The other week I had the thrill of getting a peek inside Microsoft’s 3D Printing Lab. The visit was set up in the hopes that I’d tell you that Windows 8.1 will allow you to send items to any 3D printer as easily as you do to an ink printer. Clearly it worked.
They set aside a few hours (which is like years in Microsoft Time) to give myself and Louise from Mom Start a primer in 3D printing. Here is what I learned:
Right now there are two kinds of plastic that 3D printers use. ABS is a hard plastic while PLA is made from corn. PLA creates a more pliable final object but, just like compostable silverware, it cannot hold up to the heat of a dishwasher.
They had a few 3D printers set up to show us and, please forgive me here, I need to say that I’m working from my handwritten notes on the points below. I don’t have any personal experience with the machines and I very well might have stronger notes and/or opinions once I’ve used them.
– Makerbot Replicator 2. This can use standard spools of PLA plastic and has a nice large printing volume. It’s also for sale in the Microsoft store and let me just note that both Christmas and my birthday are coming up so if those who are close to me want to pool their money and get me something awesome and this is clearly a big hint right here.
– Cube 3D Printer. This is cute, sleek and comes in a few different colors and was presented as the one that would look nice inside a home office or kitchen (a point which I frankly found uninspiring). This one comes in at a lower price point but uses a proprietary system for their cartridges so you pay more for each ounce of finished object. It was mentioned that this one was easy to use and it’s won some awards so I’m curious to look into it further.
– Printrbot Jr. This one comes from a Kickstarter past, it’s low cost (under 1k) and might require a bit more know-how or basic determination and is perhaps a lower quality than higher priced 3D printers.
They also had a Form Labs Form 1 printer set up. This one prints from resin and instead of depositing melted plastic on a surface to build an object from the ground up it uses UV light from below to cure layers of resin from below so the object appears to grow from the liquid resin. Creepy! We didn’t get to see it in action but we did see a few final objects from it and they were smoother and more detailed than the other 3D printed objects we observed that day.
Above I talk about the cost of the printable plastic as a factor, but I’ll also mention that the people who work in the 3D Printing Labs mentioned that most things are printed hollow and use a minimum amount of plastic. While a kilogram of plastic can average $50 most printed objects they showed us were close to $6 in materials. I was a bit apprehensive of the materials cost until I took a sideways look at how much I’m willing to spend on yarn for cardigan that I have more fun planning and knitting than actually wearing. Looking at unit of cost divided by time spent planning and amount of fun had creating means that the cardigan costs way more. That said clearly the initial cost of a pair of knitting needles vs. a 3D printer is weighing in on the side of the knitters. Let’s just say both are expensive hobbies and it all depends on which one turns on your brain.
Earlier this year one of the keynote speakers at the Altitude Summit was Chris Anderson (former editor of Wired and one of Time’s Top 100 Thinkers) and he quickly brought the 3D printing thing to the gathered attendees by telling a story about being able to use his printers to make to-scale dollhouse furniture for his young daughters which they were then able to paint any way they wanted. As simplistic as that might come across it got me thinking. A family member of mine is an engineer and so I knew about 3D printing as a concept from an early age but that concept was always surrounded by the expectation of the object being an exacting part of a jet engine or a component in a high speed train brake system and at that point in time said printers were so expensive one couldn’t conceive of having inside one’s house. So this whole 3D printing for hobby and utility is still something I astounded by. (For the record I’ve been around long enough to have experienced the then-magical quality of a laserdisc player, though my family wasn’t the type to own a laserdisc. Wisely as it turns out.)
Let’s get back to the present. Right now there are a few online services like Shapeways, 3D Systems and even Staples that will take your file and mail you a final 3D printed object. This is great! But if you need to tweak and perfect things the delay of having something shipped to you vs. waiting 30 minutes for it to print out is clear. Most places also have makerspaces that offer use of 3D printers, here in Seattle we have Metrix Create Space and MakerHaus where you can rent time with the machine. (Further reading: Is it a Hackerspace, Makerspace, TechShop, or FabLab? at Make. You can find a makerspace directory over at Makerspace.com.)
In the future (as patents come to an end and the technology is more widely available) we’ll have an Open 3DP system that will allow us to print in substances like sugar, salt, clay, glass and bone. (Need personalized votive holders for an anniversary party? Bam.) The University of Washington apparently already has one of these in place and I really want to see what they’ve been making from it.
I mentioned above that I was aware of 3D printing as a kid but I think I first was really interested in what 3D printing could do when I saw the DIY sugar printer built by Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories way back in 2007. Because sugar! Marginally edible! Also, the possibility of printed sugar skulls! So of course while I was jumping to ask about printing with chocolate. Turns out there is already an open source mod on Thingiverse that creates a chocolate extruder, and the lab at Microsoft showed me the extra bit and mentioned that they use it when somebody in the office has a birthday. Awesome. Then Emmett, who could have been introduced to us as the guy who thinks up the possible, mentioned the hint of a printable cheese. Ooooh, think what you could make! From cheese!
Next we were shown a few ways in which Microsoft is looking at making easily creating a 3D printable object available to anybody with a Windows machine. I’m not allowed to tell you about them, but I am allowed to tell you that all of them will be easy to grasp, simple to create and awfully cool.
We talked about all the practical things that 3D printers will bring about like needed parts to remote medical outposts and researchers in Antarctica as well as recreations of ancient objects for kids in classrooms to be able to hold and touch. I personally want to see the day when humanity can print a personalized cheese sculpture for somebody who is having a birthday while on the Space Station.
For the record: I was not paid to tell you about this, I just think it’s pretty cool. I did accept the can of sparking water that they offered me while we were on the tour.
So of course I’ve been wandering around my house wondering what I would create with a 3D printer if I had simple access to one. Most of my ideas so far are practical – a little container to hold my favorite coffee scooper, a replacement part for the little leg that holds up my keyboard which broke off, and something perfect for holding an eggshell when you need it propped up to be painted. And definitely a 3D selfie.
What do you think of 3D printing becoming more and more available? Do you have any plans on what you’d print? Any annoying little problems that could be fixed if you just had the right thing?