The case for Open 3D Printing (now with links)

3D Printing is all the hype these days, at least among some communities. What it really is however spans  a lot of different things, several different uses and in general many different realities. 3D printing has actual uses in lots of industries and can be considered to be born out of the need for more rapid prototyping. But it’s far to be the whole story about it. Rapid prototyping is clearly a well identified use of 3D printing, however new uses, from art to spare parts production (and more) have proven to exist as well. To this day, 3D printers that are affordable come in two different kinds and target a market that’s generally seen as a hobbyist one (not that it’s a wrong way to perceive it).

Not so surprisingly, these two “kinds” of printers are reminiscent of what happened and happens in the software industry in the past and stands true to this very day. One the one hand commercially produced 3D printers enjoy a growing market of hobbyists and artists. The most famous brand, MakerBot, is definitely driving the push for lower prices and innovation as they have announced their first 3D scanner.

On the other hand, we have the “RepRaps”. In a nutshell, RepRaps are Open Source 3D Printers. You can assemble them yourself; their design is open, and pretty much everything about them is Free as in speech. Needless to say, no one wants patents on them. But that would miss the real point about RepRaps: these are 3DPrinters that can replicate themselves, which is not the case with other printers. This means that one can make a 3D Printer out of a 3D Printer. This is an important nuance: RepRaps are machines that let’s you replicate pretty much everything that’s in their reach. Started by Adrian Bowyer in Scotland in the middle of the 2000’s RepRaps are a personal adventure in assembling a machine, then designing the object(s) you wish, and create it. You can get the parts (and the spares) from website such as EmakerShop and RepRapCentral. Other Open Source “fabbers” include the Contraptor, and their website’s content is worth a look.

The combination of the values and principles of Free and Open Source Software and the Maker’s philosophy highlights the fundamental relationship between Man and its creative power. It’s not just about the sheer creation of objects; it’s about the freedom to produce objects and concepts, hardware and software with tools one can design from the onset with no strings attached to any of these. It is the opposite of the traditional top-down approach of the industrial and consumers’ era. As such it is an opportunity to revisit our potential for creativity and the extent of our actual freedom, both as individuals and as a community. Looking ahead, 3D Printing might very well be a new kind of industrial revolution and one of its effects could be an intense trend towards local manufacturing of every kind of stuff. In this context, open 3D printing plays a major role, and builds about Free and Open Source Software to be truly open.

3D Printing is not just about hardware, it’s about software as well. You need to design what you want to produce first and the way to design it is to use desktop software tools such as CAD software. The output of your design is a file that has a format such as the STL one, but there are others. Once you have this file you need to produce some binary code from it, as 3D Printers need this code as their set of instructions to create the object that will match your design. This code is called G-Code and of course it would not be  that simple, as there are different hardware drivers for printers. The good thing is that since these designs tend to be open they are also available on the internet.

In any case, this could be really fun if you have some time to tinker with this. As for me, this week-end was a Hyperboria week-end. But that’s another story… Enjoy your week!

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