Finding the ultimate Christmas present for the discerning geek has never been easy, but a small team of professional tinkerers based in New York has come up with the ultimate geek must-have – a printer that “prints” in 3D.
Rather than printing with ink on a page, 3D printers build up objects using layers of plastic. They have been available since 2003, but Brooklyn- based firm MakerBot, which started early in 2009, has developed a small printer that comes in kit form. Having to assemble the “robot” printer adds to the charm for true tinkerers, but this DIY approach also makes it far cheaper than it might be; until now, commercial 3D printers haven’t been available for much less than £25,000.
This year, 3D went mainstream, from big-budget movies to the latest 3D cameras, camcorders and TVs. MakerBot goes one better by offering three tangible dimensions, created with their Meccanoesque kits. The first model, the Cupcake CNC, sells for $649 and the newer Thing-O-Matic for $1,225.
“If you have trouble putting Ikea furniture together, get a friend to help you,” explains Bre Pettis, co-founder and chief executive of MakerBot. “But, for a tinkerer, making something that makes things is the holy grail.”
MakerBot “prints” in either ABS, the plastic that Lego is made from, or corn-based PLA – which smells like waffles when it is used. Hacker community website Thingiverse displays the witty creativity of “fabbers” (desktop-based fabricators and fans of 3D printing): from space invader earrings and keyrings to full-size lamps, built in sections. One Marty McGuire tells the story of going to buy a shower curtain for his new flat, but finding the store had run out of shower curtain rings. This is the kind of challenge the MakerBot owner lives for, and he enthusiastically set about measuring, designing and then printing out his own shower curtain rings.
There’s an obvious bonus: buy one MakerBot and you can probably make a good batch of Christmas presents – Pettis admits he’s made bottle openers and dragons as presents. The only limitations are your imagination – plus the 12.5×12.5×12.5cm dimensions of the Thing-O-Matic and the fact that you can print in any material you want, as long as it’s plastic. If you’re short of ideas, you can choose from the 5,000 designs already uploaded by the MakerBot community.
MakerBot has sold just 3,000 machines so far but is struggling to keep up with demand. A UK supplier, Robosavvy, is now selling the Thing-O-Matic for £847. As with the realised ambition of Bill Gates, who famously said he wanted to put a computer in every home in the world, all of us will eventually own a 3D printer, says Pettis. The key is to make these machines affordable.
“We’re not engineers – we’re tinkerers,” he says, explaining that MakerBot’s background in tinkering means a preoccupation with finding parts as cheaply as possibly, so much of the DIY kit is off the shelf. “If we were engineers, this thing would cost 100 times as much. But our goal is to democratise manufacturing so anyone can have a machine that makes anything they need. We want to render consumerism useless – and that doesn’t work if the machine isn’t cheap.”