Thursday, May 31, 2007

V-Flash 3D Printer - Early Info & Specifications

As we sit here in the heat with a dead air conditioning compressor, which will take some steamy days to replace, we're wishing that the whole personal fabrication revolution was mature enough to allow us to build our own! But, we're not quite there yet.

We needed something to brighten our day. So, it was very welcome news to hear from Buddy Byrum, the product manager for V-Flash with answers to some questions we had about the V-Flash 3D printer. And, now we hope to make your day by sharing them!

The image, above, is of an item created with the V-Flash 3D Printer. From the stop motion animation the V-Flash web site ( we already knew that objects were built from the bottom rather than adding top layers. Here's how it works.

  • A disposable pad having small break away supports is suspended from the build platform at the top of the build chamber.

  • A film, at the bottom of the build chamber, is retracted into a container of liquid photo curable resin where it is coated with the resin and then pulled out across the floor of the build chamber.

  • The disposable pad, or partially completed model, is lowered into or near the liquid resin on the film.

  • A light system photo cures selected portions of the resin to form a layer of the 3D object.

  • The build platform is pressed down onto the film and then lifts up.

  • The film is again retracted to pick up more resin and the process is repeated until the 3D object is completed.

  • The object and disposable pad are taken from the machine and separated.

The fact that the material used is a photo curable resin in liquid form rather than a powder should make this a very clean machine to operate in an office environment. The fact that the object is built from the bottom as it hangs, also means no waste of materials since no extra support materials are required. Any liquid not cured is reused. It is obvious that the V-Flash system is very efficient with material utilization.

Unlike some of the powder systems that use a sprayed binder, the parts come out of the machine fully cured and ready to use. (The Desktop Factory is also good in this regard because it binds its powder with heat rather than a sprayed liquid.) That being said, the V-Flash is being marketed as a concept modeler with material properties similar to general use SLA models. Of course, they are hoping to develop future materials that may actually be strong enough to be used for production pieces. Other future materials might have different color, flexibility or hardness properties. So, the technology looks very flexible.

We were not able to get firm estimates on material costs per cubit inch.

The detail resolution is .0088 inches. That translates to 114dpi in the 2D printing world. For most of the tasks for which it is being designed that should be plenty. But, if not, the printed objects can be sanded and printed. The material is said to take paint quite well.

None of the under $10K printers are speed demons. The V-Flash builds, vertically, at a rate of .06 to .75 inches an hour. But, remember, multiple items can be built at the same time provided they fit in the build chamber.

The unique hanging build technique does offer one design challenge. One of the capabilities of 3D printing system is that of building loose items within a cage or gears that are built right onto their shafts. In powder systems the loose powder or other disposable material is used to support these free floating items while being built. The V-Flash methodology will require the user to design small breakaway supports to hold the free floating items in place as the build is being processed. It's isn't a big thing; but, it is something that one has to consider when designing.

The software that will be delivered with the V-Flash system will accept .STL files and will be able to resize and reorient the models to be printed.

The ship dates are still expected to be early fall. Possibly September. So, it may be the first commercial 3D printer to break the under-$10K barrier. We are really looking forward to it. Again, thanks to Buddy Byrum for this helpful information!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The STL File. One way to get there from here.

It's one thing to have a 3D printer; but, it's not very useful unless you can send your part or masterpiece to it reliably. With so many different 3D formats being used somebody had to come up with an open standard that could be used as the common language between 3D modeling applications and the 3D printer.

While the software that drives some of the 3D printers are able to interpret .OBJ files, all of them, to the best of our knowledge, understand the .STL file format.

We recently found an excellent article on the STL file format that covers the topic in very clear terms.

Optimizing STL Output - ProtoType Magazine

We were surprised to learn that the file format goes back to 1987. And, the company that released it was 3D systems, the makers of the V-Flash Desktop 3D Printer! STL stands for STereoLithography. It's generally written as a text file; but, there is also a binary version.

In case you are interested, here is a sample of part of an .STL file:

solid C:\My Model

facet normal -0.799982 0.259131 0.541183
outer loop
vertex 4.87315 -1.83065 -0.0228412
vertex 4.828 -1.5632 -0.218208
vertex 4.69977 -1.74187 -0.320398



.... Repeats for each facet .............

As you can guess, STL files for complex shapes can be quite large since the vertexes of each tessellation (facet or triangle) must be thoroughly defined.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Beware the Evil Mad Scientist! (Calorie Alert!!!)

