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Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Wednesday 7 November 2012

3D Printing Avarice

Been a while since I was here, but just need to vent so please bear with!

Read this earlier and it made me grumpy.

The suggestive bias made me cross not to mention that there are plenty of questions, there is no new information and definitely no answers.

I think it is safe for us all to assume today that 3D Printing is here, that the sector is going to grow significantly, that there are business opportunities available with money to be made and that there are many, many applications of the technology that have not been thought of yet. Some of these applications will be for the benefit of many and some will be to the detriment of a few, personally I still think there is a killer app to come that will prove to be the tipping point. It is all going to play out one way or another, but it’s getting harder to swallow the financial predictions, which once upon a time I saw as a positive indicator. I suppose they still are, but these days they just serve to wind me up because it just whiffs of greed!

Does your heart soar or sink when you read that the market will be worth x billions in 5 years or xx billions in 10 years etc? The articles are cynically directed at VCs and similar, trying to get their attention, bring it all about faster than it otherwise might.

No one actually knows.  

And really, apart from the greedy, who cares?

I much prefer stories that centralise 3D printing people and/or applications and/or innovation, but that’s just me.

I know money makes the world go round. I know I can't change/stop it. I know this type of post makes very little difference. But, saying it out loud does just make me feel a little bit better! 

On a happier note – I have started my Christmas shopping and most of my f&f are getting 3D printed gifts this year :-)

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Hey Good Looking: Replicator 2 from Makerbot

After the countdown and the subsequent announcement, it's time for the dissection to begin.

My initial thoughts are as follows, but this is probably not for 3D printing geeks.

I think it's safe to say that the overall response to the new Makerbot Replicator 2 desktop 3D printer has been positive. For a start it would be hard to repel the sheer enthusiasm and positive energy that Bre Pettis, Makerbot's CEO, exudes when he talks about the Replicator 2 (or anything Makerbot-related come to that). He's a believer — through and through.

Once I FINALLY got my computer to behave I was able to watch the video announcement (still haven't seen the real-time announcement mind you) that was posted to the Makerbot homepage. But that wasn't before reading the brochure a couple of times. Taking it all in, I have to say it is all one very cleverly composed message with great imagery, as well as charm, personality, style and, most importantly of all, a compelling product.

This new 3D printer has been purposely designed and developed to have style AND substance. If you think about it, Makerbot has rarely been short of substance in the market segment (mid-lower end) it operates in. In terms of product, it has sometimes been accused of lacking style. I'm thinking of the CNET Makerbot versus Cube face-off and comments from a wider audience that it's a garage tool rather than a consumer product for the home. In contrast, the Cube from 3D Systems oozes style but lacks substance.

This is not just a product announcement; it is, I think, a gauntlet throwing exercise to the rest of the 3D printing market. I've mentioned 3D Systems, but watching the video there was also a direct reference to MCOR's 3D printing process. As Bre waxed lyrical about the 100 micron layer thickness and what this meant in terms of parts that could be used directly off the machine without sanding or post-processing, he qualified this by saying each layer was as fine as a layer of paper. As if that wasn't enough, the video supplies a visual image as he speaks — flicking through a ream of A4 paper.

Then he went on to pull a bright blue owl off a Replicator 2 build platform to highlight the resolution capabilities. Why blue when talking about resolution? Check out MiiCraft, a machine that is all about fine resolution — all the marketing material uses bright blue parts built on that machine.

Twice, at the beginning and at the end, Bre states with emphasis that the Replicator 2 "sets the standard in desktop 3D printing."

Couple of notable points, the Makerbot only processes one material — PLA. But not just any old PLA, it is optimised specifically for the Replicator 2 and Bre referred to over and over as "Makerbot PLA filament."  This is a brave move - a few people weren't impressed, but the reasoning behind it can't be faulted — it's biodegradable and it also reduces energy consumption by 32% compared with the 1st gen Makerbot 3D printer. Also, the build volume for the Replicator 2 sees a 37% increase over it's ancestor. This is good going and one of the consistent demands from users. That was never going to be a bad move. 410 cubic square inches in all, which converts to 12"x6"x6" (xyz). The software is no longer open source either, which got tongues wagging — the makers are not happy about this. But for a serious commercial operation, I don't think this is a bad thing, and it means that Makerbot can build some distance from clones like Tangibot. The open source / closed commercial operation is always going to be a sensitive one — but professional buyers need reassurances and open source methodology, despite its many benefits, just does not offer assurance.

What was unanimous, was that without fail, everyone watching and listening wants to see parts for themselves. That includes me. We know they'll be at Makerfaire next weekend, what I'd like to know is if they'll send some test pieces over to TCT Live next week?

Anyone from Makerbot reading this ...... pretty please?

3D Printing and RPES Catch Up

Not quite sure what happened to summer, but it's been a busy one. I don't even really know where to begin to catch up here on my own blog - I have been so caught up writing for other people.

Actually, that's where I'll start, with a mini bibliography of my recent published work, just so you know I'm not making this up! ;-)

Obviously there are the posts on Personalize — all 18 of them:

Also, I started a series on Engineering.com about 3D printing and barriers to adoption. That started out as a single post but developed a life all of its own — thanks must go to contributors: Kevin Quigley, Russell Beard, Jez Pullin, Rachel Trimble, @RichRap and Magnus Bombus!

First three have been published, and I think the last one is scheduled for next week.

Part 1, looking at costs of 3D printing is here; part 2 covers materials and surface finish/accuracy and can be found here; and part 3, published today, covers 3D data and is here.

I've also conducted and written up some interviews for Innovate3D & CADdigest. Some inspiring stuff going on:

BeautyBit™ – a Broken Nail Leads to an Invention

Inventor Profile: Julie Hyde Edwards’ re-Contour™

North American Eagle Using Modified Jet Fighter in Land Speed Record Bid 

There has been the TCTLive Conference on 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing to finalise and prepare for. Just in case, it's next week (25th/26th Sept) at the NEC, Birmingham UK.

