3D Printers have been in the hands of hackers for well over ten years, but the dream is far from over and certainly not overslept. This year’s Midwest RepRap Festival is a testament to the still-growing excitement, and world where 3D printing is alive and kicking on the next level.
This past weekend, I took up my friend [Eric’s] advice to come down and participate firsthand, and I was simply blown away. Not only did we witness the largest number of attendees to date, MRRF 2019 spilled into not one but two conference halls at the Goshen Fairgrounds.
In what follows, I tell my tale of the times.
MRRF might be far from any major metropolis, but for three days, the city of Goshen, Indiana becomes the hub of 3D-printing hubbub where a crowd of enthusiasts burn late into the night to talk all things homebrew-3D-printing related. Taking a look around, I can break us down into a few distinct communities. First, we have the Rep-Rap historians. They keep our lineage alive by maintaining some of the earliest RepRap designs that started it all. Next, we have the printer builders. Some are hard-core metal-workers who cut printers out of machined aluminum; some follow the RepRap tradition of mixing printed parts with the mechanical vitamins; some are dumpster-diving professionals, scrounging together incredible builds for under $100. Up next, we have the printer users. Some print enormous trinkets; some print functional racecars and musical instruments; some are simply pushing their printers to the extreme to “ooze” or create distinct layer patterns that elicit a certain glittering effect under the right lighting.
Then we have the vendors. Some are small lifestyle businesses created from solving a printing problem with a component; some have created entire framing systems; some sell their machining services to help get custom parts into your hands. My favorite observation about the vendors is just how personal our engagements can be. Mingle at MRRF, and you won’t meet the “I’m-just-a-sales-guy,” you’ll meet the very engineers who coined the solution they’re holding in front of you. Linger for a few minutes and they’ll tell you their tales of joy and woe in getting their solution mass-manufactured. Finally, even the Youtube crowd descends with dead-cat mics and selfie-sticks to film the scene for a few thousand likes.
Despite the eclectic self-selecting variety of groups, MRRF has space for all of us. As I moved through the crowd, there was no cynicism, no hint of disdain for folks trying one component over another. That all-encompassing acceptance of each other is what’s keeping us up late at night talking about our misdeeds in printing over the last year.
Ooze and Schmooze
Not everyone brings a printer, but everyone comes with a good story. MRRF is a place to swap your joys and woes in printing and perhaps pick up a few tips. In hearing other folks’ printing adventures, I learned about folks printing everything from crossbows to rocket-engine nozzles. On my tip-list, I managed to uncover all sorts of knowledge tidbits embedded in the community but not often discussed on the front pages of the web. In catching up with folks on the floor, I discovered how to properly tune a CoreXY gantry (hint: it’s not entirely unlike tuning a guitar!). I discovered the Berd Air Pipe as a low-cost, low-weight solution for print cooling. And I got acquainted with LDO Motors, the Chinese manufacturer behind all of Prusa’s stepper motors.
What is Tangible
Not everything can be put into words. Part of the joy of being at events like Maker Faire and MRRF firsthand is being able to engage with real objects with more than just your eyes and ears. It’s one thing to hear about a propeller printed from a carbon-fiber-peek-based high-temperature filament. It’s a completely different experience to try to physically deform those leaf-like propeller blades only to have them fight your fingers with a springy resistance that almost feels metallic in quality. In a similar vein, it’s almost uncanny to run your fingers through the layer-lines of a Railcore-printed vase to have them slide with a zing that testifies just how much meticulous effort went into designing the printer that made the part. These moments where I suddenly know with my hands are part of what make the experience so memorable.
The Landscape of 2019 Machines
MRRF brings together not just an eclectic group of people but also our various breeds of pet printers. (With more incoming printers each year, I suspect Goshen, Indiana might be annually breaking its record of “most-stepper-motors-in-one-conference-hall.”) At the start of MRRF, printers are unloaded not just from the bags of airliner luggages but from the backs of trucks and palettes. When it comes to moving machines, we don’t fool around. In fact, this year brought us a 14-ft Delta printer that towered over the main hall.
I saw such a variety of printers, I realized something: printers aren’t just machines; they’re modes of self-expression. They’re a question of “can-I-build-this-out-of-a-milk-cart” answered! They pop with eye-catching filament colors. They’re littered with sometimes deliberate design-choices, sometimes simply “what’s on-hand” to create mosaics of motion.
What I love about our fellow machine builders is just how open we are on the festival floor to sharing our building tips and design tricks. Ask away at anything you like in a printer build and their owner will simply beam with a thoughtful answer. It’s this openness that makes the community inviting to new machine builders.
The Makings of a Personal Fabrication Future
MRRF is a wonderful peek into the near future of printing. It’s a chance for the community to openly discuss improvements to shared infrastructure and to sow the seeds of new ideas. I’ve heard some of us compare times like these to the heydays of the homebrew computing club. I think they’re right. Our community is sowing the seeds of personal fabrication before our eyes. And participating is just a matter of sharing your ideas with the community. Who knows? If we keep pushing forward, maybe home cnc machines will be the norm. Maybe our excitement will carry what is nearly possible into something real.