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Enter Leapfrog: A New Player on the 3D Printing Scene

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You’ve heard of 3D systems and its new desktop printer, the Cube.  You’ve heard of MakerBot and Reprap and countless other home 3D printers.  But coming soon are the Creatr and Xeed, from Leapfrog (not to be confused with the educational technology giant).  Founded by Martijn Otten, Leapfrog began as “the Xeed project” in August of 2011.  Mr. Otten, along with an industrial designer, saw that the current professional 3D printing market was (and still is) overpriced and is in desperate need of a “sleek”, user-friendly, and affordable machine.  They teamed up with Mr. Otten’s university friend Maarten Logtenberg, who was attempting to create a 3D printer for more of a home/semi-professional setting, and began Leapfrog in order to supply both sides (professional and home use) of the market. 

Indeed, as Mr. Otten told us, “The purpose of Leapfrog is to bridge the gap between the current state of technology of 3D printers and the future of 3D printing as a whole.  We aim to deliver very easy to use, plug and play devices that look awesome.  Our drive is to become a worldwide-recognized brand name, capitalizing on the high growth in the market for 3D printing and to take 3D printing to the next level.  We strive to deliver devices, which make high quality printed products available to a much broader customer base at an affordable price.  This customer is central and should not have to deal with understanding the technology.  [Instead, it is our goal to let] them do what they do best: designing and creating new cool things.”

For these reasons, Leapfrog knew that a new option in the market would be hugely beneficial.  Even though there are many other 3D printers on both the commercial (professional) and entry-level markets, Mr. Otten saw problems with both options.  The commercial or professional printers are usually expensive, while the personal, entry-level printers are characterized as cheap, unreliable, with small build areas and can be time consuming in their learning curves.  (And on top of all that, this all results in 3D objects with bad print quality.)  “In almost all cases, an external computer is required [in order] to be connected to the printer to control the machine and convert STL files.”

Out of this frustration with the industry, Leapfrog built the Creatr and Xeed printers.  The Creatr is their entry-level 3D printer and uses FDM.  It is made out of laser-cut aluminum parts and has been designed with a reliable hot-end for extrusion.  Dual extrusion is also available, which means that you can print 3D objects with different colors.  The aluminum parts it was created with help the Creatr look attractive, which Mr. Otten felt was lacking in other 3D desktop printers.  (We certainly agree with him there.)  Its software is all open-source, meaning that it’s free and updated regularly.

The Xeed printer is bigger and has a lower minimum layer thickness, allowing more detail in the objects it prints.  In order for their customers to more easily understand the software, Leapfrog integrated a tablet computer into the Xeed.  This computer has a touch screen and is connected to the internet via wifi, with its own email address.  “You email your STL file to the Xeed and it is automatically converted to the correct code (gcode) for printing.  There is no need to hook up a computer or install any software.”

Leapfrog Xeed

Though there aren’t many limitations if a customer buys a Creatr or Xeed with dual extrusion heads, Mr. Otten recommends using water-soluble plastic in the second extrusion head to support overhangs in the objects they print.  His personal favorite creation from the printers so far is his iPhone cover.  “Digital fabrication,” (in other words creating objects with these printers), “suddenly provides us with a new business model: risk is free, no startup costs, and product without inventory.”     

In the future, Mr. Otten foresees Leapfrog printers that have even higher resolutions and the ability to make objects out of different types of materials, not just plastic.  Leapfrog is also currently working with a polymer specialist in order to develop different types of filament with unique characteristics.  “We are working on several very interesting projects, a couple of world firsts.  But you will have to wait and see!  [Towards] the end of 2012 we will be bringing out some more industry-changing machines and applications.”

Mr. Otten deeply believes that 3D printing will become an even more vital market in the years to come, for one very simple reason: “In an age in which the news, books, music, video and even our communities are all the subjects of digital dematerialization, the development and application of 3D printing reminds us that human beings have both a physical and psychological need to keep at least one foot in the real world.  As the availability of 3D printers, 3D models and related applications grow, my personal opinion is that in the next few years we will see 3D printing snowballing to become a part in everyone’s daily life as the 3D printing revolution unfolds, and Leapfrog wants to be at the frontline throughout every part of it.”

Images courtesy of Leapfrog

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MakerBot: The Next Generation

The Replicator 2 has arrived.

MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis, the first real ‘rock star’ of 3D printing, described his company’s latest product to Wired’s Chris Anderson as “Darth Vader driving Knight Rider’s KITT car while being airlifted by a Nighthawk spy plane.”

