Not only has the personal 3D printer arrived, if you buy one, you can use it to print another 3D printer. We tour Buildatron, the company that wants to make that a reality.
It's only coincidence, but even as simulating 3D stereoscopically has gotten more and more popular in movies, TVs, and home theater projectors, a completely different type of 3D—the kind that deals with real-world, 3D objects—has also become a hot new area for printers. And because it's so new, when I started talking to Buildatron Systems about reviewing one of its 3D printers (stay tuned for that story), I also asked if I could tour its ... ummm ... manufacturing facilities.
That's a decidedly grandiose description for the few-hundred square foot office space where Buildatron puts its printers together. But the space is probably no smaller than the garage that the two Steves—Wozniack and Jobs—started with.
The comparison to Apple's—and, more broadly, the personal computer's—early days is hard to avoid. In fact, the parallels are striking. Like mainframe and mini computers in the mid 1970s, expensive 3D printers are well established today for lots of applications, from architectural modeling to printing dental crowns while you wait. And just as computers at prices individuals could afford were a brand new development in 1975, so too are affordable 3D printers today.
More than that, what you might reasonably call the personal 3D printer industry is at about the same level of development now as personal computers were in roughly 1975 or 1976. Back then, the 8080-based Altair 8800 and the 6502-based Apple I were generating lots of interest and excitement among hobbyists, but they weren't quite ready for the mainstream.
You can make the same statement about 3D printers today, which is why one of the explicit goals of Buildatron's three founders and directors—James Wolff, Dan Liotti, and Zach Hines—is to make the 3D printer (preferably Buildatron's of course), as common a household fixture as the computer. The one important piece that's missing is a software application that will do for 3D printing what VisiCalc did for the Apple II, namely: Make the printers immediately useful to mainstream users. (That's probably not too far away, but it's a subject for a different discussion.)
The current state of the industry shows in our photos if you know what to look for. A long time ago I wrote a piece that was, among other things, trying to get across what a real research lab is like. I sent a photographer to get some pictures of one, but he came back with pristine workbenches from what turned out to be a high school chem lab.
When I asked what happened, he told me that the research lab was so cluttered that he couldn't take photos he was happy with. I told him that the clutter was the point and sent him back to try again. Buildatron's work areas show the same kind of organized chaos that I expect to see in a working research lab.
Not so incidentally, Buildatron is part of the RepRap community. RepRap is shorthand for replicating rapid prototyper. The RepRap project's goal is to encourage the widespread distribution of 3D printers by developing open designs that can actually print most of the parts you need to build another printer. Open design for physical objects is the equivalent of open source for software, with designs available under the free GNU General Public License.
The Buildatron printers are based on the Crusa Mendel RepRap design. Buy one printer and you can print more. Buildatron will be happy to sell you just the parts that the machine can't print, as well as the rolls of plastic filament you need both for the parts it can print and for anything else you're interested in printing.
Buildatron came out with its first printer in September 2011. When I contacted one of the founders and began discussing coming by for a tour, he wanted to wait until the second model, the Buildatron 2, was ready. By December 2011, it was, at $1,599 in kit form or $2,500 prebuilt. When I got the word, I immediately made arrangements to swing by, and showed up with a backup photographer (aka, our analyst Tony Hoffman), as well as my own camera in hand.
Buildatron is housed in the Greenpoint Lofts building in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, which offers a mix of residential areas and light industry. Greenpoint Lofts is basically an incubator operation, with lots of startups in an assortment of industries. The building is filled with recording studios, light manufacturing, film industry related companies, and Buildatron Systems, which takes up one office on the 3rd floor.
Greenpoint is just over and a touch north of the Williamsburg Bridge from Manhattan—or the city, as New Yorker's tend to call it. We showed up on a day that was cloudy and occasionally raining. However, we've been assured that we're facing the city in this view, and if it had been a clear day, we would have had a great looking shot of the lower Manhattan skyline from outside Buildatron's door, three floors above the courtyard shown here.
Easy to miss, because it's just to your left as you come in through the doorway, this impressive looking piece of machinery is a laser cutter. Buildatron says it was used mainly with the Buildatron 1, for cutting the case from acrylic. The new model's case is metal, so there's less for the cutter to do. However, Buildatron still produces a few components on the cutter, so it still gets some use.
