CHOICE bought one for our test labs to make unique custom parts designed for use in testing other products, rather than make them by traditional, and much less efficient, means. Of course, this is no easy process, requiring 3D design software and a skill set that most people don’t have.
Download and print
Can’t design in 3D? No problem. There’s an extensive and growing internet community producing design files for everything from toys and spare parts to objet d’art. Others are capturing objects with 3D cameras and rendering them into printable files. Perhaps the best known site for free designs is Thingiverse but file-sharing website The Pirate Bay has already introduced a new category for 3D-printable designs called “Physibles”.
But how do you print a 3D object? The process is similar to printing a picture, except that with a 3D printer an “image” is printed using microscopic droplets of melted plastic instead of ink and another is printed on top of it and so forth until the 3D model is built up layer by layer.
Not only can they print common object parts, some 3D printers can also make fully formed objects with multiple parts, such as a working cog wheel, that don’t even need assembly.
The UP!Mini 3D Printer is smaller than a small microwave oven and has a fully enclosed metal cabinet to keep temperature stable and reduce warping. It’s also whisper quiet.
The UP!Mini is designed to have the simplicity of a traditional inkjet printer, using a snap-in printer head. The build table slides into place from the front and the roll of ABS+ plastic filament clips on behind.
We unpacked it, set it up and were ready to print within 30 minutes of opening the box. The included demo file of a rabbit took around three hours to print in the fastest mode, which leaves the interior hollow but for a support lattice, and the final quality was quite impressive.
The UP!Mini also comes with a library of spare parts files hidden in the program installation directory.
While the UP!Mini is among the cheapest home 3D printers, it’s by no means the only one hitting the hobbyist and home user market.
Probably the best-known competition is from the second-generation MakerBot Replicator 2, which costs more than twice as much and can be configured with dual heads, to print faster and in two colours at once. The Cube, from 3D Systems comes in at under $1500, while the cheaper Solidoodle printer comes in cheaper but doesn’t have the professional-looking finish of the UP!Mini.
There’s also the RepRap
printer - a “free” do-it-yourself home kit designed to replicate itself, among other things.
As the cost comes down, hobbyists and handymen aren’t the only ones for whom a 3D printer is a dream machine. This is the “thin edge of the wedge” technology, just as when personal laser printers brought design and typography to the masses at the start of the desktop publishing revolution in the early 1980s.
Unlike inkjet and laser printers, the Up!Mini doesn’t lock you into buying expensive consumables. The makers say you can use any supplier’s roll of 1.75mm ABS plastic (the same sort of tough plastic that Lego is made from). Replacement filament rolls for the UP!Mini range up to $60, in various colours and materials.
The Up!Mini heralds a new era for 3D printing in Australia, bringing this former big-industry-only technology to the home and to schools. Prices of 3D printers are expected to inevitably drop over the next several years even as technology improves greatly, just like inkjet printers, until eventually they’re in just about every home.