Plus have you seen all the news lately, so many new 3D printers — right across the board — from ExOne and Sigma Labs with new metal systems. New entry level machines include the Pandabot, Eventorbot and the HYREL. There's a really interesting new one coming next Wednesday from Formlabs too — this one is causing much excitement as a few details start to leak. I've been promised more info by the end of the week — I'll share here if my source comes through!

And then of course there is the big announcement from Makerbot in approximately 5 and a half hours. The pre-announcement announcement that is so de-rigeur these days came with a slight twist as the cover of Wired Magazine — depicting Bre Pettis holding the latest gen Replicator — was "leaked". It was a nice touch, I have to say.

I have an announcement of my own to make soon too, but fear not, it won't be pre-announced!

I hope to see some of you in person next week .... take a deep breath, TCT is always a wild ride!

Thursday 9 August 2012

3D Printing: Constraints Don't Have to Mean Limitations

An interesting communication came my way from Crucible just recently, announcing a set of guidelines that the organization has developed for Designing for 3D Printing / Additive Manufacturing.

The announcement gets straight to the point, with an interesting truth: “The perception that these [additive] processes are free from any production constraints remains largely unchallenged. The reality is that — if cost, time or waste matter to you — additive manufacturing / 3D printing processes DO have constraints.”

Because 3D printing is widely (and correctly) associated with new design freedoms in terms of complexity and geometries, it is often perceived as having no constraints at all. This is a mistake that Crucible is hoping to eliminate for users, particularly users of DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering).

Crucible has contributed to the ‘SAVING’ project and as a result, has produced a set of guidelines aimed at achieving best practice with the process. “Most of the guidelines are aimed at making designers aware of the basic facts regarding design with DMLS, like rule number 1 — any downward facing horizontal surface will require support structures to be built and then removed, wasting time and money. The important point to note is that these are not limitations, provided you work with them — just as draft angles are not necessarily a limitation of injection moulding.”

This is an important set of guidelines in my opinion – which will hopefully go someway to supporting new and existing users of additive technology and help them avoid disillusionment when, as can happen, the reality does not always live up to the hype they have heard. The reality is that these processes are capable of great things, but as with anything worthwhile – it takes understanding and effort.

I salute Crucible for this announcement. Nice one! 

Thursday 2 August 2012

When It's Good, It's Very Very Good

I've not done this before, but I'm double posting this piece here after just loading it to PersonaliZe. After seeing the story this morning and it spreading like wildfire across the 3D printing communities, it is a story that truly deserves maximum exposure. And besides, after the VERY British opening ceremony and the recent gold rush for Team GB at the Olympics over the last couple of days and then this little cherub today — I'm feeling really rather emotional! So sue me .....

After 3D printing headlines that point to the darker side of human nature in recent weeks (I’m sure you get that I’m referring to the handcuffs and the gun), how uplifting it has been today to see the story break of how 3D printing has helped one little girl by providing her with the ability to hug — as well as to play independently and to feed herself.

A Stratasys Dimension machine was the system used to create a custom robotic exoskeleton small enough to fit two year old Emma Lavelle, who has suffered with the debilitating condition, arthrogryposis multiplex congneita (AMC) since birth. According to her mother, the only part of her upper limbs she could move was her thumb. You can read the details on Personalize here.
But bascially, an exoskeleton is a medical device that allows the patient to regain some assisted movement, and although these devices have proved successful in the past with CNC processes, the traditional techniques were unable to make a device small enough for a 2 year old.

3D printing could though!

And it has improved the quality of Emma’s life — so much so, she calls the device her “magic arms”.
Like the jawbone story earlier this year and the numerous custom implants that are now possible, this story just goes to show how 3D printing, applied in the right way, can really make a difference and improve quality of life.

For me it just goes to show that the incredible technology advancements with 3D printing are (or at least can be) a truly great thing.  As with anything powerful, it is how we, as humans, choose to apply that power to change lives for better or for worse. We don’t always make the right choices.

But often we do.

Monday 23 July 2012

Ups And Downs - It all Works to the Good

Got to be honest – it has been a bit of an up and down couple of weeks for me. Went through a not insignificant down period, when I was questioning the whole 3D printing thing. Not the technologies themselves, obviously, they are still real, they are still evolving apace, and sales of machines across the board are still increasing.

So, why the downer? Sometimes, doing what I do, I get the feeling that I am just banging my head against a brick wall and only preaching to the converted! It’s happened before, and I’m sure it will happen again. It is par for the course really [do you like my timely golf analogy as a hat tip to the British Open?] as a commentator in the 3D printing space when there are weeks that you can see huge leaps and bounds forward that are so exciting and uplifting and other weeks when I really do wonder if anything I say actually makes a difference, and, if it is time to get a proper job!?

Don’t worry, this is not a self-pity party! I am just using these personal experiences to highlight the reality of an emerging technology. And make no mistake, 3D printing is still an emerging technology.

I have had a few conversations in the last couple of weeks that have reiterated that the full potential of 3D printing is not even close to being realized today. And that the technology processes and platforms that exist today will be regarded as quaint, archaic artifacts that point to how the pioneers of this technology for mainstream makers and consumers worked with rudimentary equipment as they developed and progressed the technology itself and applications.

The most recent conversation was particularly enlightening, I think maybe because it was so unexpected, and it taught me that preaching to the converted is not necessarily such a bad thing. 

Heading down to London for some much needed training on WordPress, I was intrigued to discover that the person conducting the training, like me, is a freelancer, but unlike me, he has a number of strings to his bow. Alex supplies website design and coding services — no surprise, based on why we were there. He is also a freelance industrial designer and the Designer in Residence at Glasgow School of Art, where his responsibilities include teaching 3D CAD and consultation on 3D printing and CNC machining.

