Top 3D Printing Stories of 2008

During 2008 we published a ton of articles on 3D printing and we've noticed a few major stories and trends that were hidden within the daily posts. Let's try and sort out the big items that came to be during 2008 right here:

  • The rise of sophisticated specialized printing services. Let's face it; there have been 3D print services around for quite a while, but it's only this year that a few breakthrough companies began applying advanced Web 2.0 approaches to the problem. Companies like Ponoko, Shapeways and others are breaking new ground and beginning to gather a large audience that will eventually become the personal manufacturers of the future.
  • The increasing capabilities of large-scale 3D printers. Increased build chambers, more colors, new and unusual print media and multiple media printing were all introduced by the major equipment vendors, Z Corp, Stratasys, 3D Systems and Objet. More, please!
  • We're still waiting for the price breakthrough. The "Apple Laserwriter moment" has not yet arrived, but it's surely coming. Equipment such as MCOR's paper printer and Desktop Factory's sub-USD$5,000 device should be generally available in their initial incarnation in the coming year. Meanwhile, we await an inexpensive device to really blow open the market.
  • The creativity unleashed by personal manufacturing. One can only look at Ponoko's library of designs to see what is beginning to happen; nothing less than Web 2.0 for manufacturing.

Best wishes to everyone in 2009 from Fabbaloo!

Can You Print a Stadium?

Yes you can, although it will be a touch smaller than you'd expect. That's precisely what HOK Sport is doing. They are one of the world's leading architectural firms specializing in major sports facilities. Among their projects is the London 2012 Olympic Stadium. According to a recent Z Corp press release, HOK recently acquired a Z510 3D printer with which they will be printing out small scale models of their venue visions to help "our clients better appreciate the designs we propose, and the models inject a ‘wow’ factor into our presentations".

The speedy new 3D printing technique replaces the traditional model building approach of painstakingly assembling cardboard, bits of wood, etc. with glue. Now HOK can produce models in hours instead of weeks, making their sales cycle just that much more nimble.

This continues a trend in which established businesses are discovering the potential of 3D printing. It's mainly for models, for certain, but in time the market will grow and we'll see many more interesting developments in the next few years.

Via Z Corp and HOK Sport

Where's Your Face?

It was inevitable. Both people and companies are using 3D print tech to wander into all manner of niche services, and today we've found another one. The eponymously named now offers the ability to produce 3D statuettes of your own face!

It appears to be an entirely online process, in which you start by submitting a photo of your face. The photo is mysteriously analyzed and a profile is generated that includes:

  • Your face aged by 10, 20 and 40 years
  • Your face as an African, Indian, Asian or Caucasian
  • Your face as man or woman
  • Your caricature
  • Identify your facial asymmetries
  • Your beautified self and attractiveness rating
  • Compare yourself to others and find you look-alikes

After selecting the "version" of your face to portray, you move on to selecting a manufacturing style, of which there are quite a variety to choose from, including:

  • Box Head
  • Braincase (um, we'll skip this one)
  • Cup head
  • Facemask
  • Framed Face
  • Full Head
  • Pin Head 
  • Wearable facemask (pictured)

You'll have to view the photos of these styles at ThatsMyFace's website; they are quite amazing.

The final stage is to select the material for construction, currently either glass or plastic. Pricing is, uh,  "variable" (USD$29-1999), as the designs are very different and likely involve vastly different quantities of build material and build times. Press the "buy" button and soon after you've got your head flying through the mail in your direction.


40,000 Lights are Better Than One

That's the claim made by Huntsman Advanced Materials, who recently announced the availability of their new Araldite Digitalis. It's a stereolithography machine that produces 3D objects by selectively hardening pixel-sized areas of a resin.

Most stereolithography machines utilize a laser to gradually "draw" each layer of pixels into the media resin. Huntsman Advanced Materials has a very unique approach to the hardening process, which typically is the most time-consuming part of the process. Instead of a single laser tracing the pattern, they use MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems) to produce 40,000 light pixels simultaneously! According to their website, the approach "significantly reduces production times and thereby costs".

We're fascinated by this development, as it is quite a break from most "single pixel" 3D printing techniques. Unfortunately, no statistics were immediately available from Huntsman, so we can't say precisely how much faster this technique might be. However, we can all imagine the possibilities here: solving the biggest issue in 3D printing today, time to print. Currently it takes hours to produce even the smallest items, and often several runs are required to produce all component pieces for later assembly. With the "parallel pixel" approach build times are sure to drop significantly.

Can other printer manufacturers develop similar approaches with their technology? Will this tech eventually make its way into home-based fabbers, and permit quick builds? Time will tell.

