The general public now has unlimited access to 3-D printing thanks to recent University of Idaho graduate Chris Walker and his company Element Robot Inc. and a newly installed 3-D printing machine on the University of Idaho campus in Room 114 of the Gauss-Johnson building.
The 3-D printing machine, Skyforge, works similar to a vending machine where customers pay for an object that is mechanically distributed at a specified location. There are three steps to the process.
Customers submit a Computer-Aided Design (a file format that holds three-dimensional objects) online at the company’s website, elementrobot.com. Next, the company turns the file into 3-D printing instructions.
The customer then reviews their detailed order information and finalizes the order. Customers will receive an email when their product is complete. They later pick up their object on location from the machine.
How fast the order gets printed after being placed depends on the size of the queue waiting to be printed. The time frame to print something depends on the volume of the object. An iPhone case, for example, could be made in approximately two hours.
Prices vary significantly based on volume. The minimum order price is $2. To cut down on costs, the company offers to print a hollow version of a large object instead of a solid version — which could cost significantly more.
Skyforge works from the bottom to the top of the design by layering horizontal strips of molten plastic, until the product is finished. The end product can be as large as a basketball.
“Basically, 3-D printing encompasses, I’d say, 10 or 20 different technologies,” Walker said. “The one we’re using I like to describe as a robot hot glue gun.”
The company sees two groups of products — specified engineering items such as gears, levers and pulleys, and everyday objects such as iPhone cases, models and figurines. For example, a recent customer printed a small figurine from the popular videogame Halo.
When starting his company, Walker set out with a few things in mind. Initially, Walker worried about the strength of the printed product, but later set his sights on what he considers is one of the biggest problems with 3-D printing: accessibility.
“Our goal is to make these systems entirely autonomous,” Walker said.
A current example is the necessity to have a human on hand to pull the printed object out of the machine. Skyforge features a blade ejector mechanism that scoops the newly printed object out of the machine.
Skyforge is Element Robot Inc.’s first machine, and Walker admitted there are still bugs to work out, as with any highly technical object.
Element Robot Inc. Chief Technical Officer John Feusi said he foresees consistent updates to the machine. Feusi said the machine is for anyone to use. The company’s initial hypothesis highlighted engineering students as the most crucial customers.
“But I’m not sure of that, I think another really important group is all the rest of the students that, until now, haven’t had any sort of good access to 3-D printers,” Walker said.
According to Walker, 3-D printing initially began with prototyping objects before the schematics were sent off to mass-produce an object. Engineers, for example, would test a product’s design with this technology before large investments were made to create an object that may or may not work.
“I think the exciting thing is that it’s breaking down barriers (in) prototyping,” Feusi said.
3-D printing is a field that began two to three decades ago. Its recent surge in popularity was, in part, due to a number of patents expiring. According to Walker, having to settle on the term “3-D printing” is unfortunate.
Walker said he hopes the public starts referring to the machines as forges, instead of 3-D printing machines, due to the nature of the technology.
“3-D printing is a terrible misnomer, because it’s nothing like that,” Walker said. “You’re starting with nothing and making a 3-D object.”
The company’s website has more than 100 users now. As of a week ago, Element Robot Inc. has processed approximately 60-70 orders since the machine was first placed on campus.
Jake Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org