You can print out almost anything with a 3-D printer, from weapons and prosthetic hands to Yoda figurines and famous masterpieces. You can buy a 3-D printer. But what if you wanted to make one yourself? Can the average Joe (or Jess) do it, without a background in electronics?
With a few hundred dollars and a couple of days, yes.
For the less geeky, with deeper pockets, there are ready-made ones that go for about $1,000 minimum. Or, you can get a do-it-yourself kit and assemble one Ikea-style, bringing the price down to as low as $200.
That's what these guys did. The whole thing — including printing a plastic whistle — took about 12 hours. Not bad.
Here's how it works: There are two parts to any 3-D printer: the hardware and the software. The hardware is the thing you actually build — the box-like structure with parts that squeeze out hot plastic along three axes. The software is the stuff that tells the printer what shape to make and how to do it.
"What you're really doing is, you're building a robot that can accurately position itself in three-dimensional space ... like a robot hot glue gun," explains Sean Ragan, who made an online tutorial for Make magazine.
First, you build the basic scaffolding, which some people manage to laser cut from plywood. You screw on the other parts. Like any appliance, there's a power source to plug into the wall. A few small motors drive the extruder (the part that squishes out hot plastic), and a stack of circuit boards tells the parts where to move.
There are video tutorials all over the Web to help in the step-by-step process, which tends to take somewhere between eight and 16 hours.
Then comes the software. It does three things: allows you to view and alter 3-D images, converts the image into instructions for the printer, and "slices" the file into horizontal pieces that the printer will understand (the printer deposits plastic in horizontally, so it needs bird's-eye-view slices of the object).
You're ready to print. You go to a site like Thingiverse, where people post their designs for free. You scroll through and decide if you want to print something decorative, like a mini replica of the Taj Mahal, or maybe something useful, like a screw-top plastic water bottle. Or a relief map of Hawaii. Or a mechanical hand. If you know how to do 3-D design, you can create your own model.
You download the file and connect your computer to the printer with a USB cable. You open the file and make sure it's the right size to fit on the frame — a printer can make multiple objects at the same time, but can't print anything bigger than itself.
"And then you can hit 'go' and stand back," says Ragan. Presto.