First, you’ll need a 3D printer. These are also referred to as “stereolithography rapid prototyping machines”, but for home use we’ll stick with “3D Printer”. There are quite a few to choose from, including ZCorp, PP3DP , 3DSystems and MakerBot. We like the simplicity and cost of the two units from MakerBot. Unlike earlier printers, these are completely assembled and ready-to-use straight out of the box.
Updated – Please also see our review on 3D Printers For Home and Hobby Use
Recently released is the Replicator 2. This is an entry level 3D printer with a single head / nozzle that can generate items up to 11 by 6 inches. Resolution is about 100 microns, which is thickness of sheet of paper. Cost is a reasonable $2,199. Size and weight are comparable to a multi-function fax / printer / scanner – 19.1 x 16.5 x 14.7 in and 25.4 pounds.
If you need to create finer, more precise, objects – the Replicator 2x is coming in early 2013. This adds a second head / nozzle which also increases the cost to $2,799. The trade-off in resolution is a smaller build volume of approximately 9 x 6 inches.
Second, you’ll need some software to bring your concept to reality. The Replicators ship with MakerWare software to get you up and running quickly. You can also download free design libraries from Thingverse . Tools, designs and libraries are also available from TinkerCad and Autodesk (see related article on Autodesk 123D Tool Suite ).
The third step is to load up your printer with its 3D “ink”. For MakerBot, this is a bio-degradable polymer made from polylactic acid, called “PLA Filament”. Much like home photo printing, this is where the major expense comes in. PLA costs about $20 per pound, and is readily available from hobby shops or Amazon. The PLA material provides a better build, with less peeling or curling than earlier machines using standard ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). It’s also much friendlier to the environment, and to your garage as the material is transformed from its raw state to your object.
Finally, push the button and watch it go. This is the most amazing part of the process, as the nozzle builds your creation by printing one slice at a time on the platform. As each paper thin layer is completed, the nozzle moves slightly to put down the next layer.
The software(see related article – Autodesk) is critical in this process as it determines the minimal amount of material that is required to build a structurally sound 3-D object. The simplest, and most expensive in terms of PLA material and print time, is a dense, solid object. However, the software is had been designed to create a honey-comb type interior that provides the necessary structural integrity while minimizing the amount of materials used. The exterior is what is important and the program also determines the optimum thickness for the outer shell.
For just a few dollars in materials, you’ve gone from an idea to a CAD (Computer Aided Design) drawing to an actual device – all in your own home. It’s the ultimate in quick turn prototyping, or making a wildly crazy toy for a child, or replacing a missing game piece, or creating your own video-game action figure or anything else you can image. And you can change, modify and print as often as you like!
If you decide one just isn’t enough, and you would like to share your MakerBot creation, it’s as easy as uploading your design to a mass producer. The cost will still be determined by the labor and materials, since they are essentially 3-D printing the same device over and over again. For true mass production, converting the final design from printing to injection molding is the way to go. There is an up-front cost ($1,000’s to $10,000’s depending on the size and complexity) for the mold, but after that manufacturing cost per unit is very low compared to individual printing.
The options are limited only by what you can imagine, and the size of your 3-D printer. It’s expected this technology will become less expensive as it transitions from hobbyist to general consumer. Much as a printer was only for large offices, and photo printers were only for commercial enterprise, the Replicator like machines should eventually sell for under $100.
If you found this article interesting and informative, please be sure to sign up for our weekly e-newsletter as well as daily email / RSS Feeds at SourceTech411 .