Mr. La Forge, Could You Take a Look at Our Replicator?


If you recognize the reference in this post’s title, then you might be a Star Trek: Next Generation fan! The big news at my school this week has been the unpacking and setting up of two MakerBot Replicator2 3D printers. They’re not quite comparable to the Enterprise’s replicators (they don’t make tea, Earl Grey, hot), but they are still amazing.

The setup process was surprisingly easy (well, it helped that our incredibly talented tech-wizard, Allen Karns, had already figured all the steps!). The MakerBot guided us through every step of the setup, including leveling the printing plate. We’ve already printed out the sample files that come with it, and the response from my students has been terrific – they are already eager to start printing out three-dimensional function plots!

For my initial project, I went to Thingiverse and browsed through the hundreds of files available for download. Of course, I decided to be ambitious, and settled on a Voronoi-patterned Klein Bottle:


We loaded the file into the MakerWare program that comes with the printer, hit “Print”, and it was off and running. The concept behind 3D printing is elegantly simple. Once you have a three-dimensional CAD file of the object you want to create (there are lots of options for this: Sketchup, FreeCad, etc.), you load it into MakerWare. MakerWare “slices” your design into thousands of layers that the printer will use to build up your object. Think of a stack of pancakes that are each 0.2 mm thick, and you get the idea. If you are a little apprehensive about creating your own CAD file, the aforementioned Thingiverse website is a wonderful resource, full of ready-to-use files.

What does the printer use to stack up those layers? Plastic. There is a nozzle that heats up to 230 degrees Celsius, and it runs plastic filament (basically grass trimmer wire) through it, which melts and is deposited layer by layer until your object is done.  Here’s short video of it hard at work:

Unfortunately, I was a little too ambitious with my first attempt, and it wasn’t able to complete the construction of the Klein Bottle:

Printer Fail

But, you learn from your mistakes, and here’s my advice when you are just starting out in 3D printing: pick a project with a wide, stable, base that either rises vertically or tapers inward, like a pyramid. Otherwise you need to instruct the MakerBot to construct supports to hold up the object as it’s being fabricated. Also, I would recommend you pick a fairly solid object to build; you’ll notice that mine is inherently weak due to the large amount of empty space.

Nevertheless, I’ve caught the 3D printing bug, and I’m planning on trying another project first thing tomorrow. Eventually, I plan to incorporate the printer into my calculus course; I envision using it to create real-life models of rotated solids. I’m also hoping to use it to print out actual models of fractals I’ve made using Chaoscope, like this one:


The ability to translate fractals from a 2D computer screen to a 3D object is a dream come true!

Update: I downloaded a much simpler object file to print, and it worked beautifully:

Rotated Shape

I’ve also learned that the printing plate needs to be leveled every time you print a project.

Next step: design my own object from scratch, and print it out!