Review: 3D/DC II: 3D Printing Comes to Washington, DC

2013-04-24 19.22.53

The second ever 3D printing conference in D.C. was on April 24, 2013.  D.C. is not an especially large city nor has it ever been a mainstay of 3D printing (New York on the other hand is).  So it was great that this was not yet another low key makerspace or hacker house meetup, but a really professional setting in D.C. near the capital building.  There were as many exhibitors (About 30) as one of the larger maker faire tents.  Free food, beer, and wine was provided.  There were a lot of suits too.

Despite the professional venue and aura, there was a sense of calm anticipation, and curiosity in there air.  I’ll try to cover these objectively here.  Of note, the number of times people brought up the 3D printed gun issue in an off-handed way was interesting.  No one took it too seriously as a threat (plastic guns really don’t exist because they can’t handle shock) plus many people had a libertarian attitude about personal freedoms.  There was some clear worry about censorship and government mandated product control.  However, it was not an area of major concern for people, as they were more focused on open source and having fun.

I also went into this experience, walking from station to station with an honest curiosity and blank mindset, trying to learn what motivates other people by listening to questions and answers.  In the words of one admin, the movement excites him because he can put a printer in the hands of someone in not-too-well connected country, and once they have a printer and some feedstocks, they can make and sell parts without paying heavy import fees…kind of spreading 3D printers in the world like a nice virus.  This person said he did not really see others as competitors and was happy to recommend another company’s printer if it was cheaper and worked well.

In other circles, people shared homage to a “stick it to the man” mentality, because they could buy a $300 printer kit of “arguably similar quality to Makerbot.”  On the flip side, there was one individual who persisted that Makerbot was of better quality because…well because.  This is the power of branding and marketing, in the views of some exhibitors.

The was some persistent cheeky attitudes towards the larger commercial exhibitors here (3D systems and Makerbot in particular).  This was demonstrated by the desire of others to open up printers to the masses by reducing the cost.  One exhibitor said the way he wanted to help do this is to keep companies from being able to make tons of profit, by making designs so affordable that one can only profit a little by selling components of kits.

In particular, on this day, one commercial providers’ machine broke and they couldn’t get in the machine to fix it for a demo particularly because it was a closed source design – and that was music to everyone’s ears in the open source movement (read: lots of snickering).

Other then the above review, I wanted to cover some select exhibitors themselves, briefly.

It was cool to meet the maker of PrintrBot, and discover how he created all these printer designs himself. Of note, he used nylon wire in his more recent super low cost release.  The nylon, which eventually stops giving after some hours of use, is believed to give better accuracy that bearings!  This make sense as it can’t skip on static friction during direction changes.  He also had some very impressive high-res designs smoothed with acetone vapor.  Finally, he has some partners make lost-PLA casts of metal, that were some kind of impressively heavy red metal, but had impressively coarse resolution too.

The maker of Filabot also showed, with some partners, and they were all very kind to explain the details of their project.  It was really cool to see their product in person, as there was some debate online if they could deliver a good product since it was a while since the kickstarter campaign had succeeded.  In fact, the machine seemed super sturdy, and was surprisingly large and heavy.  It had an accessory grinder they did not want to bother security with, so we didn’t get to see it, but they said they could put plastic waste within a few inches into it and then grind it.  Bottom line, it produces filament, and the consistency seems to be just enough for truly useful 3D printing.  It is shocking that one could make money on such a large product at their price point.

Others that represented themselves where the team at UPenn that printed dissolvable sugar supports for simulating vasculature in cell culture models.  The sugar is a clear, glassy, sucrose, dextrose, glucose mix that melts near 100C, and solidifies quickly.  It is hygroscopic, meaning, it can’t see humid air or it becomes a sticky mess.  So they keep the sugar in air tight 50mL tubes.  The sugar once printed is surrounded by a gel cell culture medium, which solidifies, and then the sugar can be dissolved away, and replaced with culture media.  Very cool guys, we salute you for making taking a leap from printing toys and spare parts to revolutionizing the biomedical field.

Finally, respect to one of our local innovators, Anderson Ta, a member of HacDC and exhibitor of his deltamaker.  Anderson also uses Nylon cables in this design and also finds that it is highly accurate.  Anderson was of special note because of all exhibitors, he had the only printer actually running besides the Upenn group.  It is funny that the home-brew printers work and the larger companies would not demo – there was clearly many people who had challenges with prints starting (A very common and nagging issue left in 3D printing).  This problem permeates even the most high end filament deposition systems.


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About Michael Armani

I am a motivator, energizer, think out of the box-er, maker, and philosophic. I am PhD Bioengineer by trade, graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, and completed my degree in partnership with the National Cancer Institute.

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