Via Huntsman and Develop3D

Easton Predicts A Consumer Manufacturing Future

Tom Easton, Professor of Science at the Thomas College in Maine has just released a PDF of an interesting article he's written for The Futurist magazine.

Easton suggests that the combination of low-cost 3D printing technology and new business approaches triggered by commonly available internet connectivity will result in a new world for consumers. Gone will be the days where you wander through big-box stores seeking the item closest to what you had imagined - and then being disappointed because it isn't exactly what you wanted. Instead, you'll use online tools and services to first design (or more likely modify an existing design) and then print it in your home using advanced 3D printing tech.

We agree with Prof. Easton, as he points out that businesses such as Ponoko begin the inevitable trajectory towards consumer manufacturing freedom. We thought the most interesting bit was his 2024 scenario, in which a dad creates a custom gift for his children - entirely with 3D desktop technologies. He predicts that there will be a big business for 3D media cartridges, similar to today's inkjet business.

Via SffNet

There's Another Stereolithography Vat In Town

While we're on the topic of giant stereolithography printers, we've just been tipped onto a video of another. This one is the iPro 9000 XL, evidently the largest commmercially available SL system. Amazingly, the build chamber is a 59 inch long vat full of liquid manufacturing media.

Somehow we just don't find SL videos as visually interesting as other 3D deposition techniques. That's because all you see during the printing process is the laser dancing over the liquid media vat, while the printed object is developed out of view under the liquid surface. However, there is a dramatic moment when the object rises magically out of the fluid, as if it is being created at that instant.

Via 3D Systems

Shapeways Bends Metal

Not for everyone, however. The metal is bent only for the winner of their "metal 3D printing contest", which closes on the 15th of January. Apparently the alloy metal is quite expensive and is being done only for the contest winner:

The material that is used is also more expensive, because it is a Titanium alloy. The machines and the process itself are much more expensive also. Just how expensive? To give you an indication: we estimate that the contest winners prize(which can be 10 cubic centimeters)will cost us around $1000 to $2000 depending on its size!

As this contest involves a totally new material for Shapeways, they've got numerous new rules that must be taken into account to permit the object to be successfully printed. Yes, metal is indeed different from plastic. In fact, Shapeways says, "It is by far our most challenging contest so far but then again it is not every day you get to win something that no one has ever won before".

Via Shapeways Blog and Shapeways Contest

RepRap Video

This wonderful video by Kyle Ronan shows a home-built RepRap printer in action. RepRap is an open source project that intends on providing the design for an easy-to-build 3D printer that is capable of reproducing all the parts that it's made from. And, it's actually already done this! Still needs some assembly, however.

Back to the video. Who knew these things were so noisy? Now we understand why the commercial printers always come with rather large and complete exterior cases!

Via YouTube

Digital Stone Rises in China

We've seen examples of interesting uses previously, and here's another one. Four sculptors were to build exhibits for the Digital Stone Exhibition in China. The purpose of the exhibition was to demonstrate the links between the 21st century digital world and traditional stone carving techniques.

Western artists first produced some 20 3D models, "Digitally Sculpting". These completed designs were printed on a 3D printer, resulting in highly accurate small-scale models of the intended sculpture. The models were small enough "to fit in your hand".

That's exactly what was required by the next step: the models were handed over to expert Chinese stone sculptors, who used the models (presumably while holding them in their hands) to duplicate the design on a very large scale using actual stone.

Best quote: "It's better to make mistakes in electrons, than in granite," said artist Bruce Beasley.

3D prints may not be big, nor strong. But they can lead to things that are.

Via DeskEng

Z Corporation Leads the Way

You might not be familiar with "Project Lead The Way", but it's a:

not-for-profit organization that promotes pre-engineering courses for middle and high school students. PLTW forms partnerships with public schools, higher education institutions and the private sector to increase the quantity and quality of engineers and engineering technologists graduating from our educational system... Today, the programs are offered in some 3,000 schools in 50 states and the District of Columbia.

This is, of course, a terrific way to enhance the education of students. But it's even better now, since Z Corporation, makers of a very popular series of 3D printers, has joined up with PLTW. They're offering a USD$10,000 grant available to schools that implement the program.

We suspect there is another motive here, that being the schools acquire a Z Corp printer. And that's a good thing, since we strongly believe the presence of such devices in educational institutions will stimulate the minds of students and lead to a better future for everyone.

Via Project Lead the Way

Stratasys Smoothes it Out

One of the shocks encountered by those first seeing a 3D printed object is that they aren't always smooth. We're all used to seeing and feeling totally smooth/polished plastic objects, and when we handle or look closely at a 3D printout we instantly recognize roughness. This often puts the objects in a bad light, as if the manufacturing process were somehow broken. "Obviously this technology isn't ready yet." Sure.

