3D It Yourself

3D It Yourself

Deezmaker is making Pasadena a hub for the new wave of 3D printing.

By Ilsa Setziol 09/11/2013

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A year ago, Diego Porqueras opened the West Coast’s first retail shop for 3D printers. He’d already designed his own printer, the Bukobot, and sold a few online, when it occurred to him that people needed a place to see one in, well, 3D. “This is such a physical technology,” he says. “You can see it online all you want, but until you actually see it — it’s a way different experience.”

It wasn’t long before people were filing into Porqueras’ one-room shop, called Deezmaker, wondering if his $1,200 kit — you have to assemble the printer yourself — could realize their ideas. Fortunately, Porqueras also envisioned his store as a hackerspace, a place where people can help each other learn the technology and refine their ideas.

If you don’t know about 3D printing, it’s time to get up to speed. Used by engineers and designers for a couple of decades, it’s now entering the consumer market and might just spur the next tech revolution. There are some half-dozen different 3D processes, but all are so-called additive manufacturing, meaning objects are built layer by layer, rather than cut out of a block of material. Picture a regular printer laying down ink as it moves a head across paper. Now, instead of a printer head, imagine the machine has a nozzle that extrudes noodles of a heated material — usually plastic — that fuse together.  That’s essentially the FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) technology behind the Bukobot.

Many of Deezmaker’s customers have substantial design, engineering or computer experience. So, for them, assembling a machine and learning computer-assisted design (CAD) programs is more fun than frustration. In the future, 3D printers are expected to become more user-friendly, says Deezmaker assistant technician Nick Nelson. “I expect to see this in everybody’s home, printing out day-to-day items,” he says. “Say a handle on a cabinet breaks — you go print out another one.”

JPL engineer and Deezmaker client Dave Doody has a sideline selling models of NASA spacecraft through his website, SpacecraftKits.com. They’re made of laser-cut paper. However, creating one part — tiny replicas of the parabolic disk antennae featured on many spacecrafts — has been challenging. Doody thinks 3D printing them in PLA (a plastic derived from starchy plants or sugar) would work better. So he enrolled in a 3D printing class at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design and ordered a Bukobot. “And what I intend to do,” he says, “is make [computer] files available [so] that anybody who can [3D] print at school or work can just download the file and make the antenna.”

The handy microwave oven–size Bukobot is even poised to help as many as 600 visually impaired students in the Los Angeles Unified School District learn math and science. Lore Schindler, a technology coordinator for LAUSD, says textbooks for these subjects rely on diagrams and illustrations that the text-to-speech readers and Braille renderings the students use can’t really capture. She wants to enable teachers to create their own customized three-dimensional illustrations.

A trip to Deezmaker with a blind colleague sold her on the idea. Schindler handed the man one of the store samples — a funnel-shaped cup. “I described to him that it was the shape that a funnel cloud would take in a tornado,” she recalls. “He commented that he now had a better understanding of what the ‘eye of the storm’ was.” With some help assembling her Bukobot and a couple of classes, Schindler was able to print a folding tetrahedron, using a design she found on the website Thingiverse.com. (The website is one of a handful that offers pre-made designs you can customize.)

On a Sunday in August, JPL’s Doody and dozens of others with 3D printing projects in the works — or in their imaginations — pile into Deezmaker (so named because Diego’s nickname is Deez and he enjoys a bit of wordplay, as in three D’s) on Hill Avenue, north of Pasadena City College. They trade tips and celebrate the successful launch of Deezmaker’s second offering, the smaller and portable Bukito printer, designed by Porqueras’ 28-year-old associate, Rich Cameron. (There are also other inexpensive FDM printers out there, including the Cube, and other 3D printing kits, such as one offered by Costa Mesa–based Airwolf 3D. Porqueras hopes to carve out a niche with quality machines that are adjustable, easy to fix and don’t require proprietary filament cartridges.)

Randy Ross and his 13-year-old son, Jedi, are assembling their Bukobot onsite. “This is the only place here in California that will help me build a 3D printer from scratch,” Ross explained. He doesn’t have a specific application in mind but thinks his first project will be a gift for his wife — a holder for multiple bottles of fingernail polish.

