Tag Archives: fabricator

Thoughts on 3D Printing Technology

I first wrote about desktop fabrication on this blog over a year ago as part of my “Future of Making Props” series. This weekend, I got to see a number of 3D printers in action. For those who don’t know, 3d printers build an object from a 3D CAD file by laying down very thin layers of plastic one at a time. This weekend at Maker Faire, I got to see a number of the cheaper DIY machines in action: MakerBot, RepRap, and Fab@Home were all there.

I’ve been excited about this technology for prop-making for awhile, as you can basically buy a complete MakerBot Cupcake Kit for around $700 and start printing your own three-dimensional plastic pieces. I’m a bit less excited after seeing what the finished pieces look like. They do not have that great a resolution, and there is a lot of clean up you would have to do to it. Let’s say you needed a small bust of Mozart for your play and you wanted to make it yourself. You would have to develop or make a three-dimensional computer file of the finished piece, which takes time and requires a completely different set of skills than sculpting it in clay. You would need to purchase and maintain a 3D printer. The printing process itself is rather slow; for a larger piece, you most likely would need to leave it running overnight. Once the piece is printed, you still need to sand it and clean it up, and only then can you mold it and cast it. Once you combine the time and money it would take to do all that and compare it to an artisan sculpting and carving a piece, the artisan still wins hands down.

That’s not to say they are without merit. At the moment, their draw is less as a means to an end then as an end itself. You should build and modify your own 3d printer if you are interested in building and modifying your own 3d printer. If you just need the objects it can produce, there are far less-circuitous routes to get there. As prop-makers and prop masters though, it is important to keep an eye on this kind of technology and be prepared to take advantage of it when it matures. It is a game-changer. It has the potential to transform prop-making as much as the introduction of synthetic materials has in the past century, or the invention of power tools to replace hand tools.

You can see they kinds of things which can be made by these machines at Thingiverse, which brings up another advantage of these machines. Once you create an object which works, you can make another just by hitting “print”. You can also share the file with anyone else who has a printer. Thingiverse is a site where you can share your own creations or download other people’s. To put it simply, you do not even know how to use 3d computer software to get things to print. Someone else can do it. That other person does not even need to be in the same location. You can email someone on the other side of the world a picture of what you want and they can email back the computer file you need to print it. I can envision a time when prop masters maintain their own library of printable objects much like they share files for paper props now.

This is already happening with websites like 100K garages or shops like TechShop. TechShop has all the fancy machines like CNC routers, 3d printers, laser cutters, plasma cutters, milling machines, as well as the non-fancy but necessary tools like welders and sanders. At Maker Faire, they were advertising that they were opening up a location in New York City in 2011. It’s very exciting.

Maker Faire 2010

Rocket Roundabout
The retro-futuristic sculpture at the Rocket Roundabout

This past weekend, I attended Maker Faire in New York City. For those who don’t know, Maker Faire is an event begun by Make Magazine. This year was the first time it came to New York City (or anywhere on the east coast for that matter). Though not strictly prop-related, it has a lot of overlapping areas of interest to the props community, and a lot of props people are interested in a lot of things here. Imagine if a science fair and a craft fair had a baby and it went to Burning Man for an episode of Mythbusters.

The New York Hall of Science and Flushing Meadows Park could not be a more ideal setting for this Faire. There is a retro-futuristic rocket sculpture in the center, and off to the side is a Gemini Titan II rocket and a Mercury-Atlas D Rocket; two of the rockets that first shot Americans into space.

Knitfitti on a real Space Age rocket.
Knitfitti on a real Space Age rocket. That sums it up.

Outside were several very dangerous looking carnival rides set up by a Brooklyn art collective called the Madagascar Institute. They had also set up the World’s Largest Mousetrap, a reference to the classic kid’s board game, not an actual mousetrap.

Life Size Mousetrap
Life Size Mousetrap

Later in the day, they hosted a chariot race, featuring all sorts of home made vehicles racing around the Rocket Sculpture in a truly dangerous and hilarious spectacle.

Swimming Cities in the chariot races
Swimming Cities in the chariot races

The Faire had a few tents devoted to fabrication technologies. In the first were the familiar commercial brands, such as ShopBot CNC machines, Epilog laser cutters and engravers, and a slew of similar devices. Another tent was set up with MakerBots, RepRaps, Fabbers and the like. These are 3d printers designed to be made-yourself. Some, like the MakerBot, can be purchased as a complete kit which you assemble, while others, like the Fabber, you can build solely through blueprints and instructions available online. Most of them have various intermediate possibilities, where you can purchase the electronic parts as a kit but construct the physical parts yourself, or vice versa. The common thread between them is that they are based on an open-source community, where individuals make modifications or improvements and tell everyone else in the community how they did it. None of the technology that goes into them is secret or hidden.