But now Stratasys is taking direct aim at this issue by releasing the "Smoothing Station". It's a separate unit from the actual 3D printer, and is used after the parts are produced.

According to their press release:

The Smoothing Station consists of two interior chambers that together are approximately the size of a small chest freezer. The first chamber treats the thermoplastic part  for 15 to 30 seconds to smooth the outer surface of the part. The part is then moved to the second chamber, which holds the part while it cures from the initial process. After just 30 – 45 minutes, parts can be touched, with parts fully cured in 12 –18 hours or less.

There is virtually no preparation required with the smoothing process. Users simply remove support material and place the cleaned and dried part into the chamber. Parts typically are finished in one to three exposures, depending on the smoothness desired.

We believe this to be a significant development, as it quite literally addresses a concern that is in the hands and eyes of every user of 3D technology. Perhaps eventually this capability will be built into every 3D printer?

Via Stratasys

Giant Prototypes

The typical 3D printer of today has a rather small build chamber, usually 10 cm, give or take. The more expensive devices have somewhat larger build chambers. Parts that don't fit within build chambers must be broken down into smaller pieces that are manually assembled later.

But an anonymous tipster put us on to a service that can produce Giant Prototypes! Materialise is a service we've seen before, but one of the interesting services they provide is large-scale stereolithography (a laser solid-fuses a liquid polymer layer by layer).

Materialise now has close to ten of these giant "Mammoth" machines, each of which has a build chamber of 2.1m x 0.65m x 0.6m (yes, that's meters!) Currently they can print in two resins with differing qualities.

We especially liked the video below, which shows the entire process from design to completed prototype, including 3D modeling, laser fusion, object emergence and extraction (incredibly requiring more than one person to carry it!)

Oh, don't worry about those guys tearing the object apart with sharp knives at the end ... they are merely removing the temporary support material.

Via Materialise and YouTube

Print That Chopper!

Stratasys's service division, RedEye RPM produced a rather eye-catching surprise at the recent Autodesk University conference in Las Vegas. Yes, it was a complete, life-size custom designed motorcycle made entirely from parts produced on a 3D printer. According to their press release:

The prototype chopper included many fully functional parts, including: articulating steering, illuminating headlights, and rotating wheels, demonstrating how the FDM process can give designers the functionality they look for in quality production parts. Built using ABS M30 high–strength, production-grade thermoplastic, the chopper components were tough enough to suspend the bike from two stories above. Furthermore, the chopper's exterior vibrantly displayed the designer's true vision of color for each part.

We suspect no one drove this particular vehicle home, but the point really is that large complex objects can indeed be produce with 3D print technology. If you can print christmas ornaments, why not vehicles?

Via RedEyeOnDemand, more pictures here and here.

A 3D Spime Gateway in Every Home

We noticed an interesting article on the Cisco blog, where author Dennis Mancini postulates the future of Spime technology. Spime? Proposed by author Bruce Sterling, a Spime is "a type of technological device that, through pervasive RFID and GPS tracking, can track its history of use and interact with the world," according to Wikipedia.

While an exploration of Spimes is way beyond the scope of Fabbaloo, the idea is that they are self-locating and recording devices. They record a history of their situation throughout their usable lifetime until they are turned back into recycled atoms and their gathered metadata is harvested for analysis that will improve future generations of spimes. 

So what does this have to do with Fabbing? Mancini suggests that 3D printers are a logical place for Spimes to emerge. He says: "Spimes are the logical output of a logistics infrastructure based on now affordable fabbers."

This is indeed what Sterling suggests, as "Fabrication" is a fundamental step in his "Spime Meme Map", which demonstrates a closed atom/information loop. It's a conceptual way to look at object economics in a future of recycling and personal manufacturing.

We got thinking about this scenario, and wondered if this could be a possible distant future? Dark technovandals distribute secret code via botnet to millions of home 3D printing factories, and on command billions of tiny spimes flow onto the planet's surface, ready to perform evil actions to the highest bidder?

We hope not. For now, we'll stick with printing christmas ornaments and replacement lids. We'll worry about that other stuff another day.

Maybe we'll worry a lot.

(Image courtesy of Bruce Sterling)

Via Cisco Blogs and Bruce Sterling's Understanding the Spime Flickr Set

Guitar Technology Fabbed

GooCart reports on a musical adventure involving his '98 R8 honeyburst guitar and 3D printing. Evidently the pick guard did not fit, so he "scanned the '53 GT guard into my 3d software and modified it for the R8, then I used our 3d printer for this cutting template". The new part (pictured) will be used as a template for a router.

