3D Printing goes open source

-June 10, 2014

There's been a ton of excitement around 3D printing over the last few years and it's definitely justified.  While the techniques of 3D printing have been around for many decades, recent cost reductions have thrust 3D printing into wide-spread use.  In fact, I designed a custom engagement ring for my wife and had it 3d printed in silver; more on that below.  

Unsurprisingly, open source is right there with the commercial manufacturers.  The open source 3D printing project is called RepRap.  The names comes from “self-replicating, rapid-prototyping” as many of the parts of a RepRap are designed to be printed by another 3D printer.  The full design is open-source, so you can check out the mechanical design files, the Arduino electronics (also open source) and the firmware and software source code.  The power of open source is less in being free to build it for yourself, but rather in being free to improve it for all.

There are many different designs, mostly trading cost, structural stability and working volume.  According to the RepRap website, RepRap is the most popular 3D printing option (see chart below).  Considering the excitement around 3D printing from makers and hobbyists, the expense of some of the professional-grade systems and the low cost of the RepRap, this doesn't surprise me at all.

(Source via RepRap.org: Moilanen, J. & Vadén, T.: Manufacturing in motion: first survey on the 3D printing community, Statistical Studies of Peer Production)

For each of the last 2 years, I've evaluated purchasing a 3D printer for my business. The last year I settled on the commercial MakerBot2 and this year I decided on the open-source RepRap MendelMax 2.0 (below).

(Source: makerstoolworks.com)

However, both times I decided to wait to make the purchase.  My decision to wait mostly involves the amount of 3D printing my business does.  We simply don't print enough parts to warrant buying a 3D printer.  When our demand increases, we'll re-evaluate and likely end up with a RepRap.  

The alternative to buying a 3D printer is to use one of the many shops that provide this service. Examples include ShapeWays, Quickparts, Solid Concepts and many, many more.  I've had great luck with vendors like these.  The benefits of using an outside shop is that material options keep expanding, prices keep dropping and resolution keeps increasing.  The downside is that I have to wait at least a few days for parts to arrive, which is fine... for now.

I have a friend who bought a several thousand dollar 3D printer recently.  He is somewhat disenchanted and wishes he had either waited a bit longer or bought a higher-end model.  Most of his issues center around the mechanical stability of the platform and the tolerance shifts in the printed parts as they cool.  His needs are pretty demanding, in that he needs very tight tolerances for many of his projects, so this shouldn't scare too many people away.  Nonetheless, low-cost 3D printing at home and in the office is very exciting, and it continues to get better.

As a side note, 3D printing is not just for work.  I designed an engagement ring, complete with meaningful, personal symbolism for my finance and had it 3D printed in wax (figure below, left) and cast in silver (figure below, right).  She loved the one-of-a-kind ring and I loved getting to use my nerdier side to come up with something truly unique and special for her.  We liked the outcome so much that we decided on similarly themed 3D printed wedding rings.

Figure. Prototype plastic (left) and Sterling silver (right) engagement rings - Low-cost, personalized and unique. Another killer app for 3D printing.

Do you own a 3D printer, open source or otherwise?  Do you have a favorite 3D printing vendor?  Have you had a good or bad experience?  I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

[Post updated 13 June 2014, 1430 Eastern]

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