By Caitlin Vandewater
Over the past two years, there has been an increased interest in 3-D printing, a technology that has been around since the early 1990s. With each passing month, there seems to be more and more breakthroughs within the field, between the increased quality of the finished product, an expansion of materials used and price drops—the cost of an early 3-D printer was five or six figures and is now within $650-$3,000—the possibilities seem endless for this reemerging field. Media outlets from across the spectrum have covered the topic, publishing articles on up-and-coming ventures into the technology. Advancements range from printers that create chocolate sculptures and companies using the technology to manifest airplane parts to printers that create potential replacement organs for those in need of a transplant.
Temporarily setting aside the complexities of what goes into creating and using a 3-D printer, the basic gist of it is rather simple. Instead of printing out a picture of an object, a 3-D printer creates the object by stacking thin layers of material on top of each other until the object is fully formed, according to an article in The Economist. With a traditional 3-D printer, the print head will move from side to side, laying out each layer on top of each other. As the object is built, the build plane moves away from the print head, allowing for the object to be properly scaled. Unlike conventional desktop printing, a 3-D printer pulls information from a computer-aided design program and converts the digital rendering of an object into the layers that are then sent to the printer and built up. The materials used in 3-D printers vary from types of plastics to metals, but in most consumer-based printers the “ink” is comprised of varying types of plastics, such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) or polylactic acid (PLA), a bioplastic made from corn.
Maxifab: Broadening the customization of 3-D Printers
Until recently, the accessibility of 3-D printing was limited due to the high cost and relatively cheap quality of printed products. The technology was reserved for specialized industry use, mainly to create prototypes for future products. The makers of the Maxifab 3-D Printing Framework are determined to change that, by creating 3-D printers that are consumer-based and user-friendly. Maxifab is one of Kickstarter’s more recent success stories. Ryan Robinson started the project on the Internet-based community funding website after he was inspired by his dissatisfaction with the Ultimaker, a small 3-D printer made in the Netherlands, to design a more customizable and user-friendly printer than others on the market, according to the product’s Kickstarter page. What resulted was the Maxifab, which received $24,393 in funding from its Kickstarter campaign, well over Robinson’s initial goal of $5,000.
The Maxifab differs from other 3-D printers due to the amount of customization that can be made to the printer itself, and its relatively simple to use interface. Unlike other printers on the market, the Maxifab will not be limited by the traditional interface or build envelopes. According to a March 2012 PCWorld article, Maxifab is not designed with a specific user or scale in mind, but rather, an idea that the consumer should be able to customize and design their Maxifab to fit their personal specifications. “There are several very good hobby level machines like the Thing-o-Matic, the Ultimaker, and the RepRap Project available now,” the Maxifab Kickstarter page states. “Unfortunately, most of these machines are only available as complex build-it-yourself kits and have a set, limited-build envelope.”
Makerbot: Creating 3-D and a Community Behind It
Until the Maxifab made its debut, 3-D printing enthusiasts had to rely on small, but quality printers by MakerBot or other small-scale 3-D printing companies. MakerBot is based out of Brooklyn, N.Y., and has three printers on the market: the Cupcake CNC, the Thing-o-Matic and the Replicator, which made its debut in February, according to The New York Times. MakerBot is also the company behind the Thingiverse website, a site where anyone can upload, download and share their 3-D designs, which can then be used on most 3-D printers. Once the Maxifab is out of the prototype stages, the designs and plans will be uploaded to Thingiverse so consumers can design and build their own printers, according to the Maxifab Kickstarter page.
Between their output of three printers in the past three years and the start of Thingiverse, MakerBot has helped to shed a lot of light on the 3-D printing marker. The objects and designs on Thingiverse range from everything from handy, but relatively useless, gadgets like taco stands, to testaments to history, like casts of ancient Egyptian sphinxes. The designs appeal to people of all ages, and designers come from all walks of life. Users vary from people who work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art to amateurs trying their hand at design with free programs like Trimble’s SketchUp. This alone shows how vital and exciting the expansion of 3-D printing is because it’s a movement that’s slowly coming out of its shell and unleashing a wave of creativity that can shake up and change the way we view the products we buy or create. As the technology becomes sharper and the prices continue to drop, the already endless range of possibilities for this field is sure to take on a new life, and no doubt, inspire a whole new breed of designers and entrepreneurs trying to get their product into the public market.
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