Wouldn't you know it. The industry hasn't even gotten started yet and already its got its own Evil Mad Scientist. And, this is one dastardy dude! His modus Operandi is to tempt the unwary into a stupifying sugar high by disquising his creations as 3D works of art.

And, it's DEFINITELY working! We aren't the only ones hoping that he'll find a way to commercialize the home-built Candy Fab 4000. Sugar junkies the world over are pulling for him.

Here is the main web site for this dispenser of evil calories.

Evil Mad Scientist's Web Site

But, don't stop there. You can wander on over to his images gallery... in the interest of science of course... and see just how enticing the output of that contraption can be!

Candy Fab 4000 Temptations

Aside from his obvious evil intentions, our Evil Mad Scientist is showing us that 3D printing and fabrication has an enormously wide range of new applications. He's an innovator and leader that has earned a place of honor on this blog. But, if he keeps riding THIS contraction, he may need to make a few sugar CASTS!!!

Actual Evil Mad Scientist's Risky Behavior

More than Chocolate! Cornell's Fab@Home

Our first encounter with the idea that one could actually own a 3D fabricator for under $10K was when we stumbled across the Fab@Home project's web site. Since then, a LOT more people have heard about this fascinating experiment in personal fabrication. Most of the attention, and rightly so, has gone to an enterprising high school student who created custom 3D chocolate confections using the Fab@Home system.

But, recently they've gone beyond that and actually created a flashlight housing. Dan Periard recieved the Fabber of the Month award for this design!

Dan Periard's Flashlight

The gallery of images of the things being made with the Fab@Home fabricator is a lot of fun to visit. The gallery is growing at a great rate and we're happy to see it.

Fab@Home Gallery

We found the Bouncy Ball images to be very encouraging. Not only do we lose ours under the furniture far too frequently; but, at our age that becomes their permanent home. But, more importantly, it shows that one can first create the tool (mold from frosting) and then create the toy in that mold. Pretty slick!

The other image that caught our attention was the Box in Cylinder. 3D Fabrication offers some very unque capabilities. Being able to build and enclose objects at the same time is an excellent example of one of those unique capabilities.

Making 3D Music With RepRap

OK, so it was a corny title. But, it's late and I had to write SOMETHING to go in that space!

This site is dedicated to any and all 3D printers or fabricators in the sub-$10K price threshold. That includes both commercially built products and those you can build yourself. The RepRap project falls into the latter category.

Most of the build-it-yourself systems use extrusion as the means for building a 3D object. This means that a wide variety of materials can be used. RepRap's goal is to build a system that can replicate itself... and they hope to be able to do so in 2008. It's certainly worth the time to check out their web site.

RepRap's Web Site

We'll have more detail on the project at a later time.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Bloggers helping Bloggers

One of the great things about Blogging is being introduced to other Bloggers having similar interests. An email arrived today from Michael Berman, the Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. He was letting us know that he was linking to one of our articles from his blog.

Visiting his blog was a real treat... and, turned up some excellent resources for learning more about Cornell's Fab@Home and Desktop Factories view of the future.

We could point you to the links we found on his site. But, we'd much rather you go there and enjoy the rich resources he's put together. Like we said before, it's a treat!

Michael Berman's Blog
Recent PBS Radio Interviews regarding 3D printing

Be a Visionary

In most of the posts you will note that the plural 'we' is used even though, at the moment at least, there is only one 'I' actually doing the writing. The use is 'we' is intentional because this blog is intended to be a place where many visionary people can contribute to our understanding of the soon-to-be rapidly growing desktop 3D printing phenomenon.

But, this post is a personal message from me to you. It's meant to encourage you to be a visionary when it comes to evaluating whether or not to invest in one of the first 3D machines. Vision is something that can be here one minute and gone another. Sometimes I've been a visionary and other times I missed opportunities due to lack of vision.

I vividly remember one such failure of vision. It was sometime in the early to mid 1970's when I was a young video producer. A man had called me to his office to make me a proposition. He explained that he was putting together a kit that would be used to create a home computer. The only problem was that he had no money and wanted me to create a training video to be paid for when sales came in.

I had previously worked with mainframe computers and simply could not fathom why anyone would ever want a computer in their home. What in the world would one do with such a thing? I passed, and it wasn't long before I realized that I'd let a great opportunity get by me for lack of vision. That was a very valuable lesson.

Fortunately, other opportunities to be a visionary came along. But, this time I was ready for it. By the late 1970's, it was beginning to dawn on me that a computer might be useful after all. In fact, it might help me with my video productions by creating titles and even animations. One day, as I was walking through a store I spotted a video game, the Bally Professional Arcade that included a programming language.

