The Big Think

December 8, 2010

Plastic Fantastic

Filed under: Business,Computing,Education,Hobbies,Maker,Technology,Woodworking — jasony @ 10:05 am

I have been enamored of 3d printing for a long time. The ability to print up anything you want (as long as it’s a solid body form and can be made from ABS plastic) is so totally science-fictiony that it makes my little Maker heart skip a beat. I’ve waxed nerdish about this nascent technology on the blog for a while now, but I’ve always felt that it was just out of reach, both financially as well as technologically. The first version, the “Cupcake CNC“, was a little clunky, had a small print platform, and was very much for the tinkerer who didn’t mind early adoption woes.

They’ve solved the first few problems with the new version, the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic.


This 3D printer uses the same ABS-melting print-head design as the CupCake to slowly build up a 3d object using progressive layers of melted plastic. Think of an inkjet print head slowly going back and forth across the same spot of paper. Eventually the ink gets thick enough to start to rise up off the page. 3D printers use the same idea, except instead of tiny ink streams they use a spool of ABS plastic melted into much thicker blobs, like thin toothpaste from a tube. You feed the printer a design and it prints the bottom-most layer, then moves the print platform (that contains the newly printed and cooled layer of ABS) down slightly and prints the next layer up. Over a few minutes it builds up in 3d whatever design you fed it. Neat, huh?

The beauty of this system is that there is an incredible online source of free designs available to anyone with access to a 3d printer. There are literally thousands of things you can download and print. Currently, the machines are only capable of making plastic objects (no electronics or metal- yet), but even when you’re limited to plastic there is an incredible array of objects at your disposal. Here are a few examples:

First, some very simple and silly things:

Christmas ornaments:




Porsch (it’s just a model!):


Cookie Cutter (any design you want):


These examples fall squarely into the “I need something simple with a little bit of customization” camp. Say you want a cookie cutter designed like a giant eyeball (doesn’t everybody?). Take the Thingiverse design, alter it a little bit in the free Blender program, and send it to the 3d printer. Come back in a few minutes and there’s your new cookie cutter, ready to make your gruesome cookies. Sicko.

But above these simple things are some more complex and intriguing objects:

Broom Head mount to fix broken broom:


Motor mount and gear sets for custom applications:


wind turbine blades for science projects:


Water pump (just add cheap electric motor):


Espresso tamper:


Now things are getting interesting. These objects represent a second tier of complexity. A person might be forgiven for scoffing at your expensive 3d printer if all it does is print plastic stars, mini Porsches, anatomical cookie cutters (pervert!), but when you start saying “custom motor mount”, “water pump”, and “espresso tamper” then you’re starting to get into the area where even the uninitiated sits up and takes notice, because each of these things was formerly only available either at a traditional store, or in the case of the custom motor mount, through an expensive and time-consuming custom manufacturer. Remember that all of these designs are completely free to download and use. They only cost the few pennies in raw plastic and maybe a couple of cheap components to get something useful. And soon even the cheap extra components will be printable.

Finally, we get into the truly interesting, high-level printable objects. These represent days or even weeks of patient trial and error design by someone out there in the world. Each design is optimized to print on the 3d printer, solves a real-world problem, and is totally free.

Ball Bearings:


Musical instruments:


Printable gyroscopic copter (add electronics):


Early replacement game tiles (or even a complete game):


(wait a second… Hasbro isn’t going to be too happy about that)

Even (most interestingly) the plans to print up an identical… 3d printer.


These last two items, the game tile and 3d printer offspring, are the most interesting. They represent the legal challenges and technological promise of this new tech. If I can print out a perfect (or even just “workable”) version of something that I would previously go purchase, what happens to the idea of going to Toys-R-Us to get a Scrabble game? What happens to the idea of a “stuff-based” economy? Will patent/I.P. holders get more serious about enforcing their intellectual property? Will the idea of the knockoff become forbidden?

And when a new 3d printer- an entire 3d printer- is as easy to print up and gift to a friend as that cookie-cutter, just what does that mean to society? I don’t know, but it’ll be interesting.

What we’re talking about here is a new technology that will change the world as much as the computer did. As much as the standardized screw did. As much, I believe, as the idea of standardization itself. True, it’s still in the early-innovation, messy-hobbyist phase. But that is exactly where computers were in the late 70’s. A decade later the database spark caught on with businesses, and a few years later computers were starting to infiltrate the home. 3d printers are at that early stage right now: nascent technology that is being frantically improved upon by a subset of tinkerers. The only difference this time is that the previous technology – computers – is being used to bootstrap 3d printers to make them better at a much faster rate. An accelerated, Darwinian, online process of rapid development and experimentation is taking place behind the scenes that will soon spill out into society. Go check out the Thingiverse or search for “Mendel RepRap” if you don’t believe me.

Soon, everyone will have a 3d printer at home. We might not be able to print iPhones and microwave ovens soon, but for a very, very large proportion of what we use in our everyday lives, a few minutes at the 3d printer will replace a trip to Wal-Mart. Give one to a small village in Africa and the world trembles.

All these thought were spinning through my head early this morning while lying in bed (one of the very few benefits of chronic insomnia is lots of undistracted processing time). I’ve wanted a 3d printer since I saw the early MakerBot CupCakes, but it was hard to justify the price for the limited utility of this early-adopter model. Just recently, MakerBot Industries announced the new and improved version- the Thing-O-Matic (nice hat tip to Nick Park there, btw). The Thing-O-Matic has a larger, heated, moveable build platform for multiple unattended builds (the just-printed object is rolled out of the way so a new one can print), a bigger print area, and improvements to the print head and electronics. Overall, it’s a big improvement on the CupCake. But it’s $1250. Ouch.

There was no way that I could responsibly go out and spend that much money on the thing all at once. World-changing or no, it just felt like too big of a step. But then I remembered the ancient and almost forgotten concept of saving for something. Crazy, right? This morning I opened up a sub-account in ING titled “MakerBot”. My plan is to put $50/month aside. Fifty bucks isn’t a distressing amount. It’s what I put in my gas tank every time I fill up, and since I work from home, that only happens once or twice a month. At $50/month, in a mere 2 years I’ll have enough to order my very own Thing-O-Matic. Christmas 2012. Even better- in 2 years they will have either introduced the next version, or made big improvements to the current Thing (all printable on current machines, naturally).

I normally don’t talk finances on the blog, but I figure anyone can see what these things cost anyway, so why not? Plus, I hope that those of you that share my enthusiasm for these kinds of geeky things might want to vicariously experience a 3d printer with me. And if you’ve read this far, you’re one of those.

Finally, how will I use a 3d printer? Well, the main thing that I can see immediately (and there will be many things I don’t anticipate) is in my prop business. I build props for the show that I write, and being able to design a prop, then print out a small version and place it in context on a scale model of an actual stage will be a tremendous help in visualizing what a prop looks like. I think potential customers might like that, don’t you? I even think that little extra service might earn me enough business to pay for the machine. Certain of it, in fact.

Check back periodically as I update my MakerBot savings account balance as well as periodically dip into improvements to the design. I’m really excited about this. I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments (or via email- I can post them as updates if you can’t get the comments section to work for you).

An iPad Christmas

Filed under: Music — jasony @ 8:04 am

Love the vocals on the last song. (h/t Barry)

Desaturated Santa

Filed under: Humor and Fun — jasony @ 12:57 am

Very, very cool.

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