MakerBot announced the launch of the Replicator 2 in September.  This was coupled with the grand opening of a MakerBot store in Manhattan.

Even before you use the Replicator 2, it is evident that this machine is a giant leap ahead of the original Replicator.  The earlier 3D printer was made from laser-cut plywood, with all its innards visible.  A hobbyist’s workshop, not a professional’s tool.  But the Replicator 2 is different.  Unlike the DIY-inspired aesthetic of the original Replicator, the Replicator 2 has a rigid, smooth black metal and PVC case.

The Replicator 2 costs $2,199, which is $200 more than the most advanced Replicator.  But there’s a reason for the higher price.  The Replicator 2 has 100 micron printing resolution, which means that it can print objects far more detailed than the original MakerBot printer ever could.  The first Replicator also had a heated frame, which warped the plywood, so MakerBot has fixed that problem with the Replicator 2’s metal casing and a powdered steel frame.  Its build volume is 410 cubic inches, enabling the creation of even larger objects. 

However, MakerBot will be releasing another advanced printer, the Replicator 2X, in January 2013.  This printer will be able to print in two colors, while the Replicator 2 can only print in one.  The 2X will also have a heated build plate, so it will have the ability to print in both PLA and ABS plastics.  It will cost $2,799 

Both these printers will not be used in conjunction with the old ReplicatorG software, which was developed for the original Replicator, as, that software was not user-friendly.  Instead, the Replicator 2 and 2X will use the new MakerWare 3D printing software.  Not only will this software, which is still in beta, be more intuitive, but it will also be much faster as well. 

Mr. Pettis says these new printers are aimed primarily at professionals such as product designers, engineers, prototypers, and architects.  However, MakerBot’s overarching vision is to develop more hobbyist and home-centric 3D printers.  These near-future printers will build upon the foundations the Replicator 2 and 2X’s features are laying down now.  

But the Replicator 2 and 2X aren’t the only foundations MakerBot is laying down.  The MakerBot store in New York is certainly going to be (in fact, already is) one of the foundations for the 3D printing revolution. 

The store, which sells MakerBot printers; spools of plastic feedstock, and an assortment of 3D printed objects, has a purpose.  Mr. Pettis envisions a place where people walking by will be able to witness the magic of 3D printing through the window displays. 

Quote courtesy of Wired.com

Photos courtesy of Wired.com, CNET.com, and Makezine.com

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Desktop 3D Printers on the Market (2012)

The Leapfrog Creatr and Xeed Printers

When Martijn Otten, founder of Leapfrog (not to be confused with the educational technology giant), saw these DIY desktop 3D printer kits, he realized they had sharp learning curves and were not streamlined.  Mr. Otten noticed that they were often unreliable with small build areas.  This led to smaller 3D objects with bad print quality.  Additionally, on the more commercial/professional side of the 3D printing market (with printers used for prototyping and architectural models) Mr. Otten saw that they were far too expensive for the average consumer wishing to 3D print at home.

Leapfrog Creatr

Thus, Leapfrog was founded in order to supply both sides of the market.

They built the Creatr and Xeed printers with this purpose in mind.  The Creatr is their entry-level 3D printer using FDM.  It is made from laser-cut aluminum parts which help the Creatr look much more attractive than its DIY predecessors.  This printer also has been designed with a reliable hot-end for extrusion.  Dual extrusion is also available, which mean you can print 3D objects in different colors.  On top of all this, its software is all open-source, so it’s updated regularly, and best of all it’s free.      Leapfrog Xeed

The Leapfrog Xeed printer is bigger than their Creatr printer.  It has a lower minimum layer thickness, which allows for more detail in the objects the Xeed prints.  To increase its user-friendly interface, Leapfrog integrated a tablet computer into the Xeed.  It has a touch screen and is connected to the Internet.  It even has its own email address so that users can email their STL files to the printer, where they are automatically converted to the correct code (gcode) for printing.  The user doesn’t even have to hook up a computer or install any software. 

Though the Creatr and Xeed printers are Leapfrog’s first rollout, more printers are on their way.  Leapfrog is currently working with a polymer specialist so that they can develop different types of filament with unique characters.  Leapfrog is obviously a much newer player on the 3D printing scene than either MakerBot or 3D Systems (makers of the new Cube printer), but they represent a slightly lower cost option to the more established companies. 

MakerBot’s Replicator: No Longer Science Fiction         

MakerBot, a 3D printing company in Brooklyn, NY, has been striving to bring (relatively) inexpensive 3D printers to the home desktops of customers worldwide.  Beginning with Thing-O-Matic and continuing with their ‘Replicator’ printer, which came out this January, their printers have been designed for the mass market. 

