Do it yourself. Almost.

Originally published 2005 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Things are moving fast in the world of 3D printing.

"Rapid prototyping" ("solid freeform fabrication", to its friends) is reaching an interesting stage in its development. And it's a stage we've seen before.

There was a period, before the development of decent home photo printers, when you could already get top-quality prints of your digital files. Just not at home.

You sent your files to an output bureau (probably on 44Mb SyQuest cartridges; the first CD burners cost as much as a decent used car...), and they squirted 'em onto paper as big as you liked, for vaguely reasonable prices.

Output bureaux still exist, from the basic online photo printing services to specialist giant-print places for those times when nothing smaller than a billboard will do.

The photo-print places aren't terribly attractive now that we've got modern eight-cartridge ultra-long-print-life home photo printers (and some pretty impressive dye sublimation units, too), but if you want prints bigger than A3+ (a.k.a. "Super B", 13 by 19 inches), there's still a lot to be said for any option that doesn't involve filling a room and emptying your bank account by buying your very own Stylus Pro 9600.

We're in the same situation with rapid prototyping, except it's likely to last a lot longer. Even if money is no object for you, the number of kinds of "3D printer" out there mean that you're unlikely to want to spend the time to learn how to do every kind of rapid prototyping. It's not necessarily even just making parts; it can also involve putting them all together and delivering a final, working mechanism. Check out Pad2Pad, for instance. And eMachineShop, though they don't do assembly in-house yet. As soon as someone does, eBay stores will start getting a lot more interesting.

In The Beginning of "additive" 3D printing (as opposed to the old "subtractive" milling machines that cut a shape out of a block of source material), there were stereolithography machines, that UV-lasered a slowly growing resin prototype out of a bath of liquid, layer by layer. Now the big news in general purpose 3D printing is a similar layered arrangement, but using a fusible powder that gives more rapid printing with less fuss, and a more durable result. This is the same basic idea as was used by MIT's original 3D printing machines, but those machines used cornflour or plaster as the powder. Today's powder-printers (and their wire-fed competitors) can make objects that don't, um, fall apart in the rain.

There are even multi-powder printers, which can make parts of an assembly out of different materials (which can be electrically conductive...), and use low-melting-point filler powder so you can easily melt the supporting filler out of the finished part, instead of having to winkle it out of nooks and crannies by the use of dental picks, compressed air and profanity.

To make the output of these printers truly durable you need to work on it a bit more, though. There's good old casting, in which you make a mould from the part (destroying it in the process), pour in something tougher like molten metal, and then spend time cleaning up the result. And there's sintered-metal printing, where the printer produces a porous metal original which then gets dipped in some lower-melting-point metal to fill all of the pores. (And then you spend time cleaning up the result.)

Doing this can give results that could otherwise only have been made by elves (people have already, of course, made things that can't be made at all), but it's hardly suitable for a garage operation. And, for now, the same goes for every other really cool kind of rapid prototyping.

(Making signs with your very own computer-controlled vinyl cutter doesn't really count.)

Rapid prototyping output bureaux, though, will let us do this stuff at reasonable prices soon. Just like having your posters printed, or your memoirs vanity-published. Make up your own source file (or, more likely, download it from, delete the circuit board text that says "10KW HERF GUN" and replace it with "AUNT EILEEN'S ROSE FUNGUS REDUCER", squirt it off to, wait for the package in the mail.

This, of course, will give various governments and big corporations conniptions, as modchips and pay TV stealers pop up like mushrooms all over the world, and every boutique gadget store creates its very own branded line of... whatever.

But all of the really bad grey-area devices I can think of - RF jammers of all kinds, for instance, and remote bomb triggers - are simple enough that any bright teenager can knock one up on veroboard today. And the prototypers probably won't accept plans that are obviously for a Gatling gun.

The up side of all this, for people who aren't interested in breaking any laws worse than the ones that make VCRs functionally illegal in Australia (PDF), will be easy access to far, far more wonderful toys.

Or armies of robot spiders.

You decide.

Other columns

Learning to love depreciation

Overclockers: Get in early!

