The 3D print­ing revo­lu­tion

From re­search at Bath Univer­sity, to a com­mu­nity at log­ger­heads over open source, 3D print­ing has a fas­ci­nat­ing story to tell…

Mac Format - - GET INTO 3D PRINTING -

When Chuck Hall de­vel­oped the prin­ci­ples of 3D print­ing back in 1984, Ghost­busters was the world’s favourite movie, Do They Know It’s Christ­mas? topped the fes­tive hit pa­rade, and Ap­ple was launch­ing its first Mac­in­tosh com­puter.

Fast for­ward to 2015, and we’re all fa­mil­iar with the me­te­oric rise of the mighty Mac­in­tosh, but 3D print­ing is still a rel­a­tive un­known. Due to high costs and a num­ber of patents that only ex­pired within the last decade, 3D print­ing was the pre­serve of a hand­ful of peo­ple in the man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try, but in 2005 a univer­sity lec­turer started a quiet revo­lu­tion.

“Ever since child­hood I have been in­ter­ested in the idea of mak­ing use­ful self-repli­cat­ing ma­chines. When 3D print­ing came along I re­alised that for the first time hu­man­ity had a man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­nol­ogy that stood a rea­son­able chance of copy­ing it­self, and so I started RepRap”, re­calls Dr. Adrian Bowyer, founder of the RepRap Pro­ject. “I made RepRap as an aca­demic re­search pro­ject at Bath Univer­sity. I re­ceived the small­est re­search grant of my en­tire 40-year aca­demic ca­reer, £20,000, which was less than the cost of a cheap 3D printer at the time”.

As the RepRap Pro­ject grew, and the team de­vel­oped the pre­cur­sor to many of to­day’s desk­top print­ers, it brought with it an open source ethos, with all printer de­signs be­ing made avail­able un­der the GNU Gen­eral Public Li­cense. This ethos was core to 3D print­ing’s early suc­cess.

“We be­lieve this com­mu­nity was es­sen­tially born from – and is still is driven by – a de­sire to change the world for the bet­ter”, says Diogo Quen­tal, CEO of Beev­erycre­ative, a lead­ing 3D printer maker. “This is some­thing any­one can see for them­selves when they visit a 3D print­ing show, where the at­mos­phere is far more col­lab­o­ra­tive than it is com­pet­i­tive”.

A pe­riod of rapid growth

This col­lab­o­ra­tive at­mos­phere kick­started a pe­riod of rapid growth in 3D printer de­vel­op­ment. As other printer mak­ers built on the tech­nol­ogy be­ing de­vel­oped at Bath Univer­sity, and as the work of the RepRap Pro­ject em­anated be­yond the UK, a host of new 3D printer man­u­fac­tur­ers emerged. One of these com­pa­nies – one that’s both inspired and di­vided the 3D print com­mu­nity – is Mak­erBot. As the 3D print­ing move­ment be­gan to co­a­lesce around open source ideals and maker en­thu­si­asm, Mak­erBot emerged as an early ben­e­fi­ciary, po­si­tion­ing it­self as the poster-child of af­ford­able 3D print­ing.

“3D print­ing has been around for close to 30 years, but up un­til 2009, the in­dus­try typ­i­cally of­fered large main­frame-sized 3D print­ers that cost hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars”, says An­dreas Langfeld, gen­eral man­ager at Mak­erBot Europe. “Mak­erBot changed that equa­tion by in­tro­duc­ing desk­top 3D print­ers that are smaller and more af­ford­able”.

Pre-in­ter­net, it’s hard to imag­ine how 3D print­ing could have moved be­yond its niche man­u­fac­tur­ing roots, and it’s no sur­prise then that Mak­erBot, the world’s best-known 3D print brand, is also the com­pany be­hind the world’s big­gest 3D print com­mu­nity, thin­gi­verse.com.

Launched in 2008, Thin­gi­verse plays host to artists, de­sign­ers, ar­chi­tects, in­ven­tors, and any­one else that wants to share and dis­cuss 3D prints. De­vel­op­ing Thin­gi­verse was an in­cred­i­bly smart play on the part of Mak­erBot, and by Septem­ber 2012 the site hit 20,000 model

up­loads, and helped se­cure boss Bre Pet­tis a spot on Wired mag­a­zine’s cover, where he pro­claimed that his ma­chine would change the world.