MakerBot Replicator

The Replicator, though a bit more expensive than other options, coming in at $1750-$1999, is capable of printing in different colors and materials.  (Though it primarily uses ABS plastic, the same plastic used to create LEGO pieces)  This printer also has quite a large print area, as demonstrated by Bre Pettis, the founder of MakerBot, who fit an entire slice of bread onto the print shelf!  The Replicator comes pre-assembled and is ready to use straight out of the box.  However, on the downside, there is a six-week lead-time to receive the printer. 

MakerBot Replicator (with Bread Loaf!)

The Replicator is also a step forward in 3D printing technology because the extruder moves around instead of the base plate, which is the case with many older 3D printers.  This allows for increased accuracy in the objects it prints, which are becoming increasingly more complex without rough edges or accidentally loose fibers.  Projects without using different colors tend to take about an hour to complete, with more complicated projects (such as using different colors) will take “longer”. 

Perhaps the most exciting thing MakerBot has come up with so far is Thingiverse.  Thingiverse is a website that helps the creators and designers using MakerBot printers communicate with each other.  They are able to share design files of objects they have printed out.  This is the way of the future: instead of mass production, a democratization of design. 

Mr. Pettis says that the main market for MakerBot printers, at least currently, is children and their parents.

He believes that showing a child they can use their imaginations in order to create actual, physical objects begins to teach them about subjects like 3D architecture and the fundamentals of engineering.  Indeed, the next generation of thinkers, designers, engineers, and even artists will have tools similar to a MakerBot that they will be able to instantly use them.  MakerBot is so passionate about this vision of the future that they have begun an initiative to get a MakerBot into every classroom, starting with 3D printers installed inside of private and public NYC-area secondary schools. 

3D Systems’ Cube: The “Personal” 3D Printer

3D Systems, one of the leaders in the 3D printing industry, has been busy as of late.  Acquiring smaller companies within the market left and right, such as Botmill, My Robot Nation, Zcorp, and Paramount Industries, 3D Systems has secured themselves into an even more comfortable position than they were before. 

                            

3D Systems’ Cube

This growing corporation has now announced the launch of a new “personal” 3D printer, the Cube.  This sleek and sexy looking device will be shipping out to customers on the 25th of May.  It is priced at $1,299, which is relatively cheap compared with its competitors.  As with the MakerBot, it is fully assembled and ready to print right out of the box.  It weighs a mere 9 pounds, which allows for portability around one’s home.  It also prints in a wide range of vibrant colors. 

Along with the Cube, the customer will be given 25 free designs of 3D objects the printer can print.  3D Systems boasts that the user interface is very easy to use, with a touch screen.  Also with the printer comes a membership to Cubify.com, their version of Thingiverse, where “Cube Artists” can share their object designs with one another.  Obviously, nobody has gotten a chance to review the Cube yet, but it is a slightly cheaper alternative to MakerBot if you prefer not to go through Reprap and DIY a printer yourself. 

Well, there you have it: an overview of the range of desktop 3D printers currently available on the market.  Though this is a relatively recent portion of the overall 3D printing industry, it is growing at a noticeably rapid pace.  It isn’t inconceivable to envision a not-so-distant future where they’ll be a 3D printer in every home in America.  Let the printing begin!

Images courtesy of Leapfrog, MakerBot, and Cube (3D Systems)

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3D Printing 101: Buying Your First Desktop 3D Printer

3d-printing-101-buying-your-first-desktop-3d-printer3D printing was invented nearly thirty years ago.  But recently this industry has been taking giant leaps into a brave new world.  Before, 3D printers were almost exclusively used to build prototypes and models for mega corporations, who could afford their once exorbitant price tags.  But now, the age of the affordable personal desktop 3D printer has arrived.    

While their larger, more powerful cousins still dominate the industry; desktop 3D printers have been, in recent years and months, taking it by storm.  That isn’t to say 3D printers which fill up entire rooms aren’t still helping companies create models or prototypes (for the architectural and automobile industries, for example), (see our next issue for a more complete overview of these types of printers) it just means that a new and exciting way to create 3D objects has generated a lot of buzz in the 3D printing industry.   

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves and discuss the array of shiny new desktop 3D printers that the main players in the industry have begun to aggressively roll out this spring, let us first not neglect to mention Reprap. 

Reprap is an open source project using a wiki interface for its website that allows users an easy, very (very!) cheap way to build their own desktop printers.  Because many of the Reprap printers are made of plastic parts, they are able to self-replicate, meaning that you can print most of the parts for a new printer on another printer.

