One of the things I was planning to work on during my New York residency was to construct a makerbot, a 3D printer that comes as a kit, based on the reprap which I have written about before. The cupcake cnc, which is the official name, is made by a Brooklyn based company Makerbot Industries that came out of NYCresistor. The first model came out late spring last year, and they continually improve both the mechanical,electrical and software parts for each batch they send out. For about $1000 you get all you need to make your own desktop 3D printer, which sounded like a good way of getting started with digital fabrication.
For me, one of the entrypoints into fabbing has been through reading some of Mitchell Whitelaws postings, for instance Transduction, Transmateriality and Expanded Computing. Chris Anderson wrote a very optimistic article in Wired in January: “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits“, which is nicely balanced by the maybe more realistic gizmodo article “Atoms Are Not Bits; Wired Is Not A Business Magazine“. A few days ago Thingiverse posted their take on this: “Atoms are Not the New Bits. Yet.”
I ordered my kit in december, and in the beginning of february it arrived at my doorstep in Brooklyn. The construction took about a week. The instructions for assembling the makerbot are pretty good (although I had my IKEA moments), but to actually get the makerbot printing was a lot more complicated and frustrating than what I had expected. After trying different things for almost a month with plastic-spaghetti as my only visible result I got a replacement card for the extruder controller (the part which controls the flow of plastic), so last night I was finally able to print something which was very exciting!
The cupcake cnc is made from lasercut plywood and acrylic. It has three stepper motors: The x and y axis are moving the build-platform, the z-axis moves the extruder vertically in relation to the build platform. The printed object is buillt layer by layer:plastic filament is fed into the extruder, which heats it up and squeezes it out similar to a hot-glue gun. The controller is based on the seeduino microcontroller, which is an arduino clone.
To make an object you obviously need a file. The final file is basically a description of operations for the makerbot, controlling the position in the x,y,z axis, as well as temperature and flow of the extruder. You start off with a 3d object, made for instance with blender, sketchup or openscad. This must be exported/converted to the STL format, which can be read by the application that converts the 3D model into slices and produce the controlcode understood by the makerbot. This is done in python-based skeinforge, but some more intuitive tools have started to emerge. The makerbot comes with its own controller software, ReplicatorG, which is very similar to the arduino interface. You can choose to either save the object-code onto a SD-card, or to print the object directly from ReplicatorG.
A good place to start is Thingiverse, where people upload their 3d objects for other people to make. I find it fascinating that I can make my own version of an object somebody else has modeled. I also find the makerbot blog quite useful. Bre Petis, one of the makerbot team, gave a nice presentation(mp4) at Chaos Computer Conference in Berlin in January.