Needless to say, even as Alex displayed endless patience with regard to our primary purpose, we often got sidetracked with conversations about 3D printing and its application in the real world. As we debated what it could do now and the limitations it presented, particularly in terms of surface finish and strength, and even understanding these limitations as I do, some of Alex’s opinions really shocked me, including the fact that he viewed even some of the most sophisticated industrial 3D printers as wholly deficient. Furthermore, I had the strong impression that Alex viewed my ideological views rather skeptically. At the end of the day, having accomplished a satisfactory result in terms of using the WordPress CMS, it transpired we would be taking the same tube journey and we continued our conversation about 3D printing for prototyping applications and mainstream / consumer adoption. Alex, a pragmatist, was adamant that it will never be a household tool, although he did express his vision for 3D printers as toys within some households. I challenged his use of the word ‘never’! When I backed this up with my own forecasts with nano materials and my predicted timeline for 3D printers, in a form unrecognizable today, becoming a true plug and play device, I think I gave him some food for thought.

I have tried to avoid predictions for the future recently in a bid to eschew hype and speculation, but in an emerging sector, it is inevitable and in some cases, desirable, I find. So long as I keep moving forward, at this time, I’m not sure it matters if it’s a cyclic motion. 

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Mojo Man is in My House

Last week, at the International Conference on additive manufacturing and 3D printing, I got to see a Mojo 3D printer in action for the first time, courtesy of Dave and Mark from Laser Lines — two long standing members of the AM community that know their stuff inside out and who both have a wicked sense of humour.

The newest addition to Stratasys' family of 3D printers, Mojo is a professional FDM printer that would sit comfortably on a large desk, I'm not going to regurgitate the press release here, but I will point you to Todd Grimm's review of the machine, which is here. (It's a good review which I think is why Stratasys have advertised on the site! :-/) Anyway, at the show last week, Mojo was snuggled between a Fortus machine and a Dimension machine and therefore looked small. Up close though, it's not that small, but very manageable it seems. It was printing throughout the show days, and one of the things is printed is this little man. A few people requested close ups, so here you are:

Cute, huh? Jamie will be wanting to draw a face (and other things I imagine) on him as soon as he sees him.

Friday 13 July 2012

3D Printing & Me

Over the last few months I have been thinking long and hard about the numerous personal challenges I have received from different people to start 3D printing myself – at home!

I have taken them very seriously actually, because I do understand how big this is going to be – in industry and in general life – one day. Another angle I have considered is that I lose credibility in my commentary because I don't talk from personal experience with 3D printing. 

However, I have, tonight, come to the following conclusions:

First, as I have said before, 3D printing is not going to reach its full potential in my lifetime. The true pioneers that are working with the technologies now are vital to the future of the tech, but I know that I am not one of them. I know I'm repeating myself again here, but the technologies, as they stand now, demand an engineering background or technological leaning — I have neither. To get the most out of the existing 3D printing technologies one has to have been educated in that vein and I chose a different path in my formative years.

My university degree is in English — I love books and words and I am most comfortable, happy and productive in that environment. I (try to be) creative with words, although I am not too precious about them. I love using the written word and — you may have noticed — I quite like talking too! But my chosen subject is 3D printing. I don’t believe you can write, convincingly and successfully at least, about something you know little or nothing about, and during the last 16 years I have learned and continue to learn about the industry that I work in. I have built working relationships with many in the 3D printing industry, I have researched and I have listened. I have also asked lots of questions. I know the rhetoric off by heart and studied real applications, I have formed my own opinions based on what I have learned and taken other opinions into account and I do believe that all qualifies me to do what I do. However, I am not qualified to start designing in 3D or printing in 3D — and while the temptation to try has been not insignificant, I am convinced the time and effort it would take to get up to speed and anywhere near successful is best spent in a different way.

That said, I am determined to keep encouraging my children to explore the possibilities, for it will be their generation and the one after that, that will see the greatest impact of 3D printing in the world. I will never force them of course, but knowing, with some certainty, that there will be opportunities aplenty in this area for them as they develop and carve out careers for themselves I see it as a responsibility of mine to at least offer them the benefit of my knowledge and experiences. As you may have seen, there are positive results already. My daughter (14) is looking forward to her product design course and my son (7) is confident in the knowledge that he wants to do the same – just in case his WWE dreams come to nothing. (We haven’t disillusioned him yet, instilling in him that if he trains and works hard enough, anything is possible. We have, however, subtly suggested that he considers a back-up plan!). As and when they need more practical support than I, my husband or our immediate circle are able to offer, I feel sure that my contact network is wide enough to get them what they need, when they need it.

My nieces and nephew are getting the same advice too. I am also talking with the two local schools — one primary and one secondary level about 3D design and 3D printing. 

I also fully intend to keep growing my personal 3D printed collection, but my 3D printed items of choice will be printed remotely, by people that know what they’re doing!  

ie Not Me!

Wednesday 11 July 2012

A Quick RPES Update

My private twitter account bio (@RPES3) states that I "Can be found juggling life ... most days." Well, it's a fair reflection, but the number of balls I'm juggling have increased significantly in the last couple of months as more RPES projects have come my way. I'm not knocking it, far from it, because as a freelancer it's a wonderful thing when people approach you to work with them rather than the other way around. 

Most of my typical musings in the last month or so has been published on PersonaliZe, a new online magazine from the publishers of TCT dedicated to 3D printing for the maker and the consumer. Initially, this is a four month contract, and I am spending quite a bit of my time there, and enjoying it thoroughly. It's a great product that will, I think, become a great community of people using and appreciating 3D printing for what it can do. It is also a place that invites opinions of 3D printing — the full spectrum, controversial or otherwise, as the debate continues on how great an impact 3D printing does, can and will have across mainstream channels. At this point in time, I am not sure how things will go after the four months but I am taking it a day at a time and throwing myself into it. One consequence of my involvement with PersonaliZe, together with a couple of other unrelated projects that have materialised simultaneously, is that one of the balls I've dropped has been this blog. It was sort of a semi-conscious decision, born of necessity and the need to get some sleep occasionally! 

This post is just to touch base really. I do have a list of posts that I want to write about a number of 3D printing developments that have come to my attention and are backing up, not least the TCT Live 2012 Conference Programme, Mcor's colour 3D printing, LUXeXceL's printoptical technology and I still have copious notes about Neri Oxman's work that I really want to wrap my head around properly, and that's just to name a few. After a day at the Nottingham conference yesterday, keynoted by Neri, and talking to her subsequently, I have more notes! Not to mention the conference has initiated more ideas and quite a lot more gossip — when I go to a networking event, I do tend to make the most of it ;-)

I don't have this juggling lark down to a fine art yet — I will keep aiming for it though! 

