Broad Horizons For The Future Of 3D Printing

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3D printing technology has come a long way, fast. And after two new product launches 3D printing has stepped firmly into the mainstream consumer market, in the process diverging from some of its early roots. In late September Makerbot released its latest printer, the ‘Replicator 2', geared less towards the 3D printing enthusiast and more towards the mainstream consumer. They've even opened a retail store in Manhattan. And that same week Form Labs debuted their ‘Form 1' 3D printer which boasts a minimum print resolution of 25 microns. The sleek machine was on display at this year's Maker Faire.“We were students at the media lab at MIT and we did a lot of work with personal fabrication tools there. And we're all designers and engineers ourselves, but we were very frustrated that really, really truly professional high design tools like 3D printing were too expensive, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for the independent professional designer. So we decided to start a company to make the ‘Form 1' which is the first high-quality, yet affordable and well-designed 3D printer that you can buy,” Form Labs co-founder David Cranor explained at their booth at Maker Faire 2012.On the other side of the Maker Faire at the ‘3D Printer Village' was a collection of some 30 homebrew 3D printers, products of the RepRap Project, a loose-knit community that pioneered much of 3D printing's recent revolution. The project's goal is to develop a 3D printer that can print itself. John Abella has been hosting the ‘3D printer village' for three years now. His Frankenstein printer, originally a Makerbot ‘Cupcake', is typical of the RepRap community. RepRap is open-source, which means any designs produced under the project are free to use. That makes finding replacement parts and upgrading parts especially easy.“Because it's open source, people were able to take the original designs, improve on them, get electronics made and then sell them really cheaply, twenty, thirty dollars. So you can keep these old machines going even though they're not supported and original parts aren't available anymore.”And then there's Jordan Miller who is taking advantage of RepRap's open-source designs to build 3D printers that can be used to create functional vascular structures.Miller's method works by having the 3D printer print vasculature models in a sugar-like material which can then be used as a mold for living cells and eventually dissolved. In proof-of-concept experiments blood pumped through the vasculature was able to deliver nutrients and oxygen. “Instead of starting with a commercial system, like a hundred thousand dollar machine and trying to make it print sugar, we're trying to start with these open-source printers, this amazing community that we have here at Maker Faire and we're trying to have this community help this community develop this kind of technology from the ground up. The open source community and science, they're very compatible. Everything is science is open anyway, so it's been a good merge of communities.”As a potential side business, they're also using the printer to make custom chocolates.With the release of the closed-source ‘Replicator 2' Makerbot, largely a product of the RepRap project, is to some degree, turning its back on RepRap and open-source. After all it's hard to make a profit off of something if the designs are open source. While some may see it as a betrayal Jeff Keegan says he understands why Makerbot did what they did. “I'm interested in having the essence of open-source not be hurt. So I don't want to see someone testing to see if they can close something that's open.”He insists, however, that it won't hamper the RepRap project's goal of developing a self-replicating 3D printer.“Open-source is here already. Other people doing things on the side may cause problems for themselves, but it doesn't really affect me… I got bigger fish to fry, getting my thing to work better, designing new things for this, I'm happy about that.”

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