It was crude to say the least. Very crude. The best resolution it could deliver was just 160x100 and it dropped to 160x88 when Bally Basic was used to program it. Had I been in my non-visionary mode at the time, I would have simply dismissed it and walked away. But, fortunately, that happened to be one of the days when I was wearing my visionary hat. I bought it. And, thus began an extraordinary adventure.

While trying to learn all I could about the Bally, I found out about the DataMax UV-1 built on the same chipset; but, having twice the resolution... a whopping 320x200! It used a marvelous graphics and animation language called ZGrass by Dr. Tom DeFanti. I bought one.

This in turn lead to my being hired by Astrocade, the company that marketing the Bally Professional Arcade. Soon, I was traveling all over the US and Europe, going places and meeting people that I could never have dreamed. Within two years of my having the vision to see something special in that crude little video game system I'd sat playing video games with the CEOs of Hasbro, Fisher-Price, Quaker Oats, Marvel Comics, ITT, Standard Elecktrik - Pforzheim, etc. I'd been invited to an Omni Magazine birthday party for Isaak Isimov and, while I'm not much of a party animal, was whisked to the head of the line at Studio 54's Conan party to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger and Grace Jones.

And, it was ALL because on that particular day I didn't dismiss the video animation potential of a crude little game system. On that day, I was a visionary and my life would never be the same.

Why do I bring up this story?

Because I see that same opportunity, today, in the 3D fabrication kits and low-cost desktop printers that will be coming into the marketplace in the next few months. And, I hope that you will be a visionary as you evaluate them. Some are going to look at them and dismiss them as too crude or too slow. For some that will be an opportunity lost for ever.

But, for those that see beyond what these machines can't do... and, for those with the vision to push them to the limits... there can be exciting days ahead. For educators it might mean new ways to motivate students. For artists it might mean entirely new creative directions. For others it might even mean, like the Bally Professional Arcade did for me, an entirely new career and direction in life.

At the very least, follow this new industry as closely as you can. it's going places.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Hear better via a Desktop 3D Printer!

We hate relying on news releases for information. They're so predictable... like there's a class that everyone goes to learn the rules for writing them and swears they will never deviate from the rules.

But, when a news release actually reveals a genuine tidbit of information then we're forced by our promise to keep you informed to at least give you a link.

3D Systems has announced that they are partnering with Dreve Otoplastik, a hearing aid manufacturer to deliver custom made hearing aid shells using a special version of the V-Flash 3D printer (Model HA 230). Now, this is some interesting news. It means that the resolution of the V-Flash actually IS smooth enough to create an item that can be comfortably worn inside one's ear. That's great news.

But, there is also another little tidbit of information contained in this release. Apparently, they will be able to achieve some level of multi-color delivery using swappable cartridges. While this isn't the same as having a full color Z450, it's certainly not a bad thing. The materials are being specially developed by Dreve Otoplastik.

Here's the link to the release.

V-Flash Hearing Aid Press Release

Since this particular machine will only be marketed through Dreve Otoplastik, it is not exactly the machine or materials that most of us would be using. Even so, the delivery time table and the little hints the article provides is encouraging news.

It Ain't Smoke and Mirrors!

Back in the early days of video games we were constantly hearing this rumor or that rumor, only to learn that it was all "Smoke & Mirrors". In other words, if it sounds too good the be true, it usually isn't.

We had our own lingering doubts about both of the low-cost 3D printers that are being promised for delivery in the next few months. If the V-Flash actually kicks out some parts in front of the crowd at EASTEC 2007 we can rest a little easier. We'll see.

But, on the Desktop Factory front, we're beginning to see some real movement. Visit their web site and then compare the sites' images with the parts you see here. It is evident that they have been very busy experimenting with ways to help their future users get the most out of their machines when they finally ship.

This image was very important for me. First, it tells me that the surface of the parts created in the Desktop Factory can be polished, smoothed and/or coated to a beautiful finish. Furthermore, they appear to take paint extremely well. Click in the above image and see if you don't observe a fingerprint in the silver gear. It takes a pretty shiny surface to show a fingerprint!

But, it also tells me that Desktop Factory is willing to show its warts, too. The first image that I posted on this blog of a Desktop Factory part came from this larger image. That item and others in the picture, while polished or painted, still reveal the original surface characteristics in interior areas. They could have turned them so it didn't show up; but, they didn't. That's class.

