Oct 6, 2016 | By Nick

A new personal fabrication kit means you can design and 3D print what you need, wherever you are, thanks to a mobile phone app and an extruder pen.

Thijs Roumen, a graduate student at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany, recognized that 3D printing was ready to take over the world of manufacturing. He spotted a gap in the market, though, as 3D printers are deskbound, bulky and you simply cannot take them with you.

Roumen argues that computers started out exactly the same way. They started out as huge items that filled a room and eventually turned into the smartphones and tablets that have largely rendered even laptops redundant. He also saw a real need to design and print on the go and even cited examples like 3D printing a karabiner to fix a broken strap on a bag or more random delights like 3D printing earplugs to block out the person next to you on the bus.

Of course, this takes far more than an app, it needs a mobile 3D printer. The likes of the iBoxNano and Olo are rising up to meet this challenge, but even they don’t offer the immediacy and true portability that Roumen was looking for.

This was a complex engineering challenge, but Roumen settled on a 3Doodler extruder pen fitted with rechargeable batteries. It isn’t a perfect system, because you have to trace a pattern on top of the phone. That means this is time consuming and the finished print simply can’t be perfect, but it’s a step towards mobile 3D printing.

In an emergency, if you need a hex key to fix a loose nut on your bike, or if you need a button for a shirt in a hurry, then the functionality is the most important part of the whole equation and the looks simply aren’t important. If they are, then you can spend more time and you can also produce much larger items, using several different templates and fusing them together with the 3Doodler. Roumens produced a passable pair of flip-flops as part of this research.

As you control the pen then the 3D printing process is faster. A traditional desktop 3D printer can take hours to make a complicated shape, but you can ‘sketch out’ the design in minutes and you dictate the compromise of quality vs speed.

They needed to be quick, too, as the 3Doodler’s batteries only allowed for 20 minutes of print time. In a production version, though, it may well be possible to switch out the batteries and continue printing.

Daniel Ashbrook, of the Rochester Insitute of Technology in New York, said: “I like this idea of moving entirely from the mechanised and automatic 3D printer to using a pen. This kind of hybrid approach, where the human is doing some stuff and the machine is doing some stuff, can get a better result – especially when you’re not trying to be perfect, you’re just trying to get something done.”

To prove this wasn’t simply a case of one man having exceptional skills with the 3Doodler, Roumens recruited 12 strangers on a train and asked them to produce a button for a shirt, a replacement shoelace for a boot and a device to remove a hex screw. They managed, but it highlighted the need for an online library of basic designs that could be accessed for quick printing.

Roumens has targeted a series of other improvements for the app, including a simple measuring system based on the camera that will help create more accurate hex screws and other items that just have to fit. With a measurement, the user could simply pull a design from the online library and 3D print their device within minutes.

He also recognizes that there’s a lot of work to do on using existing objects as molds. Everything from coins to existing nuts can be used as a mold, or for scanning, which can help make this job far easier and quicker. The 3Doodler pen can also create improvised tools on the go simply by manipulating the filament.

He proved this by creating a solid alternative to a needle and thread by stretching the filament quickly, to breaking point, to create a sharp needle and flexible ‘thread’. It can also be used to fuse a piece of filament together to produce a repair, a quick patch and more.

So the basic takeaway is that although this system looks rough and ready, it could actually be an exceptionally useful addition to any basic toolkit. Medics could use this, fisherman could use this and one day we could all carry a mobile 3D printer to cover our basic, urgent needs.

This is never going to replace the 3D printer on your desktop, but it could be a lifesaver when you really need it and it could change the way we look at 3D printing.



Posted in 3D Printer



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Thijs Roumen (author of paper) wrote at 10/15/2016 1:31:54 PM:

thanks for reading our paper Moe ;) you are right, the image of the hex key basically shows how it should _not_ be done. If you just take an STL file and turn it into printable lines you end up failing to make something that makes sense with mobile fab. The reason is the STL file and original model are simply a result of the used fabrication technique, what the model should really contain is: "a fitting tip", "a lever", "something that mounts them together". With hose three properties you would end up making a hex key that looks somewhat like the one shown in the video. This is because we use the qualities of our handheld fab technique and aim for reproducing _functionality_ instead of shape. I believe we should find ways to describe 3D models way more by their functionality rather than by their shape. This would make for a versatile description of the models which could work for all kinds of fab machines. Depending on the used technique a model could look very different but achieve the same goals.

Moe wrote at 10/12/2016 10:09:04 AM:

Read the paper and see the hex key figure in context before you assume this is a result of their technique. Just copying the figure from the paper unfortunately doesn't make for very good journalism.

bverde84 wrote at 10/7/2016 6:19:32 PM:

would make more sense to put a battery pack on a modified OLO and call THAT mobile printer with a phone... given the quality of the hex key, this barely qualifies.

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