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Personal Fabrication Machines Make 'homemade' Digitally

Laser cutting in TechShop's San Francisco facility.

Laser cutting in TechShop San Francisco. The organization describes itself as "a playground for creativity" that is "part fabrication and prototyping studio, part hackerspace and part learning center."

Credit: TechShop

To the delight of hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers, and dedicated "makers" using desktop three-dimensional (3D) printers introduced over the past several years, other kinds of personal digital fabrication machines, such as laser cutters and mills, are hitting the market at consumer-appropriate price points.

Also known as additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping, 3D printing is a process that builds a product, device, or prototype in layers. Laser cutters and mills are subtractive in nature; they trim or cut away what is not needed. For example, desktop laser cutters can cut or engrave acrylic, metal, wood, vinyl, glass, and other materials to fashion signs and decals, jewelry, frames, and to personalize smartphones, tablets, and promotional items. Desktop mills,  can carve tools, circuit boards, firearms, toys, and sculptures. Both types of machines can be used to trim 3D-printed objects.

The main difference between the two types of cutting technologies is that in the laser cutter, the laser moves around a fixed product to make cuts; in the mill, the laser is fixed in one position and the table to which the product is affixed moves to appropriate positions for cutting.

Canton, MI-based Trotec Laser USA distributes the Speedy 100 laser cutter "for demanding entry-level users," said company president Warren Knipple, who explains the Austrian-made devices can cost entry-level users, which he said "can be individuals, but are lots of small shops," typically from $10,000 to $15,000. The compact laser cutters are used to make architectural models, awards, and trophies, and to engrave barcodes, serial numbers, and markings for surgical tools.  Knipple said while "3D printing is a fascinating technology in creating a three-dimensional object from basically nothing, it can be complicated because you don't know what you will get until it's done. But laser cutting is a 2D process that is more precise, and you can get a better feel for the end result than with a 3D printer."

Knipple said his company's line of entry-level laser cutters is selling well. They are "by far not the lowest-cost" laser cutters available, because Trotec is the "BMW of the industry." He said a lot of $4,000 desktop laser cutters are coming from China, but "the quality and accuracy are questionable, to be nice." If someone were to launch a reliable $2,000 desktop laser cutter, it would "transform the market," he said.

Not everyone needs to own their own 3D printer or laser cutter, Knipple said, because "you can rent time on these machines at places like TechShop for entrepreneurs and hobbyists." Also, he said, "there is a concept called Fab Lab, which is associated with educational institutions. It's an international phenomenon, [with] the Fab Foundation and MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms…leading the charge."

The non-profit Fab Foundation is aimed at facilitating the growth of the "international fab lab network." It defines a Fab Lab as "a technical prototyping platform for innovation and invention, providing stimulus for local entrepreneurship. A Fab Lab is also a platform for learning and innovation: a place to play, to create, to learn, to mentor, to invent."

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms explores "the boundary between computer science and physical science" by studying "how to turn data into things, and things into data. It manages facilities, runs research programs, supervises students, works with sponsors, creates startups, and does public outreach."

TechShop calls itself "a vibrant, creative community that provides access to tools, software and space," as well as "a playground for creativity" that is "part fabrication and prototyping studio, part hackerspace and part learning center." Launched in April 2014, TechShop's Washington D.C.-Arlington facility will start to operate 24/7 on March 20 to serve the organization's member-entrepreneurs, inventors, and makers who "build products."

TechShop provides space, access to equipment valued at $1 million, and classes to anyone over the age of 17 in eight facilities across the U.S. The company plans to open facilities in other U.S. cities (starting with St. Louis and Los Angeles), and soon will launch its first European facility in Munich, Germany.

Isabella Iglesias-Musachio, general manager of TechShop DC-Arlington, said laser cutting and 3D printing are a "gateway to working in the shop because they are easy to learn." The DIY makerspace and fabrication studio also provides classes, including after-school programs and camps, and has a computer software training lab. Also, while there are no safety issues with 3D printing, users must take a safety course before being permitted to access the laser cutters and mills.

Roland DGA manufactures desktop 3D printers and mills; its SRM-20 milling machine sells for $4,995, while its monoFab ARM-10 3D printer is priced at $6,995. According to Adam Sebran, the company's business development manager — Rotary Products, "Roland understands the importance and validity of both technologies and is one of the first companies to offer additive and subtractive solutions in a desktop combination. The designer, engineer, student, educator, hobbyist, or maker can rely on Roland's monoFab series as their one solution for creating many types of rapid prototypes or proof-of-concept 3D models. They can even combine 3D printer parts and milled parts to produce a single model."

Compared to 3D printers, Sebran noted, "Milling machines give you the option of using many different material types, including wood, plastic, foam, wax, acrylic, and in some cases, even non-ferrous metals like aluminum and brass. These materials are not proprietary and can be easily purchased at minimal expense. In addition, a high-quality milling machine will produce a part or model with close tolerance (plus or minus .001 inch), less distortion and a smoother surface finish."

Bill Decker, chairman of the Association of 3D Printing, observed that 3D printing will "democratize manufacturing," but wondered whether "people really want these machines in their home for one-off projects." Decker said consumers may balk at the "smell, mess, and fuss" of 3D printing at home, when they could send a 3D design to a local Staples or UPS store to be printed, and then pick up the finished product "just like we currently use print shops for business cards, brochures, and flyers," a process Decker calls "3D printing on demand." Organizations like New York-based Shapeways already provide such a service.

To Decker, "a mistake everyone is making is to think the consumer is the market to target." Do-it-yourself 3D printing, cutting, and milling "makes sense on a boat, oil rig, or in the Third World where there is no delivery, product, or stores, " he says, but what "is sexy to the consumer is the ability to scan or design a product to manufacture, use the power of the Internet to get it made, and then store the design in the cloud to use later from anywhere."

Tatjana Meerman is a freelance technology writer based in the Washington D.C. area.


Jackie Bartelll

What an informative article that gives insight into the possibilities for home/hobbyist printing options. It does a nice job of highlighting what options are available for an average person to engage with some high tech printing options.

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