Most people who are serious about designing, building, or improving 3D printers see the Midwest Reprap Festival as the place where the latest and greatest is on show for all to see. But if you live on the other side of the world as I do, chances are slim that you’ll be able to attend.
I live in the UK, and there haven’t traditionally been any events quite like MRRF, but that may be changing. The 3D Meetup UK in Birmingham is a community-organised event bringing together the 3D printing maker and hacker community for a couple of days of talks, demonstrations, and tours. I went along this year to see what was going on, and to take the temperature of the British side of this community.
R2-D2 And Damn’ Good Cake
The event was held over a weekend in Birmingham Open Media, an art and technology space placed right in the centre of the city and very conveniently for transport links. It attracted a healthy crowd, and there was plenty going on with talks, commercial exhibitors, and community exhitibs spread across three levels of the venue.
A stand-out was Mike Baddeley’s talk and demonstration of his lifesized working remote controlled R2D2 ‘droid. This had been prowling the exhibition space downstairs, so was an anticipated talk. The other Saturday talk that one that caught my attention was Nigel Tolley from Make Bromyard talking about 3D printing keys. Nigel is a professional master locksmith, and the keys in question were huge items for vintage locks rather than modern ones with higher security.
A Solid Line-Up of Demos from Commercial Exhibitors
The exhibitors were a mix of general 3D print suppliers, component suppliers, and companies doing exciting things with 3D printers. The hotend company E3D were there, as were Duet3D, the controller electronics company.
Of particular interest were a couple of local companies in the 3D printing business, Backface Studios with their eerily lifelike 3D printed figures shown here that were modelled from photogrametric 3D scans. I also enjoyed seeing Script3D with their edible-print 3D printer. At the show they had it in one of its “fun” uses, printing gummy sweets, but the other side of their business lies in a technically more exciting direction in creating custom nutritional supplements and medicines. Their printer was a relatively conventional mechanism in a food-safe enclosure, but with an interchangeable syringe in an actuator replacing the familiar filament extruder and hotend.
Meanwhile the community area had a selection of hackerspaces with some of their work. The local FizzPOP hackerspace was on hand, and the standout project for us was an eye-catching diffused-LED lightbox display. Meanwhile opposite them Leicester Hackspace had a 3D printed balloon payload, and some fascinating exhibits from a member with nearly three decades of experience in the world of professional 3D printing. These formed part of his 3D Printing Museum collection, and would have been an eye opener to anyone for whom 3D printing began with the RepRap.
This Is A Community Event, Now Into The Community It Sprang From
Part of the day involved outside tours, and I saw both FizzPOP and Backface Studios. FizzPOP is a well-equipped space in the top floor of one of Birmingham’s many older industrial buildings, and is typical of a vibrant British hackerspace. I could have spent far too much time in their junk room, and cast envious eyes over their SMT assembly line.
Backface occupy an upstairs office suite close to FizzPOP, in which they have both their photogrametry suite and their ProJet 660 Pro full-colour 3D printer. The former is a full-room-sized structure on whose interior is mounted hundreds of SLR cameras. Bringing together all their data to servers via a bundle of USB hubs is a task in itself. Standing in their scanner was a quick and painless process, and having done so it’s undecided whether a 3D printed mini Hackaday scribe would look good or a bit creepy on the mantelpiece.
As we wrapped up the day in a gloriously intact and as yet un-hipsterised Victorian pub it was time to reflect on the event. My conclusion is that it’s very much worth returning to. It’s not MRRF yet as it’s only been going for a couple of years, but I think it has potential. There were no pushing-the-boundary community builds such as the infinite-bed machines I’d hoped might be there, but building an event that has MRRF’s reach takes time. The 3D Meetup folks have certainly cracked the community aspect of it in another sense. The attendees were all there to swap ideas and experiences with others as much as to see the exhibitors, and that is the special sauce that can’t be replicated at will by any shiny corporate event. I wish it well in future years.
Put It In Your Diary For Next Year, And See The City While You’re There
Before ending this piece it’s worth talking about its surroundings as another reason to make it to 3D Meetup.
Birmingham is the UK’s second city and has at times had a sad reputation as a run-down former industrial powerhouse whose best days are behind it. But in recent years Birmingham has successfully re-invented itself and is a vibrant European city. Most readers will be familiar with Shenzhen in China as one of the 21st century world’s major tech manufacturing cities where anything seems possible, perhaps it’s best to describe Birmingham by comparison as the 19th century’s equivalent. The thousands of metalworking and other trades that were once plied here may largely have been supplanted, but with their legacy round every corner it remains a fascinating city for anyone with an interest in these things to visit.
I’d suggest a trip to Thinktank, Birmingham’s science and technology museum, as well as the Pen Museum, and the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. And though it’s a few stops on an urban railway, I’d be letting you down if I didn’t remind you about the Cadbury World chocolate factory attraction.