Making a maker: a glimpse at the future via a professional 3D printer

Back in September, I toured Autodesk’s new office and makerspace in Pier 9 on the San Francisco waterfront. It’s beautiful, and filled with machines individual makers can only dream of owning.

Autodesk Pier 9

Since then, I’ve been following the process of Pamela Pascual, an Autodesk artist in residence who is spending 10 weeks working in the space. Pascual, a California College of the Arts architecture graduate, decided to take her interest in biomimicry and apply it to a pair of 3D printed glasses.

Pascual’s process began with a lot of sketches and software, which I’ll get into next week. The actual making process began on a laser cutter, which she used to make a prototype. The glasses are a basic Ray Ban shape with delicate cutouts that resemble a moth’s wings.

Then she moved on to a 3D printer — an Objet500 Connex, which is built by Stratasys and capable of printing objects more than a foot wide.

Watching the Objet500 at work is like watching a printing press instead of a desktop inkjet printer. It is fast and powerful compared to a personal 3D printer.

Autodesk 3D printer

The coolest thing about the printer is that it can print in up to 14 different materials in a single object, whereas most printers can handle just one, or maybe two. Autodesk’s printers are only set up to print in two materials, but the combinations can be really interesting. You can print in tough, hard plastics or a rubbery material that can bend. Or you can blend the two to achieve gradients and lend different properties to different parts of an object.

The machine also prints support material, which allows you to stop worrying about overhangs and other shapes that would fall down during the printing process without some type of support. Nice personal printers like the MakerBot Replicator are capable of printing support material, and it is on its way to becoming a staple in every new printer.

It took about an hour and 20 minutes to print the two temples for the glasses. That’s not crazy fast, but it’s faster than most personal printers. Unlike the Ultimaker I’ve been working with at Noisebridge, the Objet500 has eight print heads. It passes over the object and prints a whole layer at once instead of darting back and forth to print each tiny line individually.

Pascual chose to print them in a high-quality, flexible “Tango black” material.

Autodesk 3D printer


Autodesk 3D printer

After scraping them off the printer, it was time to clean off the support material. The temples have a nice curve to fit her head, so a lot of support material was necessary. The material can be removed with a high-pressure jet of water.

Autodesk 3D printer

Autodesk 3D printer

The outcome was smooth. Unlike my Ultimaker prints — where you can see each line of plastic the printer put down — you really couldn’t tell it came out of a 3D printer. It was also really flexible. Pascual said her final glasses will have a hard material printed on one side and a soft one on the other, allowing them to rest comfortably on her face while still remaining rigid.