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Open-source 3D Printers

August 2, 2009

Filed under: additive manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 10:01

A relatively recent development that is quietly unfolding could have an interesting impact on the additive manufacturing (AM) industry. Open-source 3D printers are being developed by a number of people and organizations worldwide. The “open-source” concept originated in the world of software development many years ago. One of the best examples is Linux, a version of the Unix operating system.

With open-source software, the source code and certain other rights normally held by copyright holders are provided under a software license that meets the Open Source Definition or that is in the public domain, according to Wikipedia. This allows users to employ, modify, and enhance the software, and to redistribute it, modified or unmodified.

Cornell University, with its Fab@Home project, was one of the first to develop an open-source 3D printer. The machine uses an x-y motion system to deposit materials through a syringe layer by layer. The system enables the use of many types of materials, ranging from chocolate and cake icing to plastics and living cells. Versions of the machine have produced rigid and elastic polymer mechanical parts, electrical circuits, polymer transistors, relays, polymer actuators, alkaline batteries, engineered living tissues, chocolate sculptures, cake decorations, and hors d’oeuvres—all directly from computer data and raw materials.

It’s possible to obtain the plans from the Fab@Home website and build a machine on your own. Alternatively, you can order a kit for $2,600 or an assembled machine for $3,700. An estimated 123 systems were installed in 20 countries in 2007 and 2008.

RepRap and CandyFab are two other open-source developments, with RepRap gaining the most traction to date. The RepRap project originated at Bath University in the UK, with an initial emphasis on self-replication. The goal is to produce a machine that can make copies of itself. The system uses ABS and polyethylene in filament form, similar to FDM from Stratasys. The parts I’ve seen remind me of the very early FDM parts (circa 1990), including a seam where the deposition starts and stops.

RepRap kits are available commercially from A1 Technologies of the UK for £750 (~$1,250) and Makerbot Industries for $750 ($2,500 fully assembled). It is believed that 500–1,000 systems have been sold, although someone closer to the development puts it at 1,500+ machines.

What will be the future impact of these open-source systems? It’s too early to know for sure, but from what I can tell, they could succeed—and to some extent, already have—as a research and development platform. A lot has been published about the makeup the systems, so researchers and others can easily try new materials and apply the machines to a wide range of new and interesting applications. The Fab@Home system is the most versatile for experimentation, but the lower cost of the RepRap development makes it attractive for even the smallest organization or individual.


  1. Still skeptical, hey? 😀

    Comment by plaasjaapie — August 2, 2009 @ 18:20

  2. Hi Terry,

    It was a while ago that I showed you a couple of RepRap 3D prints (RP and MC conference in the winter of 2008).

    >> The parts I’ve seen remind me of the very early parts from FDM (circa 1990),
    >> including a seam where the deposition starts and stops.

    There is a seam in many cases, but I have Stratasys sample clearly showing such a seam.

    I think that you cannot say what the quality of prints from a RepRap is, because every machine is at a varying quality with respect to various aspects. For instance some people have focussed on production ready parts and got good results with that. I have profiles for when I want parts with a good surface finish or just parts that are very strong. It depends on the goals that people have with their machine, and the time they have to optimize towards those goals.

    I’m also trying to get a good impression of how the potential quality compares to that of the Stratasys machines. I think it can be surprisingly close. To assess this, I’ve printed the same model on my RepRap and on a Stratasys Dimension 1200SST. Photos are available here:

    Mostly for reliability and repeatability, I admit that the commercial machines are superior and will be for some time. I think that’s a very valuable property for many users.

    At Thingiverse you can get an idea of the quality of various people with different machines.

    >> The Fab@Home system is the most versatile for experimentation

    I have the impression that the Fab@Home is less hackable, since you still need a laser cutter to change anything to the design. It’s true that there have been more innovative applications done on the Fab@Home, but that’s simply because of the core developers (Hod Lipson and Evan Malone) are good at pushing the envelope. I think innovation is more distributed among members of the RepRap community. Also, the RepRap is probably more modular than the Fab@Home, both in terms of mechanics and electronics.

    Erik de Bruijn

    Comment by ErikDeBruijn — August 18, 2009 @ 09:27