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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

July 6, 2013 at 8:00 PM

With tinkering, 3D printing can push limits

The Objet Eden 260V prints objects, not paper.

The Objet Eden 260V prints objects, not paper.

A light moved back and forth inside the Stratasys Objet Eden 260V, blue as the one on R2D2’s rotating head. Inside, it was cooking plastic. Layer after layer of polymer was turning a file you see on a screen into an object you hold in your hand.

No big deal to industrial designers who’ve seen some form of this for years. To me, it’s magic.

The Eden 260V is one of several 3D printers that sit unceremoniously at the back of Makerhaus, the tinkerer’s wonderland in Fremont, as if they weren’t out to change the world.

The Eden 260V costs over $100,000, but the game-changing MakerBot Replicator 2X, sitting on a table a few feet away, is just $2,799. A display case showed off the machines’ products — everything from detailed figurines to a one-piece replica bike chain, its bendy parts in working order.

Looking at them for the first time last week, I didn’t know what to see. Are these newly cheaper, more accessible machines agents of a new industrial revolution? The in-home “desktop manufacturing” that will let us print a new light bulb at home? Or are they too slow, too geeky and too complicated to be more than glorified tchotchke makers?

The people who’d know are too busy improving them to ask.

Google engineer Johann Rocholl spent some of the latter part of his Fourth of July where you’ll find him many Thursdays — the Metrix Create:Space in Capitol Hill. That’s where Seattle 3D-printing hobbyists like him gather weekly to test the limits of the technology.

Rocholl's Kossel printer.

Rocholl’s Kossel printer.

Rocholl isn’t into printing things so much as he’s into the printers themselves. MakerBot, which Stratasys acquired this spring for $40 million (and whose CEO, Bre Pettis, once led a paper-airplane-making contest when he lived in Seattle) makes the best- known low-cost machines around.

But it’s got company. Every month, at least, someone posts their own design for a 3D printer online, whether it’s for sale, or, as in Rocholl’s case, for pay-it-forward fun.

His first printer, the Rostock, was a hit on maker hub Thingiverse last year. Now he’s got a waiting list to fill. He offered free printed parts for his latest printer, the Mini Kossel, to anyone who, once they assemble the printer, uses it to print parts for two more.

Rocholl has a great job and three kids. But when a colleague showed him an old MakerBot a couple years ago, improvements seemed so obvious that he couldn’t help but take time to tinker. “There was low-hanging fruit all over the place,” he said.

For Joe Heitzeberg, the idea that 3D printers could be handy in the home in just a few years is nuts. “You’re going to get dollar-store crap that took 12 hours to print and cost a ton,” he said.

But as newly minted “makers,” Heitzeberg and fellow entrepreneur Ethan Lowry, co-creator of the Urbanspoon food app, can testify to the printers’ prototyping power. Just nine hours after the two launched Poppy, a device that turns your iPhone into a 3D camera, it reached its $40,000 funding goal on Kickstarter. By Friday, it had raised $125,000.

Without their cheap but sturdy 3D-printed prototype, Heitzeberg and Lowry would’ve had to pony up for a market-ready model without having gotten feedback on a anything more than a cardboard cutout.

Joe Heitzeberg and Ethan Lowry made a 3D printed prototype of their 3D phone camera, Poppy, before launching the product on Kickstarter.

Joe Heitzeberg and Ethan Lowry made a 3D printed prototype of their 3D phone camera, Poppy, before launching the product on Kickstarter.

Like Rocholl, Heitzeberg is hooked — not on the printers but on the services. Sites like Shapeways serve as 3D-print shops and marketplaces for 3D files. They’re making things easier for people who want to print, but not easy enough. Heitzeberg wouldn’t say how, but through his and Lowry’s company, Hack Things, he’s going to work in the space.

“If you get in as a maker and entrepreneur, you realize how hard it is, and that means opportunity,” he said.

Every week as a kid I’d watch “Star Trek: The Next Generation” on TV with my parents. And every week, I’d see someone on the Enterprise order a dish or a drink from a machine in a wall.

I know 3D printers are not going to do that for me anytime soon, but even if they’re just aimed that way, I’m excited. We’ve already printed food, guns, and DNA, Staples just became the first major U.S. retailer to sell a 3D printer last month, and — what can I say? — I have faith in the tinkerers.

That day last week at Makerhaus, dozens of them teamed up for a competition called Startup Weekend: Maker Edition. One team used the 3D printers to design smarter earbuds. Another printed small items to lock zippers in place. A third — the winner — printed a prototype wristband and disc for Magneeto, a removable device that attaches to barbells and counts your reps.

I’ll take limits, but not excuses. Keep cooking, big gray box. I’m expecting big things.

Comments | More in Column, Disruption, Seattle

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