Wednesday 20 June 2012

International Conference on Additive Manufacturing Will Reveal More than the Latest Developments in AM

So this year, even more than other years, I am really looking forward to attending the International Conference on Additive Manufacturing, organized by the Additive Manufacturing Research Group (AMRG) at Loughborough University (soon to be Nottingham) and Econolyst. This is because it will provide the perfect opportunity to get a firmer handle on the migration of Professor Hague and his team from Loughborough to Nottingham University and what that means, as well as getting to attend a full day of what looks like a very impressive two-day line up of speakers.

Being responsible for the TCT Live conference programme for more years than I care to remember, I, more than most, fully appreciate the considerable time, immense effort (not to mention powers of persuasion) that it takes to arrive at an eye-catching programme that attracts delegates and provides original and engaging content about 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing. (The TCT programme FINALLY went live yesterday btw, but I’ll get to that in a future post, this one is all about my other favourite conference.)

Taking place 10th-11th July, this year sees the venue moving to The Belfry at Nottingham. This change in venue is completely unrelated to the relocation of Professor Hague’s research team, apparently, rather it is the result of the Loughborough university facilities that usually accommodate the AM conference being used for national teams in the run up to the Olympics. A happy coincidence though, I think, as it almost precisely coincides with the actual relocation. The physical move of the team and the conference also symbolizes a shift in focus of the research — as I mentioned in a previous blog post in April.

Talking to Phil Reeves of Econolyst about the move and the refocus, I asked about the new name and branding and why, in the run up to the conference, there had been no change in the marketing material or on the website. He intimated that all the new material is ready and waiting but they are keeping it under wraps for now. It will all be revealed at the conference. Rather annoying, from a personal point of view, but clever and assured. This approach ensures that there is no opportunity for confusion in the run up to the well-established conference in 2012, with a full year for the impact of the new organization to establish itself and for the dust to settle.

Anyway, I should probably get to the conference content, and I have to say, it looks good. Unable to go for the two days, I had to pick a day, and it was mightily hard to choose when faced with the line-up.

With Neri Oxman and Assa Ashuach opening up the first day, the delegates are going to get a fantastic insight into the marriage of design and 3D printing from two of the leading and most impressive individuals in this field. After coffee the subject matter turns to medical — from the earliest days of additive tech — the medical field has been able to generate some of the most interesting (and life-improving) applications and I am certain this session will prove enlightening. Other sessions over the two days will home in on the latest industrial applications of 3D printing for prototyping and manufacturing applications. Toyata and Boeing are the highlights here. But what fascinates me is that this conference, traditionally the focus of R&D in AM, is also extending its outlook to include 3D printing for the consumer, with presentations from Alice Taylor of Makielab and Frank Cooper of the JIIC (consumers do like jewellery!).

The new research and new developments are still very much in evidence, however, with conference sessions dedicated to Processes and Materials Innovations as well as multi-functional 3D printing. Finally, the conference will be rounded up with a session called Progress & Promise, and will look at some of the funding opportunities available for companies that develop or take up additive tech.

As I said, very VERY difficult to decide which day, but I have opted for Day 1 — 10th July. I look forward to catching up with other delegates on that day, in person. If you’re not going, I would highly recommend you double-check your diary. It’s a good one to make time for!  

Wednesday 13 June 2012

3D Printing Intrigue, Opinion and New Ventures

So much time out of the office over the last two weeks has lead to a bit of a backlog and lack of posts. Time away has been for various reasons: meetings, exhibitions and a week of R&R with the family over half term. All good then, batteries recharged and a ton of work to plough through.

It's been an interesting couple of weeks, to say the least. A couple of meetings have thrown up some very intriguing information, which, on pain of death, I am not at liberty to share. In some ways this is really VERY frustrating for me but then, as the kind of person that reads the last page of a book first, I do like knowing what's coming. And there is lots on the horizon, some things are about to come into view and others may take a little longer.

Here's a couple of teasers: First, I heard about a really interesting twist on entry level 3D printing capabilities. Essentially two existing 3D printing capabilities, that would not make anyone's pulse race particularly as they have been available for a while, are being brought together in a way that, I think, might just set the cat among the pigeons. I also think it might even make the most cynical sit up and take notice. Another compelling intimation was the result of a culmination of much industry networking by a long-standing member of the 3DP community. Can't wait for the cat to be let out of the bag on that one.

Ok, ok enough with the riddles.

What can I talk about sensibly? Well, my visit to the capital for PDM 2012 was a good day, not least because it actually felt like summer on that day. Much cosier than previous editions of the show (I was last a visitor in 2010) PDM 2012 was not without its attractions & exhibitors I spoke to seemed impressed with the quality of the visitors. I think everyone was pleased to hear that the show is returning to Telford next year though.

I had very interesting conversations with old friends and new. Stopped by the Objet stand of course and caught up with the guys from IPF and Tritech 3D — I know I've said it before, but it's worth saying again — they really do do a good job and are a great team for advocating 3D printing in general and Objet in particular. The 3D printed pen they gave me was in my possession for all of a few hours before it was summarily claimed by my daughter. On the upside her D&T teacher and product design classmates are all very impressed — there is talk of a school design project as a result.

PDM also threw up a thought-provoking conundrum that I have been pondering for some time — what's happening inside the 3D Systems universe? Talking to the guys at John Burn, resellers of the 3D Systems' Bits from Bytes brand, it was fascinating to get their take on the mid-range 3D printing market. John Burn has a traditional history within the manufacturing sector and the addition of the 3D Touch 3D printer to their portfolio is proving to be a successful initiative as they introduce new and existing clients to the technology. Really lovely guys that have bought into the idea of 3D printing being an extremely useful tool in the manufacturer's tool box. But then talking to an ex ZCorp person (there are rather a lot of them now, unfortunately) the word is that sales of ZCorp tech is down, way down! The figure I heard was 45%. This is appalling, and I really struggle to understand why and how such a great 3D printing technology is being allowed to sink like this by a company that has the resources to make it fly? I continue to ponder ...... if anyone has any thoughts on this, would love to hear them. On or off the record.

