Autodesk is now selling an open-source 3D printer

Autodesk’s first foray into hardware is here: The Ember 3D printer is now available for anyone to order.

At $5,995, the printer isn’t exactly a steal. Autodesk more so built it to be the perfect exhibitor for its open-source Spark 3D printing software, which is currently in beta.

Ember in the middle of a print.

Ember in the middle of a print.

People married to Autodesk’s suite of software might find that pairing of interest, but the greater 3D printing industry might buy Ember because Autodesk plans to release exactly how it is built and operates. MakerBot, the best known desktop 3D printer brand, gave rise to an entire class of printers because its first machines were similarly open source. Ember could do the same for a different desktop technology.

I had the chance to see Ember in action at Autodesk’s Pier 9 manufacturing space in San Francisco. It’s a digital light processing machine, which means it uses a projector similar to those found in those bulky classroom machines. Light hits a shallow tank of liquid plastic and cures it one layer at a time, slowly building up an entire 3D object.

Ember after a print, displaying a completed object.

Ember after a print, displaying a completed object.

Unlike most desktop machines, which print layers of melted plastic that then hardens, DLP machines print upside down. The printed object’s base adheres to a flat metal sheet that slowly raises out of the tank of liquid. The platform raises slightly between each layer to separate the already-printed layers from the liquid, a necessary step in DLP printing.

The Ember printer handles that last step in an unusual way. The tank is shaped like a cashew; a half-“C” instead of the square shape used by every other DLP printer. After each layer is printed, the print platform raises slightly and the tank whips around the curve of the machine before returning to its home position.

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Autodesk chose the unusual tank design because it requires the machine to use a lot less force, according to Autodesk 3D printing research scientist Andreas Bastian. Each time the projector cures a layer, it creates a huge amount of suction between the 3D printed object and the bottom of the resin tank. Bastian likened Ember’s system to removing a suction cup from a window by sliding it across the surface instead of pulling directly up.

He said that has the added benefit of exerting less force on the 3D printed object, making it easier to print delicate structures that can’t take a lot of strain.

The Ember is expected to ship by mid-March, pending approval from the FCC. Autodesk has yet to release the actual open-source documentation for the machine, or even footage that shows that goofy tank in action, but my personal run-in with the printer at Pier 9 was welcome confirmation that Ember really exists, and really works.

This post was updated at 4:45 p.m. with more details on the Ember’s resin tank.