One of the most exciting inventions of this millennium is definitely the 3D printer. Over the last few years, 3D printers have gone from being industrial-only tools that are far beyond the reach of even well-off households to products that are, while still expensive, definitely within the reach of a well-off enthusiast.
Consumer-grade 3D printers allow you to load scripts from sophisticated computer-aided design programs and turn them into physical objects. Tabletop 3D printers are capable of printing relatively simple designs, and are ideal for making toys or prototyping miniature versions of designs that you want made on more sophisticated machines.
Pre-made 3D printers still cost thousands of pounds, but did you know that you can build your own 3D printer if you have some decent electronics skills? One of the most well-known 3D printer projects is the RepRap – an open-source project that allows electronics and programming enthusiasts to make a 3D printer using the Arduino electronics kit along with a selection of other components and parts. Because the project is open source, you can share and modify the plans at will. Better yet, the total cost will probably amount to only around £500.
How 3D Printers Work
A 3D printer works by printing the model from the bottom up. The printer moves across the X and Y axis, putting down the first layer of plastic, then moves up on the X axis, and prints a second layer, and so on. The plastic filament is melted and passed out through an extruder head. The printer must be carefully calibrated to ensure that once the plastic sets, the model is recognisable.
A completed 3D printer is a good example of a Cartesian robot – a robot that moves across the Cartesian coordinates. It is a fascinating use of an Arduino. If you have never tried using an Arduino before, you should give it a try, because there are quite literally thousands of projects that you can make using this electronics kit. You can buy an Arduino here.
Making 3D Patterns
The printer itself is just one part of the equation. In addition to the printer you will need some software to convert your 3D models to a printable form. Models for 3D printers are stored in a format called STL file, and this file is converted to G-code, which is sent over USB to tell the printer how to create the model. If you prefer not to use USB communication, you can put the STL file on an SD card, and use an SD card reader to print the file.
The amazing thing about the RepRap printer is that it is actually able to print many of its own parts. So, once you have built a working printer you can print the plastic parts of the frame to pass on to other Arduino enthusiasts. There are metal parts and electronic components that you will need to buy separately, however, but the ability to print even a handful of the parts required is an amazing step forward for the open source community and for electronics enthusiasts around the world.
Image Courtesy of Free Digital Photos