tamberg's Blog

2011-11-26 by tamberg

Makerbot's Next Step

Fabbing seemed too good to be true when I saw stereolithography demonstrated by ETH Zürich at the legendary Heureka exposition in 1991, as a teenager. But for the rest of the 90ies and on into the new millennium, it stayed disappointingly far away from everyday life. With the RepRap project, 3D printing reappeared on my radar. The goal to achieve self-replication made this project particularly appealing. It gave an "old" concept a new twist. But building such a machine was still a big challenge, undertaken only by the bravest of tinkerers. Three of them – Bre, Zach and Adam from NYC Resistor changed this for good with the announcement of their company MakerBot and its first product, the Cupcacke CNC. As mentioned earlier, I've built such a DIY kit in 2009. While the process was hugely rewarding and allowed me to gain a thorough understanding of how it works, having the technology at home also had a demystifying effect. At the end, the thing was not much more than a glorified hot glue gun, some motor drivers and an age-old file format. On the other hand, the simplicity of the design is its beauty and integrating those parts and materials into an easy to assemble kit is a fantastic piece of product engineering.

Anyway, since I've never had the time to become an expert in CAD my 3D printing experience was heavily influenced by a second crucial innovation introduced by the same people: Thingiverse. All things I made were 3D models downloaded from this Web site. And after learning a bit of Sketchup it was possible to upload some things I designed. No matter how basic it is, somewhere in the world there is a MakerBot owner in need of your design. Even better, you can subscribe to this RSS feed and watch objects getting born. Memorable designs from the early days include Glasses by lanfordw, Zaggo's Whistle and Skimbal's Cathedral. In between there have been many MakerBot parts, from random users as well as official, sometimes playful but often iterating proven designs, resulting in ever better print quality. A feedback loop on many levels, based on openness, that profits designers, users and the company.

This week though, not too long after the appearance of Heart Gears, a printable V8 Motor and the first two colored object, another next step seems to have happened. I suspect it started with the Turtle Shell Racer. Users were adding LEDs and other electronics to MakerBotted objects from the beginning but Skimbal took it to a new level by adding the innards of an RC car to a design with 25+ parts. The innovation though, is that he and MakerBot decided to make the required electronics available as a series of kits including assembly instructions, thus lowering the bar once again to fabbing at home.