Digital Design For Personal Physical Manufacturing

Bre Pettis appeared on The Colbert Report tonight, introducing the Comedy Central show audience to 3D printing with a Thing-O-Matic and Thingiverse. It must have made quite an impact, because Thingiverse is very slow right now.

I’m a big fan of the MakerBot and personal DIY manufacturing. I love the idea of small digital files representing real physical objects. And the MakerBot is a big part of making this a real thing for the average person.

To get the most out of the DIY manufacturing renaissance, it’s not enough to just download shower curtains, shot glasses, or Stephen Colbert’s head from Thingiverse. This is preferable to driving to the store and buying shower curtains, shot glasses, or Stephen Colbert’s head in that you actually printed out the item after downloading it, but it’s still someone else’s idea of how to design shower curtains, shot glasses, or Stephen Colbert’s head. If we want to be totally DIY, we need to design it, too.

There are a number of free or inexpensive tools for doing 3D design. Most are “interactive” in that you have to draw the item you want to design. Most have tools to create “primitive” objects (spheres, cubes, cylinders) to precise dimensions and at exact locations, but that is not how they are primarily intended to be used. This can be intimidating if you don’t feel like an artist.

In the case of organic shape modeling, a tool like the open source Blender (or any of the commercial programs that it emulates) is a good choice. However, if you are designing a largely geometric object that needs to be of precise dimensions and can be easily made from primitives, you should check out OpenSCAD. (It’s free, open source, and available for Linux, Mac, and Windows.)

OpenSCAD is more of a programming (or scripting) language than a traditional Computer Aided Design (CAD) tool. You use OpenSCAD by defining shapes and combing or subtracting them from each other. You can also take 2D shapes like letters and “extrude” them into 3D objects. It sounds simple enough, but it allows for a lot of possibilities – which you can see on Thingiverse.

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