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2016

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A new kind of 3D printing uses flexible polymers that can change shape depending on temperature. Image: A 3D flower changes shape due to changes in temperature. (via MIT)

 

Making useful things with three dimensional printers has been changing a lot of design and manufacturing processes in recent years. There was the kid who made his own braces, and even 3D printed shoes given as awards at a recent athletic event. All of these objects, however, are rigid: they stay the same after the printer makes them. But recently a team of researchers have developed a technique that allows printable objects to change shape. Currently under development at MIT, microstereolithography allows 3D printers to make very precise shapes in very small sizes out of bendable materials.

 

When heated to within a certain temperature range, these materials ‘bounce back’ to their original shapes. And they can be very, very tiny-one prototype had the thickness of a human hair.

 

How do you make a tiny bendable flower? Thus far, the process is akin to using a tiny camera to scale an image down to size, then chopping the image up into different layers, like different levels of parfait. The sliced up images are then connected to a printer through a series of beams.

 

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The specific polymers used to make the product bendable are mixed during printing, using rays of ultraviolet light to catalyze the reaction. Making a tiny flower that can unfold is thus a combination of two different systems: creating a series of two dimensional images from a single three dimensional shape, and mixing polymers as the image is printed.

 

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What kind of polymers have been used? So far, pretty typical plastics-industry molecules have been used to make the bendable Eiffel Tower and flowery shapes in miniature. Because they’re used so much already, the chemistry is pretty basic: just add polymers with known elastic properties together. Scaling the process down even further could expand the applications.

 

Imagine taking a drug that was so specific it would only work at certain body temperatures, or tiny implantation devices for surgical procedures. Imagine being able to print single molecules. Making small things has never had such huge implications.

 

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So I recently was allowed to play with a 3D printer for the first time (fashionably late to the party, I know), and I ran into a little bit of a problem, what modeling software should I use. I was going to do a once off design but for my employer so It needs to be free, actually free, not this "free until you try to print something" rubbish.

 

What I want to make is a small enclosure for a proof of concept product I created. I have no experience with big commercial CAD packages like Pro Engineer or Solid Works. My entire modeling experience is that I used Sketch up and blender for a while about 5 years ago.

 

A quick googling brought me to a list of 3D software, from there I grabbed 4 most likely candidates from the free list:

 

 

First ImpressionHaving used SketchUp before and loving it's simplicity and power I was excited to download it and get started, see what's changed over the few years since I looked at  it last.A browser based CAD is quite an eye opener, the powerful design computers of only a few years ago now replicated in a FireFox tab with no install. I was worried that our slow internet would cause trouble for something like this.Another browser based CAD this one purposefully created for use with 3D printers.This definitely looks like the most professional option. "Under heavy development" warning on the download page tells me that if I find a bug I should let them know.
getting startedOff to the down load page, "I plan to use SketchUp for" oh dear, as that statement suggests it is not really fully free. TKO you are out.With the tutorials all watched, I an ready to start building my box but it soon becomes apparent that: either the tutorials did not give me the tools to get up and running quickly, or the design philosophy does not match up with the way I think. Either way after about an hour of painfully placing blocks and still not getting that "oh that's how they want me to do it" feeling I decided to give the next option a try. Enter Tinker CAD, the tutorials are interactive so I had a feel for every majour function before starting. I quickly drew up my enclosure, in fact from opening the web page to copying it to the SD card took less time than the actual printing.It was a particularly bad internet day for us and so by the time this had finished it 228 mb download I was already very happy with the Tinker CAD progress I had made, so unfortunately free CAD was not given a fair trial.
The winnerAs far as small printed parts go I do not thing that you can beat this program, I was staggered by how easy it was to pick up and get every thing I needed done, including counter sinks for screws. The only problem I had was that there is only one option for text font, that is it, I was left wanting nothing else.
RetrospectI was really bleak that I could not use SketchUp, I know there is a free trial of the pro version but still not for me.I was very disappointed in 3D tin the geometry transformations in the tutorial look very powerful but it feels like they have focused too much on the complex functions and not enough on the simple ones, or maybe the tutorials just need a revamp.YES, I like it a lot, for larger projects (though these would probably be more complex that your average printer can handle) I am not sure how well it will scale, but I would definitely give it a fare shot at them.After the smoke cleared ( yes the post-coital cigarette of TinkerCAD) I installed and opened FreeCAD and was overwhelmed with the functionality. After a few deep breaths I dived in and it is really amazing incredibly powerful and well thought out. For this enclosure project I feel like it would have taken longer to get the model out but only because there is more to learn here. It is really like bringing a tank to a fist fight, sure its difficult to shoot the bugger as he runs around you, but you will do a great deal better than a skinhead in a tank war.

 

So there it is if you are new to modeling and you want to do some 3D printing TinkerCAD is hard too beat. If you are comfortable with big CAD packages or you want to learn to model something complex but you do not want to pay for it FreeCAD is a great place to start, there are active forums with helpful users to get you unstuck or show you quicker ways to get something done.

 

That all Folks.

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