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This sort of community sharing model has worked well for many of its users.  (As an example, read the article on Adam Luker and his Reprap printer in our first introductory issue, to get a sense of what these machines are and what sorts of capabilities they have.)  In order to build these printers, however, you do have to have at least a basic understanding of the technical and engineering aspects of these machines, which is not for everyone.  But if it’s the cheapest machine you’re looking for, then this is the 3D printer for you!

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The Botmill “Glider” (Reprap Mendel, repackaged)

Botmill, a company that has recently been bought by 3D systems, puts together Reprap printer components and designs for you.  They repackage the Reprap Mendel as the “glider” and sell it for about twice the price it was when the parts were not assembled.  Though this is still quite a bit cheaper than other desktop 3D printing options, reviews of this company from the wider community are mixed.  The Botmill website claims that they offer day after delivery, but most of their customers had to wait at least a week for the printer to arrive.  And often these printers were missing vital parts.  We can only hope that the 3D systems buyout means better customer service in the future. 

Though these printers, and others like them, such as Makergear and Solidoodle (coming in at a mere $499!) are much much cheaper than their flashier competitors, they have an immense learning curve.  

Makergear Mosiac

Solidoodle

This learning curve doesn’t have much to do with the assembly required, however.  Indeed, only the Reprap models require this assembly, as the others have all been assembled for you.  No, the problem arises from the CAD software these printers use.  CAD software is used with 3D printers in order to help the user interface with a computer and design exactly what they’d like the printer to print.  Unfortunately, these cheaper printers, at least for now, use software such as Skeinforge and Prongerface.  Of course, with practice and time, you can learn to use these programs effectively.  However, if you have limited technical and engineering knowledge you may find yourself at a bit of a deep end at the beginning. 

If you don’t mind this initial confusion, or if you are invigorated by the challenge, then by all means start building those printers!  However, if you are like the rest of us and would prefer a more user friendly interface when designing 3D objects to print on your desktop printer, you may want to further investigate higher priced, but friendlier printers, which can be found in our profiles section this issue.

Images courtesy of Reprap, Botmill, and Solidoodle

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The Future of 3D Printing

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This expansion has been driven by rapid technological developments, falling costs, and new applications for that technology.

The price of most commercial 3D printers usually begins around $15,000 but rises quickly upward.  Obviously, this is out of the average consumer’s price range.  However, a few enterprising startups (in addition to the commercial 3D printer manufacturers) have focused on developing low-cost 3D printers for home use, making this technology more available.  From now until 2016, industry demand and revenue is forecast to surge forward as 3D printers explode in popularity and more customers from a wide array of industries join the 3D printing revolution. 

In 2011, the largest four industry participants collectively controlled less than 35% of industry revenue.  This low concentration reflects the fact that this industry is still in its infancy.  However, according to the Wohlers Report, an annual in-depth study of the advances in additive manufacturing technologies and applications, estimates 3D printing will grow into a $5.2 billion industry by 2020, up from $1.3 billion in 2010. 

There are three critical factors, which once, and if, they come together, have the potential to revolutionize the entire manufacturing industry, very similar to what occurring in the area of digital printing.  These three factors are: the declining prices of 3D printers, a wider variety of materials that can be printed, and a growing market demand for mass customization of goods. 

Whether or not this technology arrives en-mass in the home, 3D printers have many other promising areas of potential future application.  They may, for example, be used to output spare parts for all manner of products that can’t possibly be stocked as part of the inventory in even the most comprehensive physical store.  Therefore, instead of throwing away broken items, faulty goods would be taken to a local facility that would call up the appropriate spare parts online and simply print them out. 

NASA has already tested a 3D printer on the International Space Station, and recently announced its intention to have a high-resolution 3D printer to produce spacecraft parts during deep space missions. 

The US Army has also experimented with a truck-mounted 3D printer capable of outputting spare tank and other vehicle components on the battlefield. 

3D printers may also be used to make buildings in the future.  To this end, a team at Loughborough University is working on a 3D concrete printing project that could allow large building components to be 3D printed on-site to any design with improved thermal properties. 

Another possible future application is in the use of 3D printers to create replacement organs for the human body.  This is known as bioprinting and is an area of rapid development.     

All this is fascinating, but where is 3D printing headed, you might ask.  All signs show that 3D printing is a growing market and one that will continue to grow.  The main question is whether or not this technology will become one that transforms the traditional manufacturing business while changing market needs and behavior.  Most experts believe it will, but the question is when?  Will it take two years or ten? 

