September 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

MakerBot Replicator

This year at CES, through the swathes of Android phones and tablets, Macbook Air clones or ‘ultrabooks’ as they’ve now been dubbed, 3D reared its head once again. However, this year it was less about 3D TVs (thankfully) and more about 3D printing with the release of MakerBot’s new generation of 3D printers – the MakerBot Replicator.

There has been a lot of hype surrounding 3D printing this past year or two but it’s certainly not a new technology, having been used in industry since the 1980s (see stereolithography). The change now taking place is the creation of affordable 3D printers aimed at consumers and small businesses. The basic model of the MakerBot Replicator can be bought for just $1,749 (around £1,140). It also comes already built (previous MakerBots came as kits that had to be assembled) meaning you can pretty much start printing objects straight out of the box.

So how does it work? It’s actually surprisingly simple. You load it with a spool of plastic that looks a bit like spaghetti and plug in a USB stick or SD card containing your digital 3D model and off you go. You can create the 3D model yourself using free software such as Google Sketchup or just download one from MakerBot’s online library. MakerBot have decided to go the open-source route with their online library meaning anyone can upload their designs but they must be shared for free.

The possibilities for these machines are really quite exciting, especially as their price continues to fall. Take a trivial example: you break the battery cover on your remote control (let’s face it, it’s one of the biggest problems we face in our daily lives) but instead of mutilating it with rounds of Sellotape and Blu-Tack, you simply head online, download the 3D model of the part (or create it yourself if it’s not there already, assuming you’ve mastered the art of 3D design) and print it out. Voila – fixed! For all the DIY-ers out there, this is like a dream come true. Instead of throwing away all those things that can’t be fixed because they’ve long stopped making spare parts – print it out. In the business world, it will allow smaller companies to quickly and cheaply create many prototypes and get their products to market a lot quicker than they would have traditionally been able to.

It’s not just MakerBot either. Another company called 3D systems announced their first consumer-targeted 3D printer at CES called the Cube. Coming in slightly cheaper than the MakerBot Replicator at $1,299 (around £850), it’s slightly smaller and uses cartridges instead of spools. The major difference is in 3D systems strategy; they’re allowing users to upload their 3D designs and sell them. Much like Apple’s App Store, 3D Systems will take a cut of the revenue but believe it will give people more incentive to upload their designs.

It’s interesting to try and envisage where this technology will lead us. However much I feel like we’ll end up drowning in a sea of plastic junk (as if we’re not already), it could lead to great improvements in efficiency. If we get to a stage where companies sell their products purely as 3D designs and we just print out what we want as and when we need it, there would be no wasted stock, there would be no stockpiling, it would cut out warehouses, it would cut out shops completely. With the rapidly advancing field of plastic electronics, it’s not hard to imagine we will soon be printing out much more complex objects than just plastic cupcakes. Although, as tangible products become merely digital files, it opens up the manufacturing industry to the same piracy problems that have plagued the media industries.

Perhaps even more interesting is MakerBot’s enthusiasm to get these printers into schools. They’ve even developed their own curriculum which could create a generation of kids able to self-sufficiently design and create the products they require. This is happening at a time when computer programming is being advocated more and more as something everybody should learn. The ICT curriculum in the UK is being updated to focus less on Microsoft Office and more on learning how to code and companies like Codedacemy are encouraging people to do the same with their “Code Year”. It seems as we move deeper and deeper into the digital age, governments and organisations are finally waking up to the fact that things like 3D design and computer programming are going to become ever more essential everyday skills.