I also want to thank Harry at John Burn for pointing me to a SpaceClaim demo. It's been a while since I have stood through a CAD demo, but I am so glad I did. I was mightily impressed with what I saw and heard, particularly in view of the user accessibility and the price for education and the licensing of seats in schools. Nice job, and thanks to Tim and Daniel from Physical Digital for patiently answering my (probably inane) questions.

Then I caught up with old friend Dave Bennion of Ogle Models & Prototypes. This is a great company that I have watched evolve from my earliest days in this industry. Again, it is not ALL about 3D printing for them, it is about combining these fabulous advanced technologies with traditional model making skills. The emphasis, always, is on quality models and 3D printing is an enabler for this. Also fascinating to hear that Ogle is looking at a consumer facing joint venture, again, fully enabled by 3D printing. Keep an eye out for Selassi - beautiful.

Mid-afternoon at PDM I took a phone call from my old boss - Mr Duncan Wood. He took me off guard somewhat when he asked if I would be interested in working with the team on the new PersonaliZe media platform for the next few months. Well, you may have seen the final result of that conversation yesterday? If not, my first blog post for them is now live.

Exciting times!

Friday 18 May 2012

Personal 3D Printing with Resin - B9Creator

One of the most recent entry-level 3D printers to hit the market via a crowd funded channel has got my attention — and that of many others it would seem. The B9Creator project created a spectacular buzz around 3D printing when it hit its $50,000 target within 24 hours, this virtually doubled by 48 hours. The well-deserved attention and amazing success has come, I think, from the fact that this 3D printer offers individuals within the 3D printing user community an alternative to the FDM process.
The B9Creator — the brainchild of Michael Joyce — is a compact, resin based 3D printer and offers users the benefits of resin 3D printing, namely highly detailed, high resolution parts (compare the typical 100µm layer of the B9Creator with the 200µm from a comparable FDM printer). Also the build volume (3” x 4” x 8”) is pretty impressive. For curing the resin materials, the B9Creator employs a light projector and is both effective and safe. Although available in kit form and at a price of $2,375 for the full kit (on kickstarter), the demand for this sort of printer is more than evident by the response it has got. It also looks quirky and has an attraction all of its own, IMO, this is by virtue of the fact that it does mirror the aesthetics of its professional grade big brothers.

With the target funding at almost 300%, this project is all set to go full speed ahead. Congratulations to Mike, and the very best of luck, for, as he says in his own blog, this is where the real work starts. After sourcing all the components shipping of the printers should begin in August.

Full kickstarter project can be viewed here

Tuesday 15 May 2012

3D Printing Vending Machines

The DreamVendor concept that has been installed at Virginia Tech got lots of positive responses as it hit the news waves recently. Pitted as an “interactive 3D printing station” for students at the university, I must confess to mixed feelings on this when I saw it: 
Of course I see the benefits of making the printers more widely available, and as a consumer concept, I think it is absolutely brilliant. I just can’t help thinking that for students in a mechanical engineering department, putting the 3D printers behind glass is self-defeating — they should be getting totally hands on with the machines and the technology. For consumers, on the other hand, plug in an SD card, follow simple instructions and hit print — spot on! 

It’s Getting Personal!

My previous employer — Rapid News Communications — has just launched a new website / online community. Personalize, which sits very comfortably alongside its sister publication The TCT Magazine, is fully dedicated to the flourishing personal 3D printer market for makers and individuals.
As a communications company that has been on the front line reporting all the latest and greatest developments in additive technology since the very beginning the burgeoning 3D printer market posed a problem for RN insomuch as The TCT magazine is singularly, and proudly, focused on product development, engineering and manufacturing technologies that reduce time-to-market for industrial organisations. The 3D printer market could not be overlooked, but neither could it be allowed to dilute the core TCT message.
The result is Personalize. And it’s a good result. In the first few days since its launch I’ve heard that the unique visitors to the site have been impressive and the feedback extremely positive. Objectively though, now as an outsider, it looks good, provides for easy engagement and the early content is broad and inclusive. The public message is that this is when the serious work begins, and it will, as the team works to build on a very solid foundation. I, for one, will be a regular visitor and look forward to getting involved.
It is also the reason why the RN team have been so vociferous in their contributions to the interminable 3D printing / Additive Manufacturing (AM) terminology debate, and cynical when it comes to using just one of these terms. Kind of all makes sense now as to why there was no give whatsoever in their argument. I stick by my comment on Duncan Wood’s blog post about this on the Personalize site — the nutshell version of my comment being that dual positioning works during this transition phase of the tech, but in the end, it will all be 3D printing! For TCT this means the context provided will be a prototyping & manufacturing backdrop with production grade 3D printers and materials; and for Personalize the context will be the maker community and, in time, consumers per se who want to engage with 3D printing!
Just saying …… 
.........................again! ;-)

Monday 14 May 2012

Objet's Formal Comment on Colour 3D Printing Capabilities

This morning I received a press kit from Objet, I am assuming other press outlets have received the same. But for the record and to follow up on my blog post, and the ensuing comment stream, from last week, here it is for any interested parties, in full:

"The Objet Pompidou event was a special R&D technology demonstration, presenting Objet capabilities in color DMs (Digital Materials). It has been a dedicated R&D project aimed specifically for this event and to show Long Term technological capabilities of Objet DM and Connex technology.

Following this event there is no change in Objet's offering and portfolio."

Not a huge amount to go on, and nothing about the breadth and depth, or indeed limitations, of the capabilities and what they might mean for 3D printing applications in the real world.

I get the feeling this is intentional!? ;-)

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Merger, Colours & Mojo — Objet & Stratasys Dominate 3D Printing Headlines

Seeing as I was face to face with a number of Objet personnel last week, I took the opportunity to probe a little further into the Stratasys / Objet merger. I also asked a number of Objet personnel if they knew what the big announcement coming from Stratasys was today — they were all tight-lipped but knew exactly what it was. The tagline “Something’s Coming” on 8th May has been on the company website for more than a week, together with a clock counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds.