On the right as you walk in is this imposing collection of tools plus various odds and ends. Don't let that scare you away from a DIY kit, however. Buildatron collected these tools over time, and the company says that you need only a hex driver, and "a couple of wrenches" to build a printer from the kit.
Just past the tool wall is this table and the area around it, which takes up most of the room. Standing around the table, from left to right, are James Wolff, Dan Liotti, and Zach Hines, Buildatron's three founders and directors. The table itself is the actual work area where printers get built, and you can see one side and the back of a printer sitting at the far end of the table, near the laptop computer. Also note the shelving on the left side, packed with all sorts of essential clutter.
Spools of 1.75 mm plastic filament, like these, are the raw material that the Buildatron 2 prints with. Each spool holds 5 pounds of filament. Buildatron sells it at $25 per pound, with a choice of colors: red, orange, blue, translucent, black, white, or gray.
Most of the pieces inside the Buildatron 2 are in full view from the front. (Also in full view, above and behind the printer, is a carton of Red Bull -- an essential ingredient for any startup.) The red, heated platform is where the object gets printed, and, yes, those are binder clips holding the Pyrex glass in place on the top of the platform. The white plastic piece just above it is called the extruder head assembly and is analogous to a printhead carrier in an inkjet. Both pieces move during printing to work much like a plotter, with the extruder head assembly moving left and right, and the platform moving forward and backward.
This close up of the extruder head assembly shows the extruder motor on the left, which is what pulls the plastic filament from its source and feeds it into the nozzle (the equivalent of a printhead, but not visible here). Once in the nozzle, the plastic is melted and then printed. You can also see the belt behind the head, which moves the head left and right.
Looking up at the extruder head assembly from underneath reveals the nozzle, where the plastic is melted and then laid down on the platform below. (The nozzle as shown here in the prototype will be replaced by a different looking nozzle in shipping machines.) Because there's only one nozzle, the printer is limited to one color of plastic. However, there's nothing to prevent future printers from having more than one nozzle so they can lay down more than one color of plastic at a time.
This view into the back of the printer, with the back off, shows the belt that moves the platform forward and backward. The metal case is where all the printer's electronics live.
In this full view of the open back of the printer, you can see the internal filament spooling system, which can hold about one pound of plastic filament. We've also removed the cover of the metal case on the bottom of the printer. Look carefully, and you can see the printer's electronics, with what amounts to the printer controller board barely visible under all the wires.
Even with the back on, you can see a lot of the printer's innards from the back, thanks to the large vents that let heat escape easily.
To actually print something, you need software to print with. The free netfabb Studio Basic, shown here, is available for downloading from netfabb.com for Linux, Windows, or Mac. The program lets you modify the print job as well print it, much as you can with, say, the preview mode in Excel. However, it's more like a preview mode on steroids, giving you far more control for making modifications. The program also does something called tool-pathing, which is the 3D equivalent of rasterizing the image on a 2D printer. It then compiles the image and creates an STL format file, much like some early PostScript print utilities created PostScript print files and saved them to disk. Unlike those PostScript utilities, however, netfabb Studio Basic sends the file to the printer automatically, so you don't have to do it manually as a separate step.
These three photos show: an early step in the printing process, after the Buildatron 2 has printed the first few layers of the object; a much later step where it's close to finished; and the finished object, which is probably best described as a vase suitable for a dollhouse. The total time from start to finish was about 20 minutes.
This close-up look at the vase gives a better sense of it's size, and clearly shows that the Buildatron 2 can build hollow objects. Look closely, and you can see the individual layers. The line running down the inside of the vase at about the 11 o'clock position indicates the starting point for each layer. Buildatron says you can vary the starting point to avoid the apparent seam.
Finally, note that the printer isn't limited to printing only one object at a time. You can print as many as will fit on the platform. In this image, you can see all the parts in the printer that the printer itself can print, with each square representing one print job, and with multiple pieces in most cases. All of which brings us back to the RepRap promise: Print all these pieces, buy the motors and other metal parts from Buildatron Systems, and you've got another printer.
Copyright © 2010 Ziff Davis Publishing Holdings Inc.