3D printers

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A 3D powder printer from zcorp - used to print colored 3d models.

This is recently added article to keep track of any webpages I find on 3D printing. My interest on 3D printers started when a friend, Graham Johnson, printed a model for me on a 3D printer at SCRIPPS Research Institute in San Diego, which they run as a relatively inexpensive service called Scripps Physical Model Service. For this model they used a "3D powder printer" from ZCorp and I was very happy with the results - a plastic 3D color model about 15cm x 15cm x 15cm, which very good (~0.15mm) resolution. 3D models of this nature are great for prototyping in industry, and within science/education can be a great education tool.

Proper, high resolution 3D printers are incredibly expensive - $5,000 to $500,000, depending on what type of models you want. What's interesting, is that many people have written how-to guides to "build your own 3D printer".... although the results don't look like anything special for a lot of effort! As a third (more practical option) there may be the occasional place which offers 3D printing as a service.

3D printer companies

  • ZCorp - looks like one of the forerunners in 3D color printing, although stories are that their prices start at $30,000 for the most basic printer which is white (although they call this "monochrome") only. It appears all their printers are 3D powder printing, meaning they print onto a power and must be dipped in epoxy to make them more rigid after printing is competed. (see: "Types of printing" below)
  • Objet - a company which boasts (as of the start of 2011) the ability to print transparent plastic (as well as colored plastic)!
  • Desktop Factory - boasts a starting printer for under $10,000 - although looks like it doesn't do color (meaning you'd have to paint it yourself!). This uses a "fused deposition modeling (FDM)" technique whereby plastic is melted and deposited in layers to form the model (see: "Types of printers").
  • Makerbot - produces an incredibly cheap self-assembled printer for only $1200, and most recently as low as $500 for a "solidoodle". This uses the FDM technique (using melted plastic), so it only does a single color at a time and some describe it as more of a toy. Indeed this appeals to the geeky community as it's a printer you must assembled yourself. Both this and the above option involve plastic injection.

Videos of 3D printers

  • Z Corp. ZPrinter 450 Introduction - shows how a 3D printer works, although you may want to skip the first minute.
  • Makerbot competition - cute video of a kid showing off a cheap "makerbot" printer..
  • Amazing 3D PrinterHide / Replicator - a video showing how Z Corp printers and scanners can be used to "replicate" an object - in this case an huge adjustable wrench... video is mostly for effect, but what's impressive is that the printed wrench actually works with decent strength.

3D Printer Services in the United States

  • ShapeWays.com - print pretty darn cheap 3D models in sandstone, metal and all sorts of other materials. Having tried their service myself I highly recommend them (see here for the models I printed). You can see on their site hundreds of designs people have printed alongside the price. Lots of people use this site to print rings and "minecraft" models, but even fairly large print outs which fit in your hand appear under $100, which is very good value.

San Diego Area

A model I made of a beta cell printed for me by Scripps Physical Model Service.

I first discovered 3D printers while living in San Diego, so here I'll list any 3D printing services in San Diego I come across. I'm sure there are others, so let me know!

  • Scripps Physical Model Service - @ Scripps, Torres Pines - a service which specializes in printing 3D molecular models, although can print anything you send to them as a VRML or Cinema 4D file. Prices are reasonable - $0.6-0.8 per cubic centimeter (depending on the job, glue and time requirements)... and half price for people in Scripps. Here's a nice article about the service and it's worth look at their gallery. This service, originally run by Jon Hunton, more recently run by Adam Gardner (e-mail address on their site) and they do a fantastic job.
    • see also: "Science Within Reach" - same people showing some nice videos of printed models which interconnect with magnets and augmented reality!
  • CRCA 3D Fabrication Lab - @ UCSD, La Jolla - unlike SCRIPPS, is not set up as a service, instead they might train you to use the printer and charge (I believe) $55 an hour + material. They have two different printers, one prints plastic in a single color, but the better one is a Z Corp Spectrum Z510 3d color printer with .089-.203 mm layer size and 600 x 540 dpi. It's not quite as good a resolution as the one in SCRIPPS, but it's pretty good if you can get permission to use it. Tristan Shone does a lot of work at the CRCA (Center for Research in Computing and the Arts) and told me about this printer, but the institute has since been dissolved I think, so it's pretty hard to get a hold of anyone.

What is 3D Printing?

A 3D printer works by taking a 3D computer file and using and making a series of cross-sectional slices. Each slice is then printed one on top of the other to create the 3D object.

Types of 3D printing

There are several different methods of 3D printing, and to read about all of these I suggest you go to the Wikipedia entry on 3D printing. The main difference between these printers is in the way layers are built to create parts. To me, it sounds like the two most popular techniques are:

  • Fused deposition modeling (FDM) - typically where plastic is melted and printed (layer by layer) on top of a flat surface. For complex models this involves printing temporary supports during printing, which must be removed/snapped off after printing is finished. This is the cheapest form and typically only a single color at a time, which is fed from a spool.
  • 3D Powder Printing - works by spreading a thin layer of powder, then an ink-jet printhead sprays binder and color wherever there is material. That layer is then lowered and the process repeats until the model has finished printing. At this stage the model is buried in a box of powder, so the good powder printers will then vacuum away most of the powder (for recycling), and the rest can be blown off manually. At this stage the model is typically quite fragile, and so should be finished by applying a primer or epoxy to make a wax-like outer surface which is more rigid and waterproof.

Two other less common types of 3D printing are:

  • Stereolithography - where they tracing a beam of UV light over a photosensitive pool of liquid. The model is gradually lowered, making this process similar to 3D powder printer, but can produce a nicer model... but does cost extra.
  • Selective laser sintering - uses a high power laser (for example, a carbon dioxide laser) to fuse small particles of plastic, metal (direct metal laser sintering), ceramic, or glass powders into a mass.

For more information about see here: "4 types of 3D printing".


Acknowledgements: Graham Johnson from Scripps for introducing me to 3d printers and Adam Gardner for his help too!