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Build it in 3-D

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BOISE, Idaho, April 23, 2013 — With a faintly squeaky whir, the hand-built printer labors to produce an object, not an image.

It's a little like a replicator in a sci-fi show, but the creation is not instantaneous. Little by little, thin lines of plastic trace the outlines of a computer design, rising and curving and producing a work of science — in this case, a blue, two-piece tape dispenser.

 RepRap 3-D Printer
The Reuseum’s Dave Ultis with a RepRap 3-D printer. Photo courtesy

David Ultis, director of operations for the Garden City tech warehouse/laboratory known as the Reuseum, is giving a small demonstration of a big idea that President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address "has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost anything."

It's 3-D printing, a growing technology that already is being used to create industrial prototypes, medical prosthetics, architectural models and auto parts. Applications for gun-making, bicycles and apparel are in development. At a Japanese hospital, surgeons hone their skills using 3-D-printed replicas of patients' organs.

"Even the sky's not the limit," Ultis says. "NASA has already tested a 3-D printer on the International Space Station, and they anticipate needing high-resolution 3-D printers to produce spacecraft parts on deep-space missions."

And then there's the fun side.

"I make robots," he says. "Lots of kids want to do that. There are lots of great sculptures, too, and toys."

Many proponents see the object-printers as the must-have home appliance of the future — something that could whip up a new part for your lawnmower or replace a missing chess piece, as long as you supply a computerized design.

John Sosoka of Pulse Robotics has been using 3-D printing since it emerged in the mid-1980s, producing "quick prototypes" of projects including the interactive dinosaur robot, Pleo. Sosoka goes to TechHelp, a national Manufacturing Extension Partnership based on the Boise State University campus, to print objects as he needs them rather than investing in a printer of his own.

The technology is handy, he says, but "right now it's too slow and too expensive to do the things you want to do."

David Cleverdon, principal at the Boise-based creative development firm DTX Creative, predicts that in five years or so many people will be printing and selling items out of their homes as a "cottage industry."

"I think it's going to change the world," he says.

Printer, clone thyself
In the Treasure Valley, 3-D printers now are found mostly in classrooms and in the homes of tech hobbyists. And many of those printers are made of parts created by other printers.

It's called RepRap, and Ultis is a local leader in spreading the technology. Short for "replicating rapid prototyper," RepRap is a global open-source movement — freely sharing designs and ideas — to develop a low-cost 3-D printer that can, in effect, clone itself (or at least significant portions of itself).

This spring the Reuseum launched the nonprofit 3-D Printers for Education initiative to help schools, libraries and civic organizations acquire, master and maintain 3-D printers.

Two Ultis-built RepRap printers are already in classrooms in the Meridian district's Eagle and Mountain View high schools.

The schools' RepRaps, part of the first generation of printers Ultis created, cost about $1,500 each, including training and maintenance. That compares with $25,000 to $30,000 for a commercial unit, Eagle High pre-engineering teacher Justin Touchstone says. Current costs for the more advanced second generation are about $2,500, Ultis says.

The Meridian district and others in the Valley already have bigger, fancier commercial printers, but the more affordable, hands-on RepRaps are "a great addition" that expands the technology's reach, Touchstone says.

"Commercial prints a little bit finer than RepRap," he says, but "for educational purposes, these simpler ones, I think they meet the bill. Ours has done more than I thought it would.

"Plus, the kids think it's really cool."

Seniors from Eagle and other Meridian schools can use Renaissance High's commercial 3-D printer to great effect for advanced coursework — designing a product, creating a prototype and testing it, he says. But students in first and second-year pre-engineering courses had no access to the technology until RepRap came this year.

"We have the students do reverse engineering, taking apart a car and making a 3-D model, then getting ideas for how to modify it," Touchstone says. "Last year I taught the same course, but we didn't have the ability to give them the physical item they created so they could test it. This year, we'll be able to.

"You can do it on a computer, but you can't really see how it turns out."

Holding the object they've designed, and "seeing that it doesn't necessarily come out as they imagined," enhances students' critical thinking while helping develop skills and understanding to help them thrive in higher education and professional pursuits, Touchstone says.

Northwest Nazarene University engineering students will soon be able to explore 3-D design, printing, scanning and simulation at a new "maker" lab funded by a $200,000 equipment grant from Hewlett-Packard.

An open system

A RepRap printer looks a little like an Erector Set project, with an open framework and a tube that heats and extrudes lines of plastic onto a glass plate, precisely following a 3-D design conveyed by computer. Any designed object that fits within the printing area — roughly an 8-inch cube — is possible.

"A real complex thing could take upwards of nine, 10 hours, but a simple object maybe 50 minutes or an hour," Touchstone says. "I try to avoid 10-hour printings, because I basically have to sit and watch it."

Not being able to just press "start" and walk away is part of the RepRap system's value, he and Ultis agree.

"It doesn't just come in a box and you use it like a microwave," Ultis says. "The machine itself is so hands-on. With RepRap, you see everything. And you can make adjustments as you go."

RepRap printers replicate themselves, but not completely. Many parts, including feet, gears and brackets, are 3-D reproducible, but others, including the motor and aluminum framework, are not.

Ultis and other RepRappers call those metal components "vitamins, because it's a necessary nutrient for the printer … a supplement," he says. Eventually, Ultis says, many parts that now need to be metal will be printable.

A do-it-yourself ethic

Although the first working commercial 3-D printer was invented in 1984, personal 3-D printing began to take off in the past five years or so. Ultis built one of the first working RepRaps in Idaho, and he's constructed a half-dozen others since then. He's also sold about 30 3-D printing kits and helped scores of hobbyists and inventors in the Treasure Valley and around the world create and troubleshoot their own 3-D printers.

Reuseum has become a hub for folks interested in the burgeoning technology by fostering Open Lab Idaho, a user’s group whose 20 members have unlimited access to the Reuseum's classroom and each others' ideas.

The "ethic of helping people know how to make things" is a big part of the RepRap movement and the Reuseum's education initiative, Ultis says.

"Coming out of school, we're making better engineers, we're making better scientists," he says. "We're teaching people to create stuff and showing them they can do it themselves."

"You know how strawberries propagate, sending out leaders? That's how this should spread," Ultis says. "It's a 'teaching them to fish' kind of thing."

Source:, © 2013


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