A look at this intriguing emerging technology.
The demand for small plastic parts in my workshop is practically insatiable. I use them for servo connections, as parts of motor mounts, for access hatches, as spinners, for wing mounts, as landing gear break-away bolts, as scale details, etc.
Companies such as Du-Bro, in business for over fifty years, have massive catalogs full of all sort of obscure plastic doohickeys. Based on that, you would expect that our needs are already being well met.
The problem is that invariably nobody makes the part in the size that I need, or the local hobby store does not carry it. Either way, I am out of luck.
I have been working on a project lately, and I ran into exactly that problem. I need a piece of plastic to hold some of the parts in my model airplane design together, and it appears that nobody makes it. What am I supposed to do?
You may have heard of the 3D printing revolution. For a few hundred dollars you can buy one of these desktop 3D printers that create objects by laying down a thin bead of melted plastic.
The technology is changing very quickly, but until now most of these printers have been very slow and produce objects at a very low resolution. In other words, it is simply impossible to create an object with fine details.
These 3D printers today are like the dot matrix printers that we used thirty years ago at the dawn of the PC age. What was amazing was not how well they printed, but that they printed at all.
MakerBot Replicator 2
A 3D printer released just a month ago might change all that. It is from MakerBot Industries, a leader in the field. It is their new Replicator 2.
It has a printing resolution of 100 microns, which is about the thickness of a standard sheet of paper. That is about two and a half times better than their previous model. All of a sudden, a whole range of practical printed objects become possible.
Costing over $2000, the Replicator 2 is not exactly a practical solution for most of us. But prices continue to drop quickly, so it is worth keeping an eye on what is going on.
3D Model Libraries
We are starting to see online libraries of 3D models. These files can be downloaded and printed at home or workshop at your convenience. Cornell University, for example, hosts such a collection of free models.
Intellectual Property Rights
I suspect that Du-Bro would not be too happy if you recreated the design of one of their plastic fittings and posted the file online. I would not blame them, either.
But what if Du-Bro licensed their designs for a dollar each for personal use? Then you could download the file from their website, modify it as needed, and create as many copies as you need. No, we are not there yet. But that is the direction that the 3D printing industry seems to be headed.
Autodesk 123D Catch, Sculpt, and Make
So how would you go about creating a 3D model file? Here is a quick look at one possible application that is available today.
123D Catch is an iPhone application that looks stupid simple but is not. First, just walk around your subject taking pictures. Then combine these pictures and create a 3D model in your computer. How hard can it be?
In the video below they demonstrate creating a 3D model of a person. But it could be of anything. How about creating a 3D model of your broken motor mount, so you can print yourself a replacement?
Well, not too long ago software that did this cost $100,000 a copy. I know, because I used software like that in a special project I worked on once. The first time I saw this technology, it looked like magic to me. Only after I learned the price tag did I realize just how tricky this is to do.
So how much does Autodesk charge for this app? Nothing. Nada. Gratis.
Watch the video below and see for yourself. I do not know if it is quite as easy as the video suggests, but it sure looks easy.
Two other applications round out the suite. 123D Sculpt is used for editing your 3D models. 123D Make can generate data files for driving 3D printers and CNC machines. A desktop version, 123D, contains all the functionality of the other apps in one. Yes, they are all free.
I do not think 3D printing is practical yet for the average RCer, but I do think that the technology will become practical a lot sooner than most folks would expect. I plan to continue to keep a very close eye on it.
In fact, the biggest expert I know of computer controlled machines is Mike Hancock of The Crash Cast. If you want to learn more about them, tune into his weekly podcasts.