Well, the time is now upon us, and Stratasys, as one of the companies with the greatest longevity as a vendor of 3D printing platforms for prototyping and for manufacturing applications is extending its reach — downwards . The company is adding a pro-sumer platform to its 3D printer portfolio — Mojo was announced a few minutes ago. Positioned as a professional machine — under $10,000 — this machine goes someway to close the gap I was talking about in my previous post about Makerbot

I have it on good authority that the R&D for Mojo has been extensive and the testing thorough over the last 3-4 years and the production line is all but ready to go . If this is right, then clearly Stratasys has been waiting for the right time to bring this to market and believes the time is now. 

I find it interesting that the company is, seemingly consciously, avoiding the consumer market — I do wonder if this will last and if they will be tempted.  

Anyway, here's the pertinent points about Mojo, lifted from the press release for your information, and including a quote from Todd Grimm, a man I personally trust and respect:

"New Modeling Technology Ensures Reliability
To produce a model, Mojo employs an innovative variation on traditional FDM material extrusion. The ABS material spool and the print head are integrated to a single package, called the QuickPack print engine. To ensure optimal reliability, a fresh print head is part of each material change. Material loading is similar to snapping in an inkjet cartridge on a paper printer.

Industry's Easiest Operation in a Compact 3D Printer
A desktop 3D printer, Mojo measures only 25 inches wide and 21 inches deep. It measures 18 inches in height (64 x 53 x 46 cm). As with a paper printer, no training is needed to get it set up and running, and settings are selected at the host computer, not the printer itself. Modeling operations are easy with Mojo's preprocessing software, Print Wizard, which helps users efficiently manage workflow. Support material removal is also a simple process with the included WaveWash55. It is a self-contained, hands-free cleaning system, and it requires no plumbing.

Fine Feature Detail
Delivering fine feature detail, Mojo has a layer resolution previously available only in the Dimension Elite and the Fortus Production 3D Printer line.

Professional Third-Party Evaluation
After evaluating an early beta-test unit, Todd Grimm, president of T. A. Grimm & Associates, noted: "Stratasys, who arguably started the revolution in 3D printing, is poised to shake up the market again with a complete professional system that breaks the $10,000 mark. With its new [3D printer], Stratasys is in a league of its own. It's counter-intuitive to get a low-price product with high quality like this.""

It has also occurred to me that as Stratasys broadens its spectrum of machines and Objet heads towards manufacturing capabilities, the breadth and depth of the IP within the two companies is unique.

When I interviewed Elan Jaglom, Objet’s Chairman, his passion and loyalty was clearly evident. I homed in on his take of the merger, pointing to the fact that all of the public discourse from both sides since the announcement referred to a symbiotic union of the two companies — at no point was there ever any talk of an acquisition. Elan told me that was exactly right, this is a coming together of two strong companies with complementary technologies and demonstrable growth patterns that are only set to continue. Both he & Scott Crump of Stratasys have shaped the merger, it seems, with a shared vision. In fact, one of his most striking quotes was thus: “this is a merger of growth”.
I don’t disagree; some integration will need to take place on a practical level, and that could be a little bumpy, but with similar cultures and a positive approach I think this merger is a great thing for 3D printing per se and for the markets that will use the 3D printers they produce — right across the spectrum.

Indeed, it is already starting to show — the Mojo announcement has been timed to closely follow Objet’s technology demonstration on Friday — using clever, coordinated marketing to get the market’s attention.

My Weird Response to Makerbot's News Last Week

While I was away last week, I did manage to pick up on the news that Makerbot is ceasing shipments of its kit 3D printer, the Thing-o-matic. I can’t quite explain why, but I had rather an emotional response to that news, in that I found it rather sad. I think it is maybe to do with the fact that it conjures a sense of Makerbot moving away from its RepRap origins.

But on a business level it’s a savvy move.

As the 3D printing capabilities gap continues to narrow (mostly in small increments, there is still a way to go) and with the slew of new entry level 3D printers, both in kit form and assembled,  Makerbot’s market position is shifting towards the centre. It is still left of centre, but there is visible movement.

Entry level —>—>—>—> Mid Range —>—>—>—>Production Machines

Saturday 5 May 2012

Objet Reveals Colour 3D Printing Capabilities

Where to begin? That is the question!

In the last 48 hours I have seen so much, heard so much, and, inevitably, talked rather a lot too (including an in-flight discussion on 3D Printing but that's a story for another time).

This post will be the first of a series of posts following my short sojourn in Paris, having been invited to attend Objet's media event at the Centre Pompidou - the Parisian museum housing the Multiversites Creatives exhibition, sponsored by the makers of the Connex 3D printing machines.

Centre Pompidou

And that is really where I have to begin. Yesterday's incredible revelation, without any specific announcement it should be emphasised, from Objet about the collaborative R&D the company has been carrying out — in full stealth mode — that has resulted in the phenomenal full colour 3D printing capabilities of the company's Connex range and multi-materials.

Phenomenal is not an overstatement here, neither is spectacularly impressive.

The focus of the Parisian event was the work of Neri Oxman's collection "Imaginary Beings - Mythologies of the Not Yet." (A separate blog post will follow on this). An intriguing title pointing to a portfolio of pieces that was documented in a superior quality catalogue each attendee was presented with on registration before being directed to a sumptuous continental breakfast buffet. So there I was, partaking of the food, sipping the deliciously strong coffee, mesmerised by the view of the Paris skyline from Georges restaurant at the top of the Pompidou Centre, and I started to browse the catalogue. Having read the intro and an updated version of Neri's biography, I turned the page and was immediately captivated by the startling imagery in the brochure. The shapes were intrinsically complex and stunning — and the colours were piercing.

But it had not registered.

It was only on the third image that the realisation dawned. I went back to the first two, and then quickly thumbed through the other fifteen (there are 18 pieces in total), scrutinising each high resolution image. These pieces were not finished - they were not painted! Apart from anything else, it would have been impossible to apply paint to such complex shapes, using multiple colours, so cleanly.

But Objet don't do colour!!

