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3-D printer piques customers' interest

By Nick Bullock
Published: February 22, 2013
Dabblers Hobbies and Café owner Randy Hartnett manufactures customers' creations on his store's 3-D printer.
Photo by Dabblers Hobbies and Café
A peculiar and, until now, largely unfamiliar sound lures customers across Randy Hartnett’s Concord, Mass., hobby store, Dabblers Hobbies and Café.

The noise is emanating from the store’s MakerBot 3-D printer, a microwave-sized piece of machinery that literally prints three-dimensional objects one thin layer of plastic at a time.

“It makes really, really cool noises,” Hartnett said. “It’s like music when it runs.”

And his customers can’t help but take note.

“Everybody that comes in and walks past it says, ‘Oh, wow, what’s that?’ ” he said.

For now, Hartnett admitted, the main purpose of his 3-D printer is to garner oohs and aahs. But the 3-D printer craze has just begun to hit the mainstream, and he predicts an explosion coming.

Many have been hailing 3-D printers as modern mechanical marvels that will forever change the face of manufacturing. But 3-D printers aren’t exactly new. Industrial-sized 3-D printers have been around for the better part of three decades. They have since been used mostly by larger companies to create product prototypes of out less-expensive materials. (Think of an engine model made of plastic in that futuristic prototype car at the local auto show.)

But as manufacturers like MakerBot began to offer the machines at prices reasonable enough for the run-of-the-mill hobbyist, run-of-the-mill hobbyists have begun to discover a great number of increasingly more creative uses for the machines. And the advent of higher quality printing materials has even allowed for more practical applications.

As the debate over gun safety has dominated recent news cycles, some 3-D printer owners have even proved the machines capable of creating working gun parts, according to a February NPR report.

In hobby circles, 3-D printer creations have not yet grabbed headlines, but they could someday soon.

Hartnett and his staff have played around with design software in order to create replacement parts for radio-control vehicles. It has been a better idea in theory than in practice, he said. Although Hartnett’s 3-D printer, which cost him about $1,200 when he bought it in 2010, can easily create a quality bust of political satirist Stephen Colbert, he questions its ability to produce R/C parts that will be durable and precise enough to work in hobby-grade equipment.

Hartnett’s three-year-old printer has so many settings and possibilities that he has found it hard to create products that precisely match the designs. “If what you’re trying to do is print Stephen Colbert’s head, that’s not such a big deal,” he said. “But if you’re trying to print a gear on a shaft for a helicopter, just being off by a little bit can kind of ruin the whole thing.”

The other obstacle is that many replacement R/C parts that a 3-D printer could conceivably print, such as a helicopter’s fuselage, are designed to be extremely thin in order to reduce weight. However, 3-D printers, for the time being at least, have difficulty applying ultra-thin layers of plastic; the walls of a hollow product must be thick enough for the product to maintain its shape while the plastic sets.

And that doesn’t even address the issue of printing and selling a hobby manufacturer’s intellectual property, Hartnett said, which could, and probably will, be a point of contention as 3-D printers continue to rise in popularity.

But as the technology continues to improve and the cost of the machines and materials continues to drop, Hartnett said more and more hobbyists will begin fiddling with designs for R/C parts. He sees a future in which hobby stores manufacture and sell their own products. 

Traditional hobby manufacturers will probably continue to exist, Hartnett said, because someone will still need to produce the metal and electronic R/C components. But he said more stores may begin to design, produce and sell their own add-on parts and upgrades over the stock components.

For now, Hartnett is content piquing his customers’ curiosities with his noisy machine. 

Dabblers allows customers to create their own designs and submit them to the store where Hartnett and his staff will print out the products at a cost of $9 per hour. He said a typical product takes between 30 minutes and two hours to print. Needless to say, the 3-D printer is not a great source of direct profit. 

But the customers are still intrigued. They have asked the store to print everything from a pencil holder to a replica TIE Fighter to a referee whistle, complete with the little loose ball inside that made it work. “I think it created [the ball] on a little, tiny stalk inside,” he said. “And then, when it was all done, you reach inside and break it off its stalk. It was very neat.”