There’s a huge interest in 3D printing amongst digital artists who desire physical counterparts to their polygonal sculptures, as well as in the robotics community for robot parts. The trick isn’t just knowing how to model polygonal parts, but how to get them printed for use in the real world. 3D printing is slowly becoming cheaper and more readily available thanks to open source projects like the RepRap 3D printer and its various children (MakerBot, Rapman), and online service bureaus offering competitive pricing and quick turnarounds.
There’s a significant cost:quality/size trade off when dealing with home 3D printers. Even the cheapest commercial-grade printers cost around $15,000 USD. Alternatives such as the aforementioned MakerBot CupCake CNC ($750 + materials), are cheaper but the quality (resolution) of the 3D print may be unsuitable for practical purposes and limited to a relatively small build envelope. The surface of a part may need to be finished with resin or putty to smooth out the lines that form as the part is printed layer by layer; larger parts need to be broken up into smaller pieces for printing; and smaller, fine detail parts may be too thin or flimsy to print properly at all.
For these reasons, artists will probably skip the at-home printers for now, but roboticists may want to look into them. Holypong printed Gundam-inspired parts for his Automo robot for the recent ROBO-ONE Gate Sunrise Heroes Battles. And in the following video, a couple parts printed using Makerbot’s CupCake CNC don’t contain fine detail so the limited print resolution doesn’t affect them as much, and the parts themselves are quite strong…
Investing in the CupCake CNC may not be worthwhile if you have a detailed artistic piece, just want to experiment, or need a small number of parts. In that case, the best option is to go with one of the many online service bureaus (see links below), where parts can be printed by industrial machines capable of larger build envelopes and very fine resolution.
Most service bureaus require that you send them your 3D file in order to get an estimate, but some services like ShapeWays have clear pricing based on the volume and material of the printed part and even allow you to sell parts. Artists can even get their 3D models printed in color based on texture maps at Offload Studios (their website has dozens of high quality photos showcasing some amazing work).
Finally, if you’re going to need lots of parts and desire a finer quality, you may want to take the plunge and invest in a commercial-grade home 3D printer. They’re expensive, but if you plan on printing hundreds or even thousands of parts, they will pay for themselves. You could also look into starting your own 3D printing service for hobbyists to help pay for the machine. Take a look at Jon Hylands’ blog to see how he’s using a Dimension uPrint personal printer to build robots for Dartmouth University.
Other robots that have benefited from 3D printing are Team Osaka’s RoboCup Soccer bots, VisiON and the OmniZero robots by Takeshi Maeda. Vstone, one of the corporate sponsors of Team Osaka, has since started a 3D printing service for roboticists in Japan.
3D Printing service bureaus:
Finally, for much more info and news on 3D Printing head over to Fabbaloo.