Forget necessity. For Eric Kaplan, a second-rate friend was the mother of invention.
Not long ago, Eric loaned out his canopy tent to his buddy. Let's give Eric's buddy this much — he did return the tent.
But he couldn't manage to bring back the tent in one piece. Specifically, the tent came back missing one of its feet, a small piece of molded white plastic that helps stake the tent to the ground and keep it from toppling over on Eric's head.
A seemingly insignificant hunk of plastic — until it was gone. Eric bought the tent long ago, on sale, in some out-of-the-way store in Georgia. He had no idea how to replace the part. Even if he could, it would take weeks.
And Eric wanted to camp right now.
Which is why he drove to the Omaha Maker Group, a co-op tech space located in a low-slung building on South 84th Street. Once there, he did something that would have been impossible mere years ago, something that is getting more practical and more popular by the day.
Eric manufactured a plastic tent foot nearly identical to the other tent feet. He made it using a computer. He made it by printing it out.
“It cost me about $2 worth of plastic, and took me an hour and a half,” Eric says. He smiles. “As opposed to six to eight weeks for shipping.”
Eric printed out a new tent foot using a 3-D printer, which sounds like science fiction to most of us but is a rather mundane act for a small-but-growing number of engineers, tech-savvy students and hobbyists.
Recently both Eric, who uses the Maker Group's 3-D printer, and Matt Hova, who owns his own, walked me through this strange, wondrous and growing world of 3-D printing.
At journey's end, I'm here to report: 3-D printing is extremely cool. And it's easy to imagine a future in which the Erics and Matts of the world — and eventually, quite a few of us — use the technology to make things we once would have had to buy.
“I can have an idea, and a half-hour later I can have a product to test,” Eric says. “It's basically desktop manufacturing.”
The 3-D printer itself doesn't look much like the printer at your office. Spools of plastic, not much thicker than a piece of floss, are threaded into the machine and through something that Matt refers to as “a really complicated hot glue gun.” Controlled by a computer, this gun “prints” by moving back and forth, left and right, and squirting the hot plastic in a predetermined pattern.
The printer basically builds objects from the ground up, as one thin layer of plastic becomes 10 layers, and then 100.
Matt, an electrical engineer, bought his 3-D printer for around $1,200 in July. Since then, he has produced plenty of kitsch: pieces for a chess set, buttons for a local boutique, a set of walking plastic robots and a plastic envelope he mailed to his friend in San Francisco. (It cost $2.07 in postage to mail, but it did arrive.)
But he is also working on commercially viable projects. He's building a track that will eventually be able to move a mounted camera from one end of a football field to the other. And he's signed a deal to work on a 3-D printed prototype for an oft-broken part in a common type of machine. (He wouldn't publicly name the machine, citing the deal.)
Eric, a mechanical engineer by day, has made a money clip for himself and a gift-card holder for his father by night. Other members of the Omaha Maker Group have made parts for radio-controlled helicopters and a tiny plastic bust of Yoda.
(By the way: If you have any sort of nerd inclinations, you need to join the Omaha Maker Group right now. The work space houses a 3-D printer, a laser cutter, every kind of saw imaginable and, most important, a makeshift arcade. You get a key to the space when you join.)
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
To get a better sense of how this works, let's go back to Eric's solution to his three-footed tent problem.
First, he took an existing tent foot, measured it and entered all its dimensions into 3-D modeling software called SolidWorks. Using the software, he cut virtual holes in his virtual tent foot and shaped it until it looked like the real one.
Then he moved the life-sized image to another computer program called Repetier-Host. Here, he used a function called “Slicer,” which virtually sliced his tent foot into dozens of layers, each measuring 0.3 millimeters. Then he hit “Print.” He watched. He waited.
A half-hour later, he had a new tent foot. It wasn't identical to the other three feet, which were made (as most molded plastic is) by injection molding. His foot wasn't as smooth as the originals, and by touch he could tell his was a tad more brittle, too.
But the biggest difference is in the production: Injection molding injects liquid plastic into a mold and uses heat and force to bend the plastic to its will. It's effective when you want to make a million Legos, but it's also costly as it requires things like machines and factories. It's big. It's bold. It's as 20th century as a Cadillac and a bloody steak.
Eric can't make a plastic piece using injection molding. But he can do something that's uniquely 21st century. He can, with the right equipment and a deep understanding of computers, sit down and print one out for himself.
It's easy to dream on the implications of this. New, high-end 3-D printers go for about the same price as a junky used car. As the technology gets better, will we eventually print out a replacement plastic part for our toilet when it breaks?
And forget the mundane. Will we print our bowls? Our sunglasses frames? Our chairs?
“All I know is it's really nice to sit down, work a little, hit render ... and you have yourself a product,” says Matt. “It's kind of nice to be able to do it yourself.”