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…
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.
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.