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The MakerBot Thing-O-Matic and other 3D printers can materialize your ideas out of thin air–and melted plastic

Roughly 20 years ago on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard could order a piping hot Earl Grey tea from the replicator and have it materialize before him within seconds.

We’re not quite there yet (and you’re no Patrick Stewart), but if you’ve got a Mac and a little extra time, you can happily print up a drinking glass, an iPhone case, a cufflink featuring Stephen Colbert’s head, toy starships–just about anything you can create (or download) a three-dimensional model of.

Type A Machines’ prototype 3D printer in action.

For an average price of $1,099 on eBay, MakerBot Industries’ Thing-O-Matic 3D printer (www.makerbot.com; you can buy different models directly from the site) allows you to print almost any plastic object you can think of. And where this might have once been prohibitively expensive, the objects now print at mere pennies per unit, a price so low that you can comfortably chuck several revisions that didn’t make the cut. The Thing-O-Matic connects to your Mac via a standard USB port and sports a print head capable of moving in any horizontal or vertical direction. These movements will correspond to the coordinates of the 3D image sent to the Thing-O-Matic. The printer heats strands of Natural ABS plastic (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene–the same nifty stuff they make LEGO bricks from) to 410 degrees Fahrenheit, and as the print head moves, it squirts the melted plastic where it needs to be within the object. Once the process has begun, the object is quickly built, layer-by-layer, until complete.

The Thing-O-Matic from MakerBot costs less than most MacBook Pros–suitable for a deep-pocketed hobbyist.

What kinds of objects, you ask? At this point, and within the realm of plastic, the sky’s practically the limit. Ready-to-print object files can be downloaded from 3D modeling community sites like www.thingiverse.com and www.123dapp.com. Once you’ve printed some initial models, it’s easy enough to modify one with a CAD app like Rhino, or even your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. If you’re truly feeling brave, you can try printing multiple objects and fitting them together–a famed contributor to the 3D model creator community recently completed and assembled the components of a working violin.

While you probably won’t be creating your own plastic Stradivarius right off the bat, the MakerBot (and other 3D printers being developed within its open source hardware and software communities) offers the ability to tinker with something to your heart’s content. Besides the printer, you’ll need its ReplicatorG software, the most recent version of Python for Mac OS X, and some freeware/shareware like Pleasant3D or Blender. It’s easy to download 3D models in the STL file formats, convert them to files with the GCODE extension, then open them in ReplicatorG to send the job to the MakerBot. From here, feel free to grab a cup of joe, sit back, and watch the printer create your object from scratch, one detailed layer at a time.

Print a new set of hooters, just because.

If you’ve ever found yourself wanting to hug and throttle your multifunction printer in the same week for devouring a pricey toner cartridge in no time at all, we have good news. A single kilogram wheel of ABS plastic retails between $43 and $48 before shipping, and can print several dozen smaller objects before running out. The available colors are currently limited to yellow, green, red, nuclear green, black, and blue, but you can print your object’s parts in different colors and combine them as you see fit.

This sounds like brand new technology, but the 3D printer community has been around nearly a decade, with the first printers going on sale in 2003. In San Francisco, a trio of engineers have begun a 3D printer startup, Type A Machines. Andrew Rutter, Epsen Silversten, and Ronald Miloh Alexander hook their MacBook Pro and IBM ThinkPad notebooks into prototype units, write printer drivers, and tinker with their creations on a daily basis. I dropped by to visit, and they printed out a full set of drinking glasses, a pair of green gargoyle heads, and an iThrone cradle with a space for an iPhone cable to pass through for charging and syncing. Epsen explains that he’s needed one of these for a while, and next he’ll try to print a replacement part for his broken sunglasses.

Drinking cups, because printing out objects is thirsty work.

As I’m offered a soda, I realize that I’ve never had a bottle opener on my keychain. Andrew shows me how to hook my MacBook Pro to the printer, install the drivers, download a 3D model, import the file, and send it to their prototype to print.

Fifteen minutes later, after watching the print head whiz back and forth and up and down to dispense each layer of melted plastic, I’m left with a sturdy bottle opener. I insert the finishing touch–a penny–and crack open a cold bottle of soda. It works as well as any bottle opener I’ve ever used.

[via MacLife]

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