhaps the most revolutionary feature is that the spool is powered from behind. Most extruders include a mechanism to pull the filament from a spool. The new Cube spool does the opposite: a motor turns the spool itself, pushing the filament into the extruder. This feature should result in far fewer incidents of broken filament. 
 
The cartridge is mounted on the side of the cube in a neatly shaped indentation. 
  
The plastic in the spool is chemically consistent, meaning that the Cube’s software can be pre-calibrated for excellent results. 
 
This all sounds good, but is there a catch? Yes, there is. The Cube can print ONLY from these proprietary cartridges, and they’re expensive when compared to generic filament. You can only use the colors and materials offered by Cubify, so you won’t be printing any wood filament soon, for example. 
 
This is a case of cost/benefit analysis. The new cartridge does offer significant advantages - if you’re willing to pay for it. For many consumers, the security of knowing there will be fewer troubles will be worth the extra cost. 

 

Thoughts on MakerBot’s Curious Replicator Z18

Of all the 3D printers marketed by MakerBot since its founding, we find the Replicator Z18 to be the most curious. While previous models (and even the new Mini and Replicator) seemed to be logical extensions and modifications of prior units, the Z18 is quite different:
 
  • It’s in a completely different price range: whereas previous models were all priced from USD$1000-3000, the Z18 is priced at USD$6499. 
  • It’s huge: the Z18 boasts a massive 42.5L print volume, whereas it’s “predecessor”, the Replicator 2 had only a 6.7L volume. That’s an increase of over six times!
  • It includes a true, heated chamber: The Z18 includes the very first heated chamber from a major manufacturer, a feature previously available only on much more expensive Stratasys commercial equipment.
  
It’s clear that MakerBot is attempting to address an entirely new market with the Z18. It’s price is far beyond affordability by home or hobby users; instead they’re focusing on professionals, such as architects and designers, who can afford - and make good use of - the Z18. 
 
But here’s the curious part: a heated chamber obviously reduces warping while printing large objects, particularly when using ABS plastic. ABS is notorious for severe warping when not in an environmentally controlled environment. But there’s a problem. 
 
The Z18 does not print ABS. It prints PLA plastic. Only. 
 
Why put such a limitation on a machine that could so clearly wonderfully print ABS? We think the answer is competition. If the Z18 were able to print ABS, it would likely kill the market for Stratasys’ low-end commercial 3D printers, the Mojo and the uPrint. These machines not only cost double or more the Z18’s price, but they also require expensive plastic filament spools. It may be that Stratasys corporate asked MakerBot to hold off on the ABS capability. 
 
Nevertheless, we suspect some will attempt to print ABS plastic on the Z18 anyway. 
 
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