Friday, February 7, 2014

What to Print er out of (3D Printer World Expo Wrap-up)

 By Sky Burchard

So, you've decided to print-up a girlfriend rather than brush-up on your social skills…? What seemed like the hard route, now seems easy? Rejection's a bitch and you need something do do in between your bouts of depression. If so, I hope you were able to attend last weeks 3D Printer World Expo at the Burbank Airport Marriott.

keynote round table discussion
The expo consisted of the exhibition floor, a four track seminar and a series of pavilions. The keynote address, given by Cydni Tetro, Founder and CEO of 3DPlusME, was a brief yet intelligent overview of all that 3D printing is capable of and the roadblocks that lie ahead. It was followed by a round table discussion between four representatives from the community: a bleeding heart missionary, who has worked hard to provide inexpensive 3D printed appendages to children who have lost arms in war torn Sudan; a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft; a special effects guru from the entertainment industry and a robotics expert who had to fend off cracks made by the missionary, urging him to publish, open source, the parts of his 3D printed fist, (Mr. Wink, of Hellboy II,s right arm). The four helped to bring to the forefront 3D printings broad range of applications.

Tron Legacy: Black Guard
The area outside the exhibition floor, which was already filling with anxious 3D-printaphiles, hosted most of the expo's pavilions and a display of prop helmets from various hollywood films, a line up that topped most of what the pavilions had to offer. While they were undoubtably the product of more than just 3D printing, they were rather spectacular. Along side them, was a terribly boring and didactic display by "Organovo", representing 3D printings potential medical contributions. It consisted of a long hall of posters to read and only a few objects to hold. Just a few steps away was the "Crea Zaurus 3D Museum" which consisted of a single life sized T-Rex head. Toward the front entrance was the 3D printed architecture pavilion which showcased what 3D was capable of on a larger scale. It was quite impressive although all the forms were built of smaller forms, they were significantly strong for having come out of a printer.

At noon the doors to the exhibition floor were opened. This was by far, the best part of the expo. The halls rather modest sized room was filled a vast array of venders offering up their 3D related products. There were a multitude of desktop printers, FDM, SLA and DLP. There were 3 or 4 booths with 3D scanners, a few software companies, a few educational sources, third party industrial vendors and 3D printing services. Most vendors had touchable parts on display that could be played with and had their machines currently printing up more. Anyone with mild interest could get lost for hours.

For anyone just getting started, below are a few of the basics:

The $299.00 Printrbot
There are basically two types of 3D printers available for desktop printing. The first and most common are FDM printers. FDM stand for Fused Deposition Modeling. These printers print by extruding a thin bead of plastic, commonly ABS, (think Lego) or PLA, (a more flexible plastic). This bead draws out a thin slice of the model being printed. Then the print head raises a tiny increment and draws out the next slice, and onward and upwards. Brooks Drumm, Owner and creator of Printrbot, explained them as a "hot glue gun on a robotic arm". The second type and lesser common are the Light Polymerization type: SLA, (Stereolithography) and DLP, (Digital Light Processing). These printers print by focussing a laser beam through a bath of light sensitive resin. The laser traces or projects a slice in the resin bath curing the resin slice, the build platform raises or lowers a tiny increment and the next slice is traced. There were about four or five of this type on the exhibition floor. They are easily distinguished by their transparent orange covers.

The $3,299.00 Form 1
While there I got to fondle all sorts of parts. Yeah, I know what you're thinking, but I'm talking machine parts. After all, that's why I wanted to go, to get a hands on experience. Well, what I found was that most machines printed out similar quality parts depending on their type, (extruded plastic v.s. light polymerization). From one booth to another there was not a big difference. The difference comes in price and ease of use. You're going to pay more for a machine that you won't have to repair after every print. There are other factors such as build size and build time, (always a long long time) that come into play.

You can expect to pay anywhere from $300.00 to around $3,500.00 for a desktop printer. On the low end you have DIY style FDM kits. These are a better buy for those people who appreciate open source and like to tinker with their machines. On the high end are SLA printers, aiming to give you a higher quality part with little fuss, right out of the box. These are better for those who are interested in part quality and don't want to have to think much about what their machine is doing.

Mindcraft Landscape printed on
a commercial machine
If you would rather not invest in a machine yourself, there are plenty of companies that will print your part for you. Not a bad option, especially when you consider that these companies have access to much more powerful machines. A few of these were on display at the expo as well, on behalf of third party vendors. They are printing up some pretty remarkable things, such as beautiful color prints, variable density prints and prints made of water soluble material, one of the coolest things I've seen in a while: an inner armature can be printed up that is later covered in carbon graphite and glassed over from the outside. After the resin has cured the part is dipped in water and the armature melts away, leaving a hard and extremely strong "skin" behind.

In the end though, it all comes down to what you want to print. This question was addressed well by the shows last pavilion, located on the exhibition floor: the 3D printed art show. On display there were some nice looking objects, but on the whole, nothing different than what has already been done in a traditional medium. There were a few mechanical/engineering curiosities, what seems to be a new niche forming inside the 3D community, that were interesting. There were also a few objects that gave credit to the faceted polygonal computer models they were printed from, probably the smartest of the what I saw. On the whole however, there was a lot to be desired.

As it was addressed in the keynote speech: As the popularity of 3D desktop printing grows, there will grow with it, a demand for 3D content. What form will that content take? After the novelty of downloading a car model off the internet and successfully printing it out, what is left? What will people want to print, need to print? What is 3D printing capable of that previous sculptural mediums were unable to achieve? What is it inside your computer that you would like to have standing, (standing?) in front of you…?