Consumer 3D printers, most notably those from Brooklyn-based MakerBot, are in large part limited only by the imagination technical inclination of their owners.
At one end of the creativity range are items that could be considered doodads or knickknacks, such as alien action figures. At the other end are life-enhancing technologies like prosthetics that have been unavailable to many people until now.
The doodads may be the better-known examples. At the recent Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo in New York City, MakerBot showed off several of its $2,799 Replicator 2X printers in action. They were engaged in the whimsical activity, printing out mythical action figures that people had designed a simple iPad app called 123D Creature.
With no more technical skills than knowing how to use a touchscreen, people can use this free app to select body parts, tap to connect them and drag to morph the shapes — fatter or thinner, longer or shorter. For those who have played the creature-creating videogame "Spore," the process will feel very familiar. The app exports digital files that can be sent directly to the MakerWare application (for Windows, Mac and Linux), which creates instructions for the printer.
When asked if home 3D printing was just about making such knickknacks, MakerBot founder Bre Pettis shot back that the possibilities go well beyond whimsy. "The people who have MakerBots are using them to make wonderful things. And sometimes those things are playful, and oftentimes those things are revolutionary,"
Pettis told TechNewsDaily from the conference floor. [See video: 3D Printing: From Doodads To Prosthetic Hands ]
To illustrate the point, Pettis showed the Robohand, a prosthetic for children born without hands, which a pair of MakerBot owners created. Anyone can download the design and print the parts for the hand on a MakerBot. "It allows kids who haven't been able to catch a ball to catch a ball," said Pettis. "It allows kids to go to school and have two hands instead of one."
The Robohand doesn't require everyone to have a MakerBot of course. One person could probably support a whole community where, hopefully, that birth defect is rare. [See also: 3D Printers at Maker Faire: Faster, Cheaper, Easier to Use ]
Likewise, creating designs, rather than just making them, may not be for everyone. The process requires some knowledge of design software. Even 123D Creature isn't always just point-and-click. "There are some things that, if you wanted to print your creature on our machine, you would need to know," said Nick Brewer, MakerBot's events coordinator. For example, the printer can't create objects with much of an overhang — Brewer used the example of a zombie figure with outstretched arms. "His arms aren't going to work quite like you want it to," he said.
And that's just for a doodad. Designing, not just downloading and printing, sophisticated items like the Robohand would be far more challenging.
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