Fire, danger, and awesomeness at Maker Faire
Fire, danger, and awesomeness at Maker Faire

The Faire offered a number of events, talks and demonstrations. I attended one called “Turning Pro: Becoming a Professional Maker” presented by the husband and wife team of Because We Can. They talked about the lessons they learned and mistakes they made in their journey from full-time jobs to running their own design and fabrication shop for interiors and events. It was very interesting; like many other prop-makers, I frequently do outside projects, and occasionally consider breaking away and making that my full-time job (especially during meetings or tech!) Their talk was based on an article they wrote called “Venturing Out…” if you’re interested in hearing what they had to say but couldn’t make it.

I watched the Fashion Show by Diana Eng. For you Project Runway fans out there, you may remember her from season 2. Since then, she’s remained busy in the fashion design world, incorporating all sorts of technology into her pieces. I wanted to see some of these in person, so I figured I’d check it out. A lot of other people had the same idea, as the line to get in was very long. Still, it was interesting to see clothes with LEDS and other lights, inflatable dresses, and 3D printed fabrics.

Diana Eng Fashion Show
Diana Eng Fashion Show

One of the things which surprised me was how many children were there. I follow Make Magazine and a lot of the community online, and just kind of assumed the attendees would be the same set of people. It wasn’t a bad surprise; it was actually very heartening to see kids who were even more excited and knowledgeable about these things than I am. If Maker Faire was around when I was a kid, I would probably be a bigger (and better) nerd than I am now. One might not think kids should be in the same space as anarchic arts collectives like the Madagascar Institute, but then again, this is New York City; if parents have their kids pose with topless mermaids for pictures at Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade, than seeing guys wearing nothing but gold lamé short-shorts is downright pedestrian.

One of the golden girls of the Madagascar Institute
One of the golden girls of the Madagascar Institute

At the end of the day, I attended a talk by Mark Frauenfelder, founder of Boing Boing, editor of Make Magazine and author of Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World. He talked about his book, which describes his efforts to take a more DIY approach to his life rather than just buying a solution. It’s a great inspiration to props people (I’ll be doing a full review at some point in the future). At the end, I introduced myself and got my copy of the book signed. It was a nice way to end a long and tiring, but insightful and inspiring day.

So if you’re into props, I highly recommend you check out the next Maker Faire that comes near you. Outside of USITT and SETC, it’s one of the most relevant get-togethers for us, and certainly one of the most fun.

The Future of Making Props

Every once in awhile, I thought I’d try to look ahead at the future of building props. Prop-making has come a long way in the last few decades, from papier-mache and chicken-wire, to sculpted Styrofoam and CNC-routed parts. Today, I’ll take a peek at desktop fabrication.

Desktop Fabrication

If you need a color copy of a printed page, you can scan it and print it within minutes on the computer which is already in your office. Paper props have become vastly simplified with today’s computer and printing technology, and if your shop has a large color plotter, you can print nearly anything up to four feet wide.

Imagine doing the same with a three-dimensional object. You scan it in, and then “print” an exact copy.

A Fab@Home Fabber
A Fab@Home Fabber

The technology to do that already exists, and has for years, but remains bulky and expensive. Products like the Desktop Factory bring the dream of a desktop factory in every school, business, and home closer to reality.

According to the blog at Ponoko, the Desktop Factory is similar in price to the first consumer laser printer which was released in 1985. If we look ahead, we can see how prices have changed. These days, it can sometimes be cheaper to buy a new printer then new ink! In ten or fifteen years, desktop fabricators can easily cost less than a hundred dollars.

For the truly adventurous, there is a wealth of resources dedicated to constructing your own “fabber”. Fab@Home has everything you need to build and program your own machine to make three-dimensional objects out of a whole range of materials, from plastics to sugar.

When you combine desktop fabrication with more sustainable materials, you get machines like the Matrix 3D Printer, which uses sheets of letter-sized paper to build up a three-dimensional object.

These machines make objects which can be molded and cast, or in some cases, used directly.

I can certainly see more commercial prop shops using these kinds of machines and technologies. For smaller prop shops or university shops, they can still come in handy. Obviously, a desktop model will not let you print out a giant prop. Likewise, if you need a piece of wooden furniture, you can’t use a fragile plastic fabrication, nor would it make sense to cast a piece of furniture in some kind of resin. Additionally, these fabricators would require at least some knowledge of 3D computer programs, such as CAD. While many prop shops have at least one person with a working knowledge of one of the CAD programs, generating a precise drawing of a complicated piece may be too specialized a skill for a five-person shop.

I see the more immediate benefits of a machine like this as a way to make all the “bits and bobbins” that a prop shop is always looking for. Think about the boxes of finials and rosettes we keep around, or the bucket labeled “brass things.” Now imagine building up a virtual library of all of these parts, and whenever you need one, you just print it out. There are many other times when you need some kind of custom shape for a prop where precision is key.

I’m interested to hear how everyone else feels about these possibilities.

**Update** The Desktop Factory is no more.