This is a great example of how 3D technology can be used in consumer situations. The only problem is, how many people would know how to do this? What services or software might be necessary to enable everyone to do this?

Via MyLesPaul Forums

Automake Makes

What do they make? Objects you design, or at least "co-design".

It's a very interesting concept, somewhat reminiscent of the approaches used by Shapeways, Ponoko and other consumer-oriented 3D print services.

Here's the issue: printers can produce objects from 3D models, but where do the models come from? It turns out that you need quite a few skills to use complex 3D software to produce useful 3D models from scratch. Skills few consumers have, and even if they do, they probably don't have time to use them.

The emerging solution seems to be to assist the consumer by partially building the model. New services provide software to select a base model and then the consumer customizes it by selecting colors, materials, size and shape variations, etc.

Automake is similar. Their software allows you to either select a "mould" or generate one using mathematical techniques. Then you select combinations of sub-shapes to "fill" the mold. The resulting artifacts are quite interesting.

While Automake appears to be a research project, it's an intriguing idea that could possibly be made into a commercial consumer-oriented 3D print service. Imagine a vast library of moulds and "fills", with the ability to combine all together into a variety of wild objects.

Via Automake

Shapeways Goes Brown!

The consumer-oriented 3D print service Shapeways has improved their shipping capability by teaming up with UPS. UPS is well-known for their ability to efficiently organize shipping operations in an end-to-end fashion, and it looks like Shapeways has taken up their offer. This means they will be able to ship printed objects anywhere in the world within 2-3 days! However, you'll still have to wait for the printing process itself to proceed, meaning "count on it taking up to ten working days to hold your model in your hands".

We think this is a great step; Shapeways should concentrate on the 3D bits, and leave the shipping to brown.

Via Shapeways

Desktop Factory Update

Desktop Factory is a startup company seeking to build a usable 3D printer at a cost of less than USD$5,000. Their device is still under development, but we've seen some tantalizing evidence that they are getting closer to a release date, touted to be in 2009.

They've recently issued a status update, as they usually do in very transparent fashion. Here's the highlights we observed:

  • "the new imaging subsystem performing better than our prior solution"
  • "our team is resilient and committed to placing a few 3D printers very early in the year to conclude our customer acceptance testing"
  • They've developed a standard "diagnostic part", like a 2D printer's test page, that can be used to determine problems with the printers
  • They've been able to print challenging 3D designs that they've been unable to do previously. Pictures here, in the Gallery.
  • Their final focus is "reliability", implying that the features and functions of the device are now stabilized
  • Reliability problems remain with "bulb life and brush cleaning"
  • Customer acceptance testing commences in January 2009!

Via Desktop Factory

The Objet Eden260V

Objet, a manufacturer of 3D printers renowned for their ability to print objects using more than one type of print media, have announced a new device that goes well beyond their previous devices. The Eden260V is a small-footprint 3D printer suitable for office location.

Larger-scale Objet devices used their unique "Polyjet Matrix Technology" to print with more than one material. It's like the jump from a black and white inkjet printer to one with two colors.

The Eden260V doesn't seem to do that, but does offer the ability to print in all of many print materials made available by Objet. This contrasts with many smaller scale devices that simply use a single print medium. Objet's solution offers the ability to print dozens of materials in a variety of colors and physical characteristics. According to their press release:

Among the different Objet materials available for use in the Eden 260V™ are:

  • FullCure 720® Transparent, ideal for a wide range of rigid models, particularly where visibility of liquid flow or internal details is needed;
  • Vero, yielding opaque models in blue, black or white with good impact strength and the enhanced ability to withstand bending;
  • Tango, transparent, black or gray rubber-like materials that offer exceptional elongation, excellent toughness and durability, and high resistance to tearing; and
  • DurusWhite, designed to simulate the appearance, flexibility, strength and toughness of polypropylene.

Via Objet

ShapeShop 3D Modeling Software

A new 3D Modeling tool has emerged: ShapeShop! It claims:

ShapeShop is a new 3D modeling and design tool with a fun, easy-to-learn interface. Sketch-based shape creation and editing tools make it simple to quickly translate your ideas into a 3D shape, and drag-and-drop decal compositing makes texturing simple. Best of all, ShapeShop is free!

Yep, it's totally free for the taking. However, it doesn't do everything for you. You can only create meshes, which then have to be textured or rendered elsewhere (such as ZBrush, etc.)

Also, 3D Print users should be aware that ShapeShop outputs only OBJ format, not STL, so you'll likely have to do some kind of file conversion. One other item, which may or may not affect you: it works only on Windows XP or Vista.

Via ShapeShop