Entry-level 3D printers are coming to market for about $1000

October 24, 2012


THEY print plastic models, busts of relatives, designs and even replacement spare parts. 3D printers have been around for years in industry mainly for producing hard plastic prototypes.

Now entry-level ones are coming to market for consumers that cost around $1000. Some are even cheaper, and some can be built from kits.

The UP Mini 3D, by Chinese manufacturer Delta Micro Factory Corporation, fascinated us when we previewed it in June. Now it's on sale in Australia.

3D printers have similarities with their 2-dimensional ink jet cousins. Both have print heads and nozzles, and whereas an ink jet printer spews out ink, a 3D printer oozes melted ABS plastic and builds the design strand by strand, layer by layer, from base to the top until done.

ExecTech tried out two models: the UP 3D Printer Plus - with an open design that lets you view your creations as they're built, and the brand new and cheaper UP Mini 3D which looks more like a small oven. You control printing with the supplied UP software.

You import a .STL file with the design you want to print, and the printer builds the model on a removable platform made from a hard piece of perforated plastic. When completed, you use a lever tool to nudge away the plastic from the base and clean the base for the next run.

I started by printing a large wheel with moving plastic bearings between outer and inner wheels, then a hard plastic case for the Raspberry PI computer.

A large roll of ABS plastic feeds the print head.

The fun starts when you design your own models for printing.

My first project was to create a bust of my wife. This involved using the free iPhone/iPad app version of Autodesk 123D Catch to snap about 20-30 photos of her sitting still taken from different angles. The app then uploads the photos to Autodesk's server which then returns a 3D model.

I found this a precarious process. Uploading and downloading to the server was slow, and often timed out. And the resultant models were incomplete at the back. In particular 123D Catch had problems dealing with full heads of hair; they can't work out reference points for stitching photos into a 3D model.

My next test was to use the webpage version of 123D catch and again upload a group of photos. Using the 123D catch webpage was faster and overcame bandwidth issues, but the 3D models again were unusable.

I finally got it working by retaking photos in even light, using images angled from above and below the face, and from the top.

123D Catch then outputs an .STL file to the printer software but in our test, much of the facial detail did not translate across.

Next I tried Microsoft Kinect on a PC. I installed the program ReconstructMeQT, a 3D mapping program, and then installed Kinect for PC using the drivers supplied with ReconstructMe. It took some time to get Kinect working with this program but eventually all was OK.

The result was much better, with the plastic model having good facial detail.

source:  The Australian

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