“Do I need 3D Glasses to see it?”
“Does it print 3D puffy stickers or something? What are you talking about?”
“Can you print me a Master Chief costume?”
A few months back I made the potentially regrettable decision to build a 3D Printer. Those were the mixed reactions I received from others at college upon trying to explain what it actually is. This is probably because calling it a 3D printer is actually quite a confusing if you are trying to relate it to a standard inkjet printer. It’s like trying to imagine an office photocopier popping out small plastic bunnies or phone cases. In reality, it works by taking plastic from a spool (stored in the same way as thread) melting it at 200°C and laying it down in very fine layers. Many of these layers are deposited, measuring at about 0.1mm (or 100 microns) each and they eventually build up to create the desired 3D object.
Although 3D printing has been around since the 80’s (back then it was called ‘Additive Layer Manufacturing’) I was captivated by the concept of home 3D printers and the direction, momentum and possibilities that the technology brings. Not only are 3D printers heading to space, they are also in food, clothing, shoes, weapons, jet engine part research and the like. What really lept out of my laptop and smacked me in the face was, however, the research success in printing arteries, kidneys, hip replacements and the like.
From what I understand, such technology relies on droplets of “bioink” (pronounced ‘bio-ink’, not ‘bi-oink’. That would be silly.), which are clumps of cells a few hundred micrometres in diameter in a liquid form. Droplets placed next to one another will flow together and fuse, forming layers, rings or other shapes, depending on how they were deposited. To build tubes that could serve as blood vessels, for instance, they lay down successive rings containing muscle and endothelial cells, which line our arteries and veins. Obviously, I could not fulfill my dream of printing a dinosaur yet, but there was a way to get some experience to hopefully allow me to be a part of such research in the future.
And thus, I bought a DIY kit to build my own printer for $600 online. I had no experience in building anything, but I was looking forward to the intensive learning you gain by experience, as well as fixing any issues you have on your own. Here are a few pictures of the building stage:
$600, if you’re wondering, is in about the middle range for pre-assembled printers. Currently, the cheapest one on the market is $200, and higher end printers range from $1,000-$2,000 each. I could also print the parts for another printer if I wanted, in which case it would cost me about $300 to buy the rest of the parts separately. The plastic I use in my printer is referred to as PLA, which sets me back about $40 per kilo and works out to be about .70c per metre. Pretty cheap stuff for the quality you can arrive at. Here are a few of the example models I’ve printed.
I’ve also had my fair share of failed prints through my learning journey of intensity. As well as the bat-bane, I’ve also printed out a model of Han Solo in carbonite that looked more like Jabba the Hutt and a Post Horn that sounded more like a fart machine (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing)
But seriously, it’s been great fun to build. It was quite straightforward and I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys something new. Feel free to comment if you are thinking about getting/building a printer and I’ll do my best to answer any questions you may have. Happy Holidays!