3D Printing, Open Source and Community: A Look At Artengine's 3D Print-a-Thon

Last week, I told you about the 3D Print-a-thon taking place at Artengine. The Dude and I scored ourselves a couple of tickets and anxiously awaited Saturday, when we would finally see 3D printers in action for the first time. And you know what? It was totally worth it.

Artengine is located at 2 Daly Street, in the same building as the Ottawa Art Gallery, next door to SAW Gallery and the Youth Hostel. When we walked up the stairs and followed the signs to the entrance, we thought that we were hitting a quiet period during the Print-a-Thon. Then we realized that the halls were deserted because the two rooms where the showcase was happening were jammed full of people. So many people, that at times it was actually hard to move through from one display to another. Which, in the context of getting the message out to Ottawans about Artengine and its maker space, would imply that the event was a rousing success.

In fact, board member Luc Lalande tweeted that over 350 people took in the day's event. What an incredible turnout!

Here's a peek at what we saw and what we learned:

3D printing requires the use of modeling software to design creations and conversion software to turn it into code for the printing process. Apps like Blender are open source which means that the printing community is able to the benefit from each others' experiences: refining the software and adding new functionality over time. Which is good, because the less you can fiddle with the software itself, the more time you have for designing and printing. And if you're not so good with the drawing? There are plenty of sites like Thingiverse where you can download designs and modify or print them at will. There are other free design apps like Google Sketch Up and AutoDesk 123D (which has a monster maker app for ipad only #sadPanda) that you can use to get started.

You can design an item that are solid or use the apps to figure out how much fill to put in it; some have mathematical hexagon patterns through them which gives them sturdiness without bulk. Now, 3D printing requires a bit of patience, especially with some of the smaller home printers. Small creations only a couple of inches high can take 30 minutes to print, while larger items can take hours upon hours to complete. And it can get expensive. The printers range from hundreds of dollars to thousands. The most expensive printer at the showcase was an industrial printer worth $65,000. The item prints on a bed of wax that is melted away to reveal the final product. The quality of the items coming off the industrial printer was stunning: smooth, detailed, crisp edges. But it's not the type of tool that just anyone can buy.

At the entire other end of the spectrum, the Printrbot runs around $400. That price point makes it perfect for families, schools, libraries and community centers. In fact, Lalande mentioned that they are looking to fund the placement of these printers in schools across the cities. [Aside: if you can help with this, or know of a business that might be interested in sponsoring a school printer, you should get in touch with him.] One of the printers, the Prusa, is actually made using 3D printed pieces. (It's the inception printer!)

The printing materials are interesting as well: some use corn-based plastic, some use ABS (the stuff that LEGO is made of) and Andrew Plumb (aka @clothbot) has even been experimenting with a wood/plastic composite which produces sturdy designs that look like they belong in gardens, with slight wisps coming off the plastic. The industrial printer used acrylic which could be treated to be perfectly clear or painted with vivid paints.

Aside from all the trinkets we saw being printed, one use that caught my attention was by Patricia Pichette of Fused Elements. She makes jewelry starting with the 3D printer to make her molds: for some of her more complicated designs, she will draw them on the computer and print out a template using a 3D printer. From the template, she can make a wax model, cast it in plaster, melt out the wax, and make a rubber mould. (To which I commented: "just like the MythBusters does with ballistics gel moulds!" She laughed, which I think means she is of the geek persuasion :)

There were a lot of families present, including some dads who had brought their kids along for the day to help them demo. There were also a group of grade 10 students from Ashbury who run a company called Fabrika 3D. They won a local innovation competition and received a $2,000 purse to purchase 3D printers for their school. They are planning to visit elementary schools across the city to speak about the importance of innovation, and are promoting placing printers in schools to foster creativity among younger students. They are also selling printed smartphone cases, and have just received an order for 500. Of his experiences learning about 3D printing, one of the young men I spoke with commented, "The feeling of designing something and having it in hand ten minutes later is incredible."

The best part about Artengine is that you don't have to make the investment to learn how to use these machines, or even to expose your kids to the possibilities of this type of technology. Being a communal space, there are opportunities for learning and future showcases. The Dude brought a design with him and asked a number of the makers whether it would work and they explained how it would need to be tweaked depending on the type of printer he might use. He left with a ton of ideas and excitement. (we're already planning to check out the monster maker software as soon as its available for Android!)

Here are some pics of the event: (All pics credit me, spydergrrl)
The crowd
3D Software
Prusa & some printed items
A printed tardis and a Minecraft creeper (which the Dude got to take home)
Acrylic figures from the industrial printer
Moulds and jewelry from Fused Elements
The students of Fabrika 3D