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3DPrinter: A Small Factory on Your Desk
June 27, 2013   
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Bartosz Barłowski, a Poznań-based businessman and one of the designers of the Rapcraft three-dimensional printer, talks to Olga Majewska.

It seems your three-dimensional printer can handle just about any material. You can put it on your desk and print out whatever comes to mind. The printer stole the show at the CeBIT trade fair in Hanover, Germany, in March. What is 3D printing all about?

We superimpose layers of material on one another and thus build objects. Once these were simply cut out from plastic. In 3D technology, we print layers so there’s no waste. We can also obtain much more complicated structures than before. And from a variety of materials—glass, metal, aluminum, porcelain, wood, and even clay or nylon, which is a very durable and chemically resistant material. However, the most popular material for 3D printing is polylactic acid (PLA). It is produced on the basis of starch and is easily biodegradable. Materials for such printing can be purchased from manufacturers of plastic or plastic materials.

What else is needed, in addition to a printer and material, for 3D printing?

You also need to have a three-dimensional computer model of the object you want to print. The best bet is to download such a model from the internet. The www.thingiverse.com website offers a global and regularly updated library where there are thousands of three-dimensional models of cups and various useful things.

We can design three-dimensional models on our own using free software. At www.mepi.pl, we post free instructional courses in 3D graphics. You need to spend some time getting the hang of this software. But after two to three days, everything becomes clear and simple.

To sum up: I have a 3D printer and some plastic, and I want to print out a cup. What do I do?

You should find a three-dimensional model of the cup or design your own. Then load the model of your choice into the computer, select the quality of the product you want to achieve and how quickly your printer is supposed to print it. The software cuts this three-dimensional model into very small parts—planes. Then we hit “print” and that’s it.

How did your adventure with 3D printing begin?

While surfing the net we ran across the so-called maker movement, or people who produce different things on their own, such as jewelry and artwork, and then sell them online. And they helped us come up with the idea of a 3D printer.

We started out as a group of three people, and our first workshop was based in a garage. Today we have customers from Switzerland, France and the United States. The project is developing and everything can be seen on our website at www.rapcraft.com and its international version, www.omni3d.net. 3D printing is now a global business, a market worth millions. The Obama administration recently announced that the 3D printing business is as important as the internet itself. This is the kind of future worth investing in.

3D printers are already available on international markets. How is your printer better than others?

Our printer makes it possible to experiment with various materials. This is one of its strengths. It is quite large, roughly twice as large as an ordinary printer. But it easily fits on a desk. Differences in the size of individual printers depend on the size of the objects that can be printed on them. There are models that are a meter high. They make it possible to print out a chair, for example, or something really big. But printers that produce objects up to 26 centimeters in size are the most common.

What items are worth printing in 3D?

There is no strictly defined group of objects. It all depends on the creativity of the user. First of all, you can print out prototypes. A businessman needs a product, wants to hold it in his hand, see how it feels and how it can be handled. So he prints out, for example, the design of a screwdriver, door handle or a casing. In addition, a 3D printer can print up to 65-70 percent of the parts needed to build a new printer. These include all the plastic parts needed. Metal parts, such as the head, and electronics cannot be printed for now.

Printing a single item can take anywhere from 20 minutes in the case of small and simple objects, such as a whistle or a brooch, to 12 or 24 hours, in the case of very large casings, for example. Everything depends on the quality, the settings and size of the object.

How does your printer compare with the competition in terms of price?

Our printer costs about zl.7,000. We are working on two new models. One of these will be cheaper, and the other one—with larger dimensions—will be targeted at business customers. I cannot disclose too many details for the time being. The market prices of 3D printers hover around zl.10,000. But this technology is still developing. A year from now, the prices of 3D printers will be falling, as was the case with ordinary printers. It is already possible to buy printer assembly sets, or make your own model with prices starting at zl.2,000. But putting together a printer at home requires preparation. You need to spend two to three months exploring the subject. Then you can get nice printouts.

However, 3D printers are most often used for innovation. With this technology, artists’ impressions of products do not end their life on the computer screen. Now, a 3D printer makes it possible to print out the design and present the product at a meeting with an investor. All that helps persuade someone to support your ideas.

However, I am especially interested in the possibility of using printers in schools in the education process. If a biology teacher wants to show students a model of a bone, he can print out the bone. The kids can see and touch it, and thus learn anatomy. The school does not have to buy expensive anatomical models. This greatly reduces the costs.

Is this technology patentable?

There is no patent for three-dimensional printers because this is open-source technology.

What is the future of 3D printers?

The future of 3D printing are bioprinters capable of printing spare parts for the human body, for example an ear. In the United States there is already a design for a device for printing objects such as artificial coral reefs. First, the researchers scan the reef, then print it out and lower it into the sea. It turns out that thanks to this structure a real coral reef regenerates much faster. 3D printing technology can be used by pharmaceutical companies that spend huge amounts of money on drug research. If the plastic is replaced with drug ingredients, the 3D printer will perform the same process that takes place in a laboratory, on the desktop. It will do the job just as accurately and safely. Maybe in 10-15 years machines will appear that will produce drugs adapted to our individual needs.
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