What is unclear is whether the surfaces were polished in some way or that the coating was simply used to smooth the surfaces. If anyone has any information as to how these items were processed please let us know. But, DON'T contact us about using the word "Ain't". We're from the South and Tom taught Science, not English!! Feel fortunate that we didn't use "Ain't Not"!

Yep! It's right around the corner and it truly ain't smoke and mirrors! We just wonder if Tom can actually clear off a large enough area on his desk by the time they are ready to ship. His wife is betting that he can't do it! But, we're pulling for him. There's a desk under there somewhere!!!

V-Flash at EASTEC 2007 Exposition

As this is being written the V-Flash 3D printer is being displayed on the exhibition floor at EASTEC 2007. We wish we were there. But, since we're not, we'll do our best to find someone that was.

The V-Flash 3D printer is expected to be released sometime this year at a cost of $9,900. We contacted the company and were subsequently contacted by a local distributer. But, they still don't have any real information to provide.

We'll keep trying. Maybe they'll have more after the show.

3D Systems does have a web site dedicated to the V-Flash 3D Printer. There are some intriquing glimpses into how it works in a short still-frame video. And, there is an image of a sample object. But, the image isn't fine enough for us to truly judge the character of the output. At 7"x9"x8", the build size of the V-Flash is larger than that of the 5"x5"x5" Desktop Factory.

Visit their web site at:

Desktop Factory Newsletter to be sent in June

One of the things I learned when inquiring about Desktop Factory information was that they will be sending out a their newsletter in June to those who have signed up for it. It's easy to sign up. Just go ther web site:

There is a place on the right side of the home page where you can register to receive the newsletter when it's sent out.

A first look at the Desktop Factory 3D Printer

The above image is from a larger image that we've obtained. It's a bit out of focus; but, useful none-the-less. It's a part that was printed in the Desktop Factory printer and then smoothed. What's revealing about this part, and why we decided to use it as the first image that we post of the output of the Desktop Factory, it that it also reveals the actual resolution of the unprocessed parts.

If you click on the image and look inside the hole for the shaft, you will be able to see that the surface is not nearly so smooth as the outside.

We've been told that the layers that the Desktop Factory lays down are 10 mils, and that the finest detail would be 40 mils (0.01 or 0.04 inches respectively). To see this in terms of dots per inch (dpi) in an inkjet printer it would mean that the layers are the equivalent of 100dpi and the finest resolved detail would be just 25dpi.

So, for our first desktop 3D printers, we need to be realistic about what they can and cannot achieve without any further processing. If we need very fine parts, then we'll have to turn to much more expensive solutions.

But, for many of us, the idea of being able to experiment at the conceptual stages of design development, at a low cost and under our direct control, is so appealing that even a low-res solution is better than no solution at all. Frankly, the cost of farming out 3D printing is just too expensive to allow much experimentation.

But, the photo reveals another interesting possibility. It appears that the material used in the Desktop Factory is very receptive to polishing or processing to achieve a finer finish. We don't see any pitting or scratching in the finished areas of the part which leads us to believe that it may be quite easy to work with.

How much work was done to achieve the smoothness of the finished part is not clear as yet. But, we're hoping to find out very soon. And, when we do, we'll certainly post our findings.

We're actually kind of impressed by what we see for the price.

3D Printing is Coming Your Way!

Make no mistake about it. 3D printing is on the way to our desktops.

This blog is being created as a place where we can follow the development of Desktop 3D as news and low cost products are released. Right now, we know about several potential candidates for that desk space now occupied by other, less fun, items.

Among the Build-It-Yourself candidates are the Fab@Home project (, RepRap ( We even have an 'Evil Mad Scientist' creating a 3D printer that relies on sugar as the media! And, I'm sure more are on the way.

But, we'll also be following commercial 3D Printers. Two relatively low-cost 3D printers are nearing their target dates for shipping, Desktop Factory and the V-Flash from 3D systems. Information about both is rather sparse right now. But, we have been able to learn a few facts about the Desktop Factory and have obtained some new images which we will share. The image at the top of the post is the latest avaialable for the Desktop Factory.

We understand that the Desktop Factory is actually going to be introduced at the target price at $4,995. This quickly raised its profile on our radar screen! Initially they stated a range of between $5,000 and $7,500. That savings of $2,500 adds up to a lot of materials for experimentation! We like that.

There is something a bit odd about the image of the Desktop Factory printer that we obtained. The buttons and display just don't seem 'real' enough. And, we'd feel a bit better if there was some loose powder in the chamber. But, we'll take what we can get right now and this is the best we have at the moment.