It sounds like the promise of an ad in the back of a PopSci issue from the 1950s. Build your own replicating machine! Make anything you desire in your own garage! But that’s exactly what veteran hacker Bre Pettis and his pals offer with their CupCake CNC kit: a computer-controlled 3-D printer that can whip up almost any object of less than four inches on a side from two kinds of plastic. The company’s goal is to make home manufacturing cheap and common. And the whole setup is open-source, so anybody can modify and improve the design, or even copy it wholesale.
It turns out that the trickiest part of making a 3-D printer kit is the software coding that tells it what to do. After several e-mail exchanges with Pettis, we finally got the beast moving. Unfortunately, our first effort looked more like modern art than the pulley we were going for. The machine is not impossible to master, though. Makerbot.com is full of examples of amazing printed objects, and a sister site, Thingaverse.com, hosts thousands of shared 3-D models that you can just download and plug in, once you get a handle on the software.
Time: 3 Days Cost: $950 Easy: 3/5
EXTRUDER CONTROLLER: The top is the controller board. The bottom—the orange head—is the part that gets very hot. Solid plastic enters the top and moves into a heated head that melts it. The movement of this part in three dimensions, and the start and stop of the flow through the head, determine the final shape of the printed object.
1. Depending on your operating system, some coding skills may be necessary. If your comfort level with software stops at formatting text in Word, find a friend who knows his way around code.
2. Because different parts require different temperature and speed settings for the plastic-dripping nozzles, it’s not really a click-to-print setup yet. Plan extra time and materials for trial runs, and for cleaning the nozzles between jobs.
3. The printer kit is smaller than you might expect. My big hands fumbled with many of the tiny parts. Keep needle-nose pliers and, ideally, a friend with smaller, more nimble hands nearby.
4. Use the wiki on makerbot.com as you go. It has good, updated step-by-step instructions for the hardware assembly. Check out the forums as well for further help from people who have been through the build process already.
5. The CupCake is not yet a robust manufacturing system. But its open-source roots and the community of early adopters growing around it mean that you can keep upgrading and improving it over time.
Click to launch the photo gallery for a piece-by-piece look at building the Makerbot
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.