Com­mu­nity back­lash

Sadly, as with most tech­nolo­gies, it was al­most in­evitable that this rapid growth would cause a fis­sure in the in­dus­try, and in the same month Mak­erBot made the cover of Wired, it turned its back on open source: “For the Repli­ca­tor 2, we will not share the way the phys­i­cal ma­chine is de­signed or our GUI”, Pet­tis ex­plained at the launch of its new­est printer, “be­cause we don’t think car­bon-copy cloning is ac­cept­able and car­bon-copy clones un­der­mine our abil­ity to pay peo­ple to do de­vel­op­ment”.

The terms on the Thin­gi­verse site changed to give Mak­erBot ex­ten­sive rights to use, sell, re­pro­duce and li­cence up­loads to the site (you can find a full over­view at http://bit.ly/ thin­gi­verserules). Mak­erBot’s com­mu­nity, many of whom had con­trib­uted to the com­pany’s early suc­cess, were not happy. And when Stratysys – the com­pany that held the patent on FDM tech­nol­ogy for 20 years – bought Mak­erBot in 2013, many be­lieved the hon­ey­moon was over.

“Some of you may think that I am rather lax in my pur­suit of those peo­ple who would ap­pro­pri­ate RepRap tech­nol­ogy and close it off, thereby break­ing the terms of the GPL”, Adrian Bowyer wrote in a blog post at the time. “The rea­son that I am lax – and I am – is be­cause I don’t care about those peo­ple. I don’t care about them be­cause I know that by clos­ing off the path that they have cho­sen, they have turned it into a re­pro­duc­tive cul de sac; they have made their ma­chine ster­ile”.

Fired into the main­stream

Bowyer may have had a point, since Mak­erBot – which has un­doubt­edly done more than any other brand to pop­u­larise 3D print­ing – be­gan to face in­creas­ingly stiff com­pe­ti­tion as new printer mak­ers, such as Ul­ti­maker, Mak­erGear, Lulzbot, Beev­erycre­ative and many more, con­tin­ued to build on the RepRap Pro­ject’s amaz­ing work. But de­spite all of this, 3D print­ing was still on the pe­riph­ery. Then some­one printed a gun!

“For nearly three hun­dred years any­one has been able to own a lathe. World­wide, mil­lions of pri­vate in­di­vid­u­als do, in­clud­ing me”, says RepRap’s Bowyer. “And lathes are re­ally good at mak­ing guns – much bet­ter than 3D print­ers – and they al­ways have been. No one has wor­ried about this. Ever!” Like Bowyer, many 3D print en­thu­si­asts were an­gered by the story, which por­trayed 3D print­ing in a neg­a­tive way, but it came at a time when guns, and specif­i­cally gun con­trol, were grab­bing head­lines around the world. The story broke in March 2013, and just two months later the num­ber of mod­els up­loaded to Thin­gi­verse had quadru­pled to 100,000. For bet­ter or worse, it played a piv­otal role in push­ing 3D print­ing into the public’s con­scious­ness, and it hasn’t been out of the news since.

Whether it’s sto­ries of printed cars, span­ners on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, or syn­thetic hu­mans, we’re in­creas­ingly aware of what 3D print­ing is, and might one day be ca­pa­ble of. Who knows what the fu­ture re­ally holds, but the most ex­cit­ing thing of all is that you can be part of it now! Desk­top print­ers are now rel­a­tively af­ford­able, easy to use, and have wide­spread Mac sup­port. And be­lieve us, once you’ve cre­ated your first 3D print, you’ll never look back. It be­comes a very ad­dic­tive hobby!

“Lat hes are reall y good at mak­ing guns – much bett er than 3D print­ers”

The spi­ral vase has a twisted con­i­cal fan shape. It’s a great de­sign for see­ing how

a 3D printer lay­ers up mod­els.

The first time a RepRap ma­chine printed it­self. Adrian Bowyer (left) and Vik Ol­liver (who made the first copy) is on the right. The child ma­chine made its first suc­cess­ful grand­child part on 29 May 2008 at Bath Univer­sity. In 2013, Amer­i­can Cody Wil­son be­came 3D print­ing’s poster boy for all the wrong rea­sons. He made a fully work­ing plas­tic gun and showed the world how to do it. Some 3D prints are crit­i­cised for be­ing a bit too rough. But as this skull pat­tern shows, highly in­tri­cate de­signs that are rel­a­tively smooth are pos­si­ble to achieve at home.

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