During the short(ish) presentations from Objet's Chairman, Elan Jaglom and Neri herself, which took place prior to the guided tour of the collection, there was no announcement, indeed there was absolutely no mention from either of them directly relating to the colour capabilities of the Connex technology. There was talk of the R&D investments and the extensive range of materials Objet offers from Elan (again a separate blog post on my interview with Elan will follow) and an introduction to the Imaginary Beings concept from Neri, but not a single word about 3D printing in colour.


I could barely contain myself, as Neri wrapped up her speech I started edging forward — I was trying to figure out what was going on, and needed to get some clarification on this. Was I imagining it? I knew I was right about the colour but I couldn't believe I was right, why wouldn't they announce it?

Clever Objet!!

Couple of things - the colours need to be seen to be believed. Some images here, but they don't do them justice. If you get an opportunity to see for yourself in the coming months, make sure you take it.

Also, after having spoken with a few of the Objet guys directly, all of whom had a glint in their eyes but totally played the whole thing down, the exhibition was unanimously labelled as "a technology demonstration" of the R&D Objet has been doing. They could not over-stress the fact that the colour capabilities are not commercialised yet and neither is there an official timeline for when they will be, well, none that Objet is giving away anyway. But be left with no doubt — they will be.

This is clever marketing!

Now, I know some of you will be reading this and thinking - colours - so what?? I am sure you will make your views known, one way or another. And, believe it or not, I get it. I do. Pretty colours are not necessarily an industrial designers first priority when developing a concept and testing functionality of a new product.

But this revelation goes further than just introducing a new aesthetic to Objet's 3D printing capabilities. Objet's collaboration with Neri is a prelude, a glimpse at where this technology can go. "It's just the beginning!" Regular readers of my blog will recognise that as one of my favourite lines associated with 3D printing, but if I heard that line once yesterday, I heard it a hundred times, and it wasn't me saying it!!

I came away from the event yesterday with a better understanding of Objet's full-on commitment to both continued R&D and its brand. Another observation that is worthy of note is just how integrated and committed the whole Objet team is, it's not a small team either, but they are like a well-oiled machine (no pun intended).

As mentioned, further blog posts will cover Neri's collection in more detail and Elan's take on the Objet / Stratasys merger and the future of the Connex. 

Monday 23 April 2012

A1 is Maxing it Up

I got to see the new Maxit 3D printer from A1 Technologies on Friday last. A1 was exhibiting at the TES Resources North show in Manchester, and seeing as that city is a hop, skip & a jump from me, I decided it was an opportunity not to be missed.

When I excitedly tweeted about it, one response I got back was "but it's just another RepRap". Well, yes, it is! No denying it. I'll be honest, my heart sank momentarily, as I wondered how many others respond like that. It didn't last long. That is the beauty of the whole RepRap concept and the genius of Adrian Bowyer's vision of an open source 3D printer. Anyone can take the basic premise and develop it and make it better. Not everyone that tries will succeed of course, but this is one instance where I believe that is precisely what has been done. It's an incremental improvement, granted, but that needs to be accepted as the norm by the 'additive informed' because there is no sea change yet visible on the horizon.

A1 Technologies is jointly run by Martin Stevens and Trupti Patel — two of the most ethical, unassuming and yet passionate people I've had the pleasure to meet in this industry. A1 Technologies is a 3D company, that is to say a company that provides accessible (ie easy to use and low-cost) tools for designing and making in 3D for anyone. The complete portfolio of products has been put together with a view to the whole design AND make process. Designing in 3D (Chameleon), Scanning in 3D (David Laserscanner) and Making in 3D (Maxit 3D printer and Studiomill 5-axis machine).

Before the Maxit, A1 was a reseller for another RepRap platform, indeed the company sold the very first sub £1000 machine in the world, and since that time has been a strong advocate for low-cost 3D printing. However the fire-fighting and problem solving that went with this was time-consuming and difficult — specifically in terms of supporting clients with assembly, reliable 3D print results and consistency. It was this that prompted the decision to change course and invest in their own R&D to overcome these specific problems. The result is the Maxit. It is an entry-level, self-assembly machine but it will not be the cheapest platform on the market, and it was never intended as such. The criteria for development was that stated above and as such, while it can print some of it's own parts, the mechanics have been sourced to ensure reliability and consistency and the number of parts is greatly reduced over comparable platforms, such that it can be assembled by ANYONE in one day. I challenged this claim, with a raised brow, but Martin insisted this was a prerequisite and it has been tested, tested and tested again. Furthermore, one of the beta machines is due to arrive at a secondary school in the next week or so, and this is the first challenge for the students - it will be documented.

The primary target market for A1 at this point is education. As Martin explained to me on Friday, this is not to exclude other markets now, but these technologies have to be introduced to our next generation of designers and engineers. Martin is an ardent believer that education is the way forward for UK & indeed global engineering & manufacturing by putting the technology into the hands of students so that "they learn by doing, not just listening and watching." Bascially, I couldn't agree more. Just some basic asking around at my daughter's school has left me flabbergasted at the lack of resources in this area. I am formulating my own personal mission in this area separately!!

Back to A1, what I saw on Friday was a company that doesn't just spout the rhetoric, they get on the road, weekly, to practice exactly what they preach and put the tech into the hands of kids. According to Martin, this approach has never failed to excite and enthuse the students that get the chance to try the technologies for themselves. As the Maxit 3D printer becomes commercially available within the next month or two through a number of different channels, this is only set to increase.

So there we are, there is yet 'another' RepRap platform hitting the streets, some of you may pull your noses up at it, but, the reasons for its existence as well as its capabilities and where it is headed, I think, are extremely positive and will make a difference.

Thursday 19 April 2012

All Change Again - And a Personal Epiphany

While I have been kept busy, fruitfully so, I had been thinking that things have been pretty quiet across the 3D printing universe recently.

Silly me.

It all started kicking off again last week. The first announcement came from (surprise surprise) 3D Systems (3DS), which announced on 10th April that the company had acquired My Robot Nation. It caused a bit of a stir because many had assumed that the 3DS spending spree was on hold while its numerous other acquisitions were consolidated into the business. Obviously, 3DS are not yet where they want to be, and, after short respite, the acquisitions are go again.