Stuff I Hate

Why Macs annoy me

USB: It's worth what you pay

"Great product! Doesn't work!"

The virus I want to see

Lies, damned lies and marketing

Unconventional wisdom

How not to e-mail me

Dan's Quick Guide to Memory Effect, You Idiots

Your computer is not alive

What's the point of robot pets?

Learning from spam

Why it doesn't matter whether censorware works

The price of power

The CPU Cooler Snap Judgement Guide

Avoiding electrocution

Video memory mysteries

New ways to be wrong

Clearing the VR hurdles

Not So Super

Do you have a license for that Athlon?

Cool bananas

Getting rid of the disks

LCDs, CRTs, and geese

Filling up the laptop

IMAX computing

Digital couch potatoes, arise!

Invisible miracles

Those darn wires

Wossit cost, then?

PFC decoded

Cheap high-res TV: Forget it.


Dan Squints At The Future, Again

The programmable matter revolution

Sounding better

Reality Plus™!

I want my Tidy-Bot!

Less go, more show

In search of stupidity

It's SnitchCam time!

Power struggle

Speakers versus headphones

Getting paid to play

Hurdles on the upgrade path

Hatin' on lithium ion

Wanted: Cheap giant bit barrel

The screen you'll be using tomorrow

Cool gadget. Ten bucks.

Open Sesame!

Absolutely accurate predictions

The truth about everything

Burr walnut computing

Nothing new behind the lens

Do it yourself. Almost.

The quest for physicality

Tool time

Pretty PCs - the quest continues

The USB drive time bomb

Closer to quietness

Stuff You Should Want

The modular car

Dumb smart houses

Enough already with the megapixels

Inching toward the NAS of our dreams

Older than dirt

The Synthetics are coming


Game Over is nigh

The Embarrassingly Easy Case Mod

Dumb then, smart now

Fuel cells - are we there yet?

A PC full of magnets

Knowledge is weakness

One Laptop Per Me

The Land of Wind, Ghosts and Minimised Windows

Things that change, things that don't

Water power

Great interface disasters

Doughnut-shaped universes

Grease and hard drive change

Save me!

Impossible antenna, only $50!

I'm ready for my upgrade

The Great Apathetic Revolution

Protect the Wi-Fi wilderness!

Wi-Fi pirate radio

The benign botnet

Meet the new DRM, same as the old DRM

Your laptop is lying to you

Welcome to super-surveillance

Lemon-fresh power supplies


Internet washing machines, and magic rip-off boxes

GPGPU and the Law of New Features

Are you going to believe me, or your lying eyes?

We're all prisoners of game theory

I think I'm turning cyborg-ese, I really think so

Half an ounce of electrons

Next stop, clay tablets

A bold new computer metaphor

Won't someone PLEASE think of the hard drives?!

Alternate history

From aerial torpedoes to RoboCars

How fast is a hard drive? How long is a piece of string?

"In tonight's episode of Fallout 4..."

How hot is too hot?

Nerd Skill Number One

What'll be free next?

Out: Hot rods. In: Robots.

500 gig per second, if we don't get a flat

No spaceship? No sale.

The shifting goalposts of AI

Steal This Education

Next stop: Hardware piracy

A hundred years of EULAs

The triumph of niceness

The daily grind

Speed kings


Game crazy

Five trillion bits flying in loose formation

Cannibalise the corpses!

One-note NPCs

Big Brother is watching you play

Have you wasted enough time today?

The newt hits! You die...

Stuck in the foothills

A modest censorship proposal

In Praise of the Fisheye


The death of the manual

Of magic lanterns, and MMORPGs

When you have eliminated the impossible...

Welcome to dream-land

Welcome to my museum

Stomp, don't sprint!

Grinding myself down

Pathfinding to everywhere

A deadly mouse trap

If it looks random, it probably isn't

Identical voices and phantom swords


Socialised entertainment

Warfare. Aliens. Car crashes. ENTERTAINMENT!

On the h4xx0ring of p4sswordZ

Seeing past the normal

Science versus SoftRAM

Righteous bits

Random... ish... numbers

I get letters

Money for nothing

Of course you'd download a car. Or a gun!

A comforting lie

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)