The fact that in the last few years, 3D printing received the spotlight in such mainstream media outlets as the NY Times, The Economist, The Washington Post, the BBC, and many more, points to the fact that in just a few short years we will see more and more industries transformed by this technology. 

This coming revolution can be seen through Google Trends.  The following table shows the trend of looking for the phrase ‘3D printing’ in the last few years. 

 It’s quite clear that the trend is up and not linear.  If you look at the trend line and try to predict the future (ignoring the period before 2006 as it was 0 and predicting 4 years forward), you get the following:

What does all this tell us?  It is important to note that this is only a trend of searches, not any commercial data, but like any upcoming technology, the more popular and mainstream it becomes, the more “real” of a business it is. 

3D printing has the potential to become something with no less impact than the internet, fax, or other breakthrough technologies.  Though there is always the possibility that this technology will forever be locked in the position of “about to become mainstream”, the data supports a much more positive prediction. 

Images Courtesy of the BBC and MakerBot

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Current 3D Printing Technologies

3d-printing-technologiesStereolithography (Known as SLAs or stereolithography apparatus) 

This technology positions a perforated platform just below the surface of a vat of liquid photocurable polymer. A UV laser beam then traces the first slice of an object on the surface of this liquid, causing a very thin layer of photopolymer to harden. The perforated platform is then lowered very slightly and another slice is traced out and hardened by the laser. Another slice is created and then another, until a complete object has been printed and can be removed from the vat of photopolymer, drained of excess liquid, and cured. Stereolithographic printers remain one of the most accurate types of hardware for fabricating 3D output, with a minimum build layer thickness of only 0.06mm (0.0025 of an inch).

One of the appealing aspects about SL is that a functional part can be created in just one day.  Most SL machines can produce parts with a maximum size of approximately 50 cm x 50 cm x 60 cm (20″ x 20″ x 24″). Prototypes made by stereolithography can be very beneficial as they are strong enough to be machined and can be used as master patterns for injection molding, thermoforming, blow molding, and also in various metal casting processes. Although stereolithography can produce a wide variety of shapes, the process is often expensive – the photo-curable resin costs anywhere from $80 to $210 per liter. A stereolithography machine can cost from about $100,000 to more than $500,000.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Using this method, hot thermoplastic is extruded from a temperature-controlled print head to produce fairly robust objects to a high degree of accuracy. A key benefit of this technique is that objects can be made out of exactly the same thermoplastics used in traditional injection molding. Most FMD 3D printers can now print with both ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastics, as well as a biodegradable bioplastic called PLA (polylactic acid) that is produced from organic alternatives to oil.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)            

This process builds objects by putting down a fine layer of powder and then using a laser to selectively fuse some of its granules together. At present, SLS 3D printers can output objects using a wide range of powdered materials. These include polystyrene, nylon, glass, ceramics, steel, titanium, aluminum and even sterling silver. During printing non-bonded powder granules support the object as it is constructed. Once printing is complete, most excess power is then recycled. (A closely related 3D printing technique to SLS is known as selective laser melting. This uses a laser to fully melt the powder granules that form a final object, rather than just heating them enough to fuse them together).  Compared to other methods of additive manufacturing, SLS can produce parts from a relatively wide range of commercially available powder materials.

Multi-Jet Modeling (MJM – 3DP)

Similarly, this method builds up objects from successive layers of powder with an inkjet print head used to spray on a binder solution that selectively glues only the required granules together. Some MJM printers can spray on four different colors of binder solution.  This allows them to create full-color 3D objects at up to 600x540dpi.

Top Image Courtesy of MakerBot

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What Exactly is 3D Printing?

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The concept of creating 3D objects with a computer, even thirty years ago, was considered science fiction.  Sure, characters on Star Trek could “replicate” objects seemingly out of thin air, but that kind of technology wouldn’t be around for hundreds of years, right?

            Wrong.

            Welcome to the Future. 

            Welcome to Replicator World.

            This magazine is meant as a portal into the cutting edge industry of 3D printing.  What exactly is 3D printing, you might ask.  It is an additive form of manufacturing technology where a 3D object is created by building upon successive layers of material.  3D printers are generally faster, easier to use, and more affordable than other additive manufacturing technologies. 

            On top of that, 3D printers also offer product developers the ability to print parts and assemblies made of several materials with different mechanical and physical properties in a single build process.  This allows these developers to use this groundbreaking technology in such diverse fields as jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, geographic information systems, civil engineering, and many others.     

Image courtesy of 3D Systems

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