Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Printing in 3D with Shapeways: a review

I still remember the magic of listening to my first printer (dot-matrix) clattering into life, and of watching as, ever so slowly, blank paper went in and printed words and pictures came out. It was an amazing moment of creation; how far removed from the painstaking effort of calligraphy or hand-sketching!

One ring to bind them...

Today, I opened a small cardboard box full of polystyrene chips and dug out a small packet. Within the packet, a single object, unique in the world. I had last seen it on my computer screen as 3D model which I created with the excellent NURBS modeller MOI (Moment Of Inspiration). This object - a simple wedding band - has been "printed" in 3D using a mixture of stainless steel and bronze, then sintered and finally gold plated, all by a company called Shapeways operating in the Netherlands. The same company offer a variety of other materials, including several plastics and glass. They also offer some lovely metal finishes apart from that pictured above (matt gold). For me, the combination of being able to make an object in a durable metal form, and to have the freedom to create my own one-of-a-kind was extremely exciting.

So, how did it turn out?

The good: very easy to use. Upload your model, wait for them to check it can be printed, then choose a material and await delivery. My order (this ring) turned up well within their specified timeframe.

The not-so-good: 3D printing is still in its infancy (and Shapeways are upfront about this), and, like my old dot matrix printer, the resolution is not yet pin-sharp. The digital model of the above ring is perfectly smooth, and the thin transverse pits are a product of the printing process. I like to think of it as fattura, the Italian term for the imperfections that reveal how a thing was made.

Taking this service for what it is - a very accessible route to rapid manufacturing of small numbers of prototypes, toys, jewelry based on slightly experimental technology - and you will, like me, be a very happy customer.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sugru: almost too much fun

I'm very enthusiastic about fixing broken things (some might say this could have something to do with how often I manage to break things). A steady stream of small repairs pass across my workbench - a little bit of carpentry, gluing, riveting, fibreglassing, etc.

Sugru in action

Plastic, though, has always been a problem - until now. I've recently got a little packet full of sachets of a new "wonder material" from . The 50g sachets contain a material which looks and handles a lot like plasticene - very easy to shape and mold. Unlike plasticene, it starts to set about 30 minutes after coming out of the sachet. The really neat thing about it is that it sticks very well to whatever I've put it on. So far, I've repaired a screwdriver handle(plastic), a plastic basin with a long thin crack, a couple of long gashes on my brothers wetsuit (neoprene), and put a little blob on my gate (steel) to keep its bolt a little quieter.

Any negatives? Well, it does come in sachets, so once you open one, it's a use-it-or-loose-it situation. So far though, this hasn't been much of a drawback - it is so easy and fun to use, you'll just be looking for things you can stick it to.