Editor’s note: Video footage of our interview can be found at the bottom of this article.
By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – A whirring and beeping box the size of a 1980s microwave sits on a coffee table, its robotic arm tracing patterns in melting plastic as people gather around to watch the machine’s programed dance. Named the Replicator, which is no doubt a nod to the Star Trek device that would churn up a cup of coffee or some exotic alien alcohol for Jim Kirk and his crew, the device is a far cry from the sci fi unit that could create something out of nothing in a fraction of a second. Despite its slowness, Trevor Meister finds his 3D printer fascinating.
“It was probably just in my interest in the whole world of 3D,” Meister said of his introduction to the technology, adding he had previously spent time working to create virtual 3D spaces online, starting with the online community Second Life and advancing to creating virtual meeting rooms and environments where individuals and companies could meet and communicate.
“I got involved with a company called Reaction Grid out of Florida,” Meister said. “They were my first host. They hosted my first [3D] place and then I started working with them.”
The two worlds of 3D virtual reality and 3D printing are now crossing over as 3D aficionados are meeting in 3D virtual environments to discuss and design real world 3D projects, which are then printed on real world 3D printers.
“All the people that are dealing in those sorts of realities started talking about [how] we can take all of these things we are creating in 3D space and now we’ve got a way to print that out,” Meister said, adding he had been following the discussion on 3D printing on online forums and finally decided to pull the trigger and buy one to see what it was all about.
He purchased his unit online for about $2,000 some time ago. The price for 3D printing units has already come down to about $500 for some models.
Building reality a layer at a time
Meister said the process starts with a 3D blueprint, which can be designed in any 3D modelling software. He uses a free software program called Blender, but said there are many programs on the market as well as ready-designed 3D templates that can be run without the user needing to design them.
“It started off being not very many, but there are hundreds of thousands of objects there now,” Meister said, adding he was even able to find a Batman logo cookie cutter. “I came up with 10 different things for Batman.”
When the 3D model is created it is transferred to the unit by computer hook up or flash drive. The 3D printer’s plates heat up to accept the melted plastic and a base is laid down on which the object can be built. The unit then begins laying down plastic a layer at a time, tracing out the object over and over again to build it into a usable 3D construct.
“There is a secondary program that determines how to layer it,” Meister explained. “But it can go layer by layer and print out the object.”
Though the most complex thing Meister has created using 3D technology is a set of logarithmic gears (spiralled – non-circular gears) that operate off a crank, Meister said the technology is capable of doing considerably more complex items, even multiple items that can be connected.
Although Meister uses the technology as a hobbyist, the technology is being used by companies to design prototypes and by the scientific and medical communities to revolutionize how people are treated. The August 2013 issue of Popular Science features a cover story on how 3D printing is being used in biology to learn how to print organs from living tissue. Though that reality may be years away before it is commonplace in the operating room, Meister said there are already companies emerging who are bringing conventional 3D printing to everyone.
“There are companies out there now where what they do is printing. It’s a 3D printing business. You send them your file online and they print your object and ship it to you,” he said, adding some are even working in other materials, including ceramic and metal.
As it sits now, those looking to enter the world of 3D printing will need a fair amount of patience. Meister said creations take from 20 minutes for a simple piece to long hours for more complex items. Should the objects base break free of the unit’s heating plate, even slightly, the hours that have gone before are wasted as the unit begins tracing its patterns off-kilter.
Technology and costs improving
Meister said those interested in exploring the world of 3D printing can do so on a lower budget than when he began. Units have come down to as low as $500 for some models. “There’s so many different companies out there that are making their own little kits,” Meister said. “It’s becoming popular enough that there is investment being attracted to 3D space. I would expect that [ $500 price] is even going to come down.”
Though the price is now affordable for many, Meister said the technology is still several years away from 3D printers being a household product like inkjet printers.
Top left: Trevor Meister poses with his 3D printer.
Above: Six-year old Cooper Springston watches as a 3D object is printed in plastic a layer at a time.