Earlier this year, at an unveiling of the University of Vermont’s new high-tech “fab lab,” a group of tech geeks gathered before something that looked like a vending machine. They stared in through the glass, transfixed. The mechanical arm inside didn’t dispense chips or candy; it moved side to side, methodically laying down layers of plastic. It was “printing” a solid, 8-inch-tall chess piece.
The idea of 3-D printing isn’t exactly new; the technology has existed on an industrial scale for about 30 years. But it’s become much more accessible to the general public in the last decade — and more recently, in Vermont: Essex Technical Center and Vermont Technical College each have a 3-D printer, and a new Poultney company, Blu-Bin, is a commercial 3-D printing operation — a multi-dimensional Kinko’s.
But how does a 3-D printer work? And WTF is it good for?
The concept is simple: A 3-D printer makes solid objects, usually from plastic or metal, out of digital designs. Users engineer their object on a computer-aided design program such as SolidWorks or Google SketchUp, and upload it to the 3-D printer. Over the next several hours, depending on how large the object is, the printer lays down thin layers of plastic ribbon until it has fully replicated the item.
It can print anything, from dollhouse furniture to doohickeys with moving parts to iPhone cases. “The whole process is almost magical to watch,” wrote Chris Anderson in a recent Wired cover story. “That’s the beauty of digital fabrication. You don’t need to know how the machines do their work or how to optimize their tool paths; software figures all that out. We’re moving toward an era when, just like with your 2-D printer, you don’t have to think about how your 3-D printer works, only what you want to produce with it.”
At the microscopic level, researchers are experimenting with 3-D printers to replicate human cells to build replacement organs.
Dan Riley, a recent Green Mountain College grad, is the owner of Vermont’s first 3-D print shop, Blu-Bin. He started his business in September with the philosophy that people shouldn’t have to buy their own $2000, 3-D printer to get access to the cutting-edge technology. People bring their designs to the shop, and Blu-Bin prints them on high-end machinery.
So what do people actually print? Riley says a guy recently dropped into Blu-Bin because he has a recurring problem with his Samsung Galaxy S phone. “He’s left-handed, and there’s this button on the side of the phone that he constantly presses and it drops his calls,” explains Riley. Together, they brainstormed a printable solution: a phone case that covers the nonessential button. “This isn’t something that you can buy online because there just isn’t the demand,” he says.
And even when the object you want is readily available, it’s often cheaper just to print it, Riley says. When one of his professors broke the plastic loop that connected a specialized car key to her keychain, she called the factory to order a replacement. The part, she was told, would cost $170 and would take two weeks to ship. “It’s a piece of plastic that’s the size of your pinkie toenail,” notes Riley, who ended up printing the part for the professor.
Up in Milton, 3-D printing technology has spawned another fledgling Vermont company. Tyler McNaney, a 20-year-old chemical engineering student at Vermont Technical College, has been building a device that recycles regular household plastic — soda bottles, milk jugs, shopping bags — into the filament used in 3-D printers. His new company, Filabot, which will sell the desktop machine, began last year as a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. McNaney collected more than three times his $10,000 goal.
The Filabot device allows people with 3-D printers to generate all their own building material while giving their plastic trash a second life. “It’s a closed-loop recycling system,” says McNaney.
So, how does it work? First, you drop a bunch of plastic into the Filabot. It passes through a grinder, breaking down into uniform shavings, which are automatically fed into a hopper and melted. Finally, the molten plastic is extruded through a nozzle and wound onto a spool. Ta-da!
“Every once in a while there’s a technology that comes along that has the potential to change the world,” says McNaney of 3-D printing. “I think — actually, I know — that this is that kind of technology.”
McNaney says he’s gotten a lot of use out of his own 3-D printer at Filabot headquarters. He designed and printed a cellphone case for his girlfriend, and even printed some parts of the Filabot itself. He’s also worked with area farmers to print the plastic part that connects electric-fence wiring to fiberglass poles.
“Those parts are always breaking because a cow steps on it or something,” says McNaney. “Say a cow does break it, [the farmer] could run the broken piece through Filabot and make another one.”
“Right now, I see this huge price tag … discouraging them,” Riley says. But with companies like MakerBot now selling affordable home printers, and community hubs such as UVM and Blu-Bin offering access to the public, the cost is sure to come down.
When it comes to future uses of 3-D printing, “The sky’s the limit,” says Riley. “Sending a printer up to the moon to start printing colonizable space? Or just going to your local automotive dealer and printing off spare parts? You just want to put it in the hands of the people and see what they do with it.”
See a 3-D printer — and a Filabot — in action at the Vermont Tech Jam, Friday and Saturday, October 26 and 27, at the Champlain Mill in Winooski. Both Blu-Bin and Filabot will be exhibiting at the Jam. Info, techjamvt.com.
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