Tinkering for the masses

3d printer reprapHumans have always been good at making things, from tools and machines, to constructions and works of art. However, as the manufacturing process evolved from basic crafting, through the industrial revolution and into high-precision automated manufacturing, the cost of the equipment required for making anything useful increased to the point where only a very small part of the human society could afford the investment.

This oligopoly of production facilities is to the detriment of our society, since it greatly restricts the rate of introduction of novel and disruptive inventions. During the last five years though, a new concept has emerged to challenge this well-established centralized production model.

Distributed manufacturing is the concept of making all the necessary production tools and facilities accessible to everyone, in order to arrive to localized and demand-driven distributed production. One of the key technologies to distributed manufacturing is 3D printing.

3D printing is the fascinating process of making a solid object from a digital computer model. In other words, what starts as a virtual object in our computer screen, becomes a real object that we can see, touch and use in the world that we live in!

3D printing technology has been around for some years now. Though the idea was originally introduced in the early 80s, it took two decades for it to become attractive to the manufacturing industry. My first contact with 3D printing was in the early 2000s when I studied the applications of 3D rapid prototyping for medical applications as part of a university course in 3D modeling technologies for medical applications.

Later on, in 2010, while I was attending FOSDEM in Brussels, I saw the introduction of RepRap, one of the first low-cost open hardware 3D printers for domestic use. I was very impressed by the idea of distributed manufacturing and self-replicating machines, as advocated by the inventors of RepRap. I believe that it is thanks to the market pressure applied by RepRap and all its peer machines that, according to an article in the Bits blog of the New York Times, the cost of 3D printers has decreased dramatically since about 2010, with machines that used to cost 20K USD costing significantly less than 1K USD.

With this sudden drop in the prices of 3D printers, we’ve also seen the appearance of websites offering 3D printing services. Today, whether you own a 3D printer or not, it is simpler and more accessible than ever to simply sit in front of your computer, make a 3D model, click on a couple of buttons and create a real-world object.

Well, not really! As I’m sure many people from the manufacturing industry will know very well, it turns out that it is one thing to design something in the perfect theoretical world of CAD software, and a completely different thing to try and manufacture it, using a machine and materials with physical limitations. As an example, if a 3D printer can only make objects as thin as a few millimeters, you cannot manufacture something like a needle with it.

What we need then is some sort of validation software, a tool that, given the limitations of our process, it can guide us into designing a manufacturable 3D model.

Enter Blender!

Blender is an open source 3D modeling and animation software, one of the very impressive examples of free software. Like most 3D modeling tools, Blender already supports 3D printing modeling and file-formats (since 2002). What makes Blender different though is that, since version 2.67 (released in May 2013), it provides real-time Mesh Analysis and a 3D Printing Toolbox.

blender mesh thickness analysis

Real-time mesh thickness and sharpness checking with Blender

With these new features, Blender offers the possibility to:

  • get statistics such as object volume and surface area.
  • check whether the object is solid.
  • detect geometric problems such as mesh intersections, zero length edges,zero area faces and distorted faces.
  • check the thickness and sharpness of surfaces.
  • check for overhang.
  • clean the model by removing isolated faces, edges and vertices, as well as distorted faces.
  • re-scale based on a target volume or maximum allowed length.

3D printing for the massesFurthermore, the Blender Foundation has produced a 3+ hours training DVD where Dolf Veenvliet, a Dutch artist who uses 3D printing and Blender for sculpture design, explains how to make the most of these new tools. It includes a basic introduction to Blender itself, a discussion on the new tools for 3D printing, advice for good quality 3D prints and sample models to experiment with. You can also watch the introduction here.

Happy tinkering 🙂

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