My Robot Nation (MRN) is a relatively new start-up, a consumer facing business, engaging its customers in customised design and supplying the 3D printed results. It's a good fit with 3DS, the new owners of ZPrinting, as the MRN interface produces full colour digital models that are printed on ZPrinters. The whole business, including the founders who were originally from the gaming industry, will be folded into the Cubify division of 3DS to further develop its reach and consumer interaction. Like I said, a nice fit.

This news was followed on Monday by a much more potent, albeit previously forecast, announcement from Stratasys and Objet, in that the two companies are set to merge to form the largest 3D Printing vendor company visible on the sector's landscape. Valued at $1.4 billion, this new company, to be called Stratasys Ltd, has really grabbed people's attention in a number of ways. First and most obvious is the sheer size and scale of the new operation. The share prices of both Stratasys and Objet increased by 25% and 20% respectively within 24 hours, so the response is largely positive. Furthermore, the combination of these two technology bases, complementary for the most part, will also bring together two of the very best R&D departments within the 3D printing sector. I think we will see some very interesting developments from this. A few on the twittersphere had seen this one coming after the news broke a few weeks back that Objet was on the market, myself included. The prediction now is that Stratasys Ltd will need to introduce &/or acquire metal capabilities to firm up its standing in terms of a fully comprehensive 3D printing technology portfolio. My hunch is that we won't have to wait too long for this to happen.

All in all though, I think this is a positive merger, a combination of two of the most operationally successful 3D printer vendors. And it should be noted that my language here is a reflection of the language used by both Stratasys and Objet in their corporate releases about this venture. Both were at pains to convey a mutual coming together, never once was the word acquisition used. I thought that was quite telling in itself! 

This particular announcement also set tongues wagging about the consolidation within the 3D printing sector, with bets being taken on how long before only the two largest companies are left standing. Either that, or one of the truly vast electronic/tech companies joining the party properly. If you didn't catch that, it was a reference to HP's half-hearted dalliance with Stratasys to date. Personally, I don't think the 3D printing sector will ever be reduced to just two dominant companies. I certainly hope not anyway.

And then on Tuesday came a further announcement from 3D Systems, which on that day, acquired Paramount Industries. Headed up by Jim Williams, Paramount is renowned for its use of 3D printing technologies for additive manufacturing applications, most notably in the aerospace and medical industries. Indeed Jim is a veteran user of additive tech, and has been working in this field since the origins of rapid prototyping way back when. Offering complete design to manufacturing services, Paramount will fit right into the 3D Systems corporation, alongside Quickparts & 3Dproparts, with specific emphasis on manufacturing capabilities. It is another nice fit, but I can't help but wonder how many more companies can and will be accommodated under the 3DS umbrella?

As things continue to change, and they will, as the consolidation takes a shape of its own and awareness increases apace, I should just mention that I had my own epiphany (finally) on the terminology around this industry. I was mid debate with a couple of people (Al Dean, Kevin Quigley and Jim Woodcock) about how 3D printing is different to additive manufacturing, and should be defined so. Al, who is never one to pull his punches, argued that they are all 3D Printers, "bang, done!" I was arguing that a "3D printer" is not the same as an "additive manufacturing" machine. I used the analogy that a Vauxhall Corsa is not the same as an Aston Martin. Kevin then commented, I think in agreement with me, that similarly an £800 CNC machine is not the same as a £500k CNC machine. Which is when it hit me — fully, completely and overwhelmingly. A Corsa is NOT the same as an Aston Martin, but they ARE both cars. An £800 CNC machine is NOT the same as a £500k CNC machine, but they ARE both CNC machines. A Makerbot is NOT the same as an EOS P700 but they ARE both 3D printers. The differences between 3D printers comes from the capabilities offered, the applications they serve and the users that employ them. Therefore, context is vital, but responsibility for this must fall to the marketing & branding by the machine vendors as well as commentators and journalists.

It really is that simple. And that is exactly what this industry needs — simplicity with context.

Friday 13 April 2012

Vote for the TCT Top 20

TCT is 20 years old - gulp - that makes me feel old. 

As part of its celebrations to mark this anniversary the magazine is currently taking votes from readers and the industry at large to find the Top 20 Influencers to the Additive Manufacturing industry (no mention of 3D printing but I think 3D printing people will get voted anyway!). The results are to be published in an upcoming issue.. This is a great feature — last carried out 5 years ago for the 15 year anniversary — and over a 1000 votes were cast back then. With the explosion of online activities and social media in particular, I would expect the vote numbers to be exponentially higher this time round. I will be very keen to see the results too, so much has changed in just five years in this vibrant industry, which continues to evolve apace.

I urge you to vote, and, if, like me, you want to recognise the work of more than one of the many fantastic individuals within this industry that dedicate their careers to driving it forward technologically and/or help people to understand it, you can vote more than once, although the Editor might frown at you a little (sorry Jim). I've voted three times. After which I kept thinking of more people that I really should vote for too. But I've made my choices and I'll stick to them. However, below is a list of people that I think will make the grade based on the work they have done in the last five years, although it should be noted that one has left the industry recently and one (maybe two) is due to formally retire. 

Can't wait to see if I get close:

In alphabetical order ie not my preference order or where I think they will come in TCT's Top 20 line up.

Adrian Bowyer, Bath University / RepRap
Phill Dickens, Loughborough Univeristy
Todd Grimm, T.A. Grimm & Associates
Lisa Harouni,  Digital Forming
Dan Johns, Bloodhound
Hod Lipson, Cornell University
Jason Lopes, Legacy Effects
Gary Miller, IPF
Vanessa Palsenberg, iMaterialise
Bre Pettis, Makerbot
Jeremy Pullin, Renishaw
Julie Reece, previously ZCorporation
Abe Reichental, 3D Systems
Martin Stevens, A1 Technologies
Scott Summit, Bespoke Innovations
Graham Tromans, GP Tromans & Associates
Wilfried Vancraen, Materialise
Peter Weijmarshausen, Shapeways
Terry Wohlers, Wohlers & Associates