James Robbins shows off a couple of large, red-and-white plastic action figures he designed and printed on his Bukobot. “It’s awesome,” the 29-year-old automotive designer from Long Beach says, “a fun project, a little hobby, to make cool stuff.”

“I can think of an infinite number of things I want to make,” says Tim Trzepacz of Sylmar, who runs a maker group (DIYers) of sci-fi fans. “In the sci-fi community people are making costumes, so if you want to have that special belt buckle, you can print that now.”

The 37-year-old Porqueras is fairly new to 3D printing himself. Two years ago, he was working as a Hollywood camera technician when he saw a CNN story about homemade 3D printers. “I got a kit to create stuff I might need for Hollywood,” he recalls, “perfect little camera mounts or custom brackets [to add] more hard drives to a computer.” He took classes at a Culver City hackerspace called Crashspace. Soon needing a better machine, he designed the Bukobot and then offered it to others through a Kickstarter campaign. “We got so many orders after Kickstarter that it justified opening the shop,” he says. He was already living in Pasadena and figured the presence of JPL, Art Center, Caltech and PCC made it a great location. “3D printing encompasses everything I love to do,” he says, explaining how he cobbled together his education at various Southland community colleges and Art Center, enrolling in classes that interested him — drafting, electronics, software design, astronomy, video production.

Porqueras and his colleagues have a sky’s-the-limit optimism about the technology, positing, for instance, that 3D printers could make third world countries self-sufficient and foster world peace. That’s a little hard to envision, especially when perusing the vases, bumpy plastic Yoda heads, costume jewelry and owl figurines lining Deezmaker’s shelves.

Really polished and sophisticated items — custom shoes created by Nike or prototype parts used in the automotive industry — are printed on machines costing as much as a million dollars. “The hobby and home units can create models of a [limited] type, size and accuracy,” says David Cawley, director of rapid prototyping and model shops at Art Center. “The machines we have at the college are the next level up.” On a recent day at the school’s verdant northwest Pasadena campus, he points out six 3D printers, ranging in cost from $25,000 to $65,000 apiece. “These machines have better ability; they’re more production-type machines,” he says. He shows off plastic and plaster prototypes of items ranging from a very detailed dragon statuette to an “iThrone” (a smartphone dock). But Cawley says 3D printing isn’t going to replace manufacturing — at least not anytime soon. “Don’t confuse 3D printing with production,” he explains. “The idea of 3D is mass customization. Everybody gets a dragon, but everybody’s dragon is different.” There are cheaper, more appealing ways to make thousands of identical dragon statuettes.

Deezmaker client John Harriot, who designs cabinet fixtures, isn’t expecting people to print their cabinet handles at home in the near future. “They can, if they want it out of plastic,” he says, “but I don’t see [other options] right around the corner.” Machines that print in metal are very expensive. (The last time Harriot spec’d producing a single cabinet pull on one, the cost was over a thousand dollars.) He now uses his Bukobot to create less expensive plastic prototypes, then makes molds from them and finally casts the fixtures in metal. “The software has been giving me some difficulties,” he says, “but that has nothing to do with the machine — it’s great. I’ve been putting out some really nice parts.”

Porqueras acknowledges that getting more polished products from Bukobots and other inexpensive printers will require a lot more innovation in software and materials. Still, Art Center students work with a Bukobot (housed at the Raymond Avenue campus), and Deezmaker is making forays into the educational market, targeting middle- and high-school science teachers. Philip van Allen, Art Center professor of interaction design, says one advantage for his students is they can use it without supervision. “The materials are inexpensive,” he says, “and if the student makes a mistake, it is simply part of the learning process.” Some Art Center students are even buying their own low-cost 3D printers so they can tweak their designs at home.

Home users say watching objects slowly build before their eyes is mesmerizing. They’re also gaping at the early stage of a rapidly evolving technology. Cawley likens this era to the heady days when Steve Jobs and other future tech titans were creating computer kits in their garages. “Today, [the technology is] crude and primitive,” Cawley says, “but we haven’t seen anywhere near the potential of 3D printing.”

Art Center will offer its popular 3D printing class again this spring and summer. It is open to the public and there are no prerequisites. Deezmaker (290 N. Hill Ave., Suite #5, Pasadena; deezmaker.com) offers occasional classes, as well as a monthly meet-up on the first Sunday of the month.

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