Matt Stultz is the founder and lead organizer of 3DPPVD, a meetup group for 3-D printing enthusiasts held monthly at AS220 Labs since June 2012.
Last month, Stultz and AS220 Labs Manager James Rutter appeared on Dan Yorke’s “State of Mind” to talk about how Stultz and the Providence 3-D printing community helped build cheap prosthetic hands for children in Africa born with amniotic band syndrome.
Stultz spoke with Providence Business News about his passion for 3-D printing and how the 3DPPVD community is working to share the technology’s potential.
PBN: What was your first experience with a 3-D printer, and how did it lead you to organize a local 3-D printing meetup group?
STULTZ: In 2009 I founded HackPittsburgh, a type of workshop known as a Hackerspace. Hackerspaces are member-run physical workshops where people with diverse skill sets can come together and create the projects they dream up. Skills tend to be heavy on the engineering and technology fronts but are not limited to this. We had an excellent community of talented members who were all interested in learning and sharing knowledge.
At the same time, MakerBot was getting their start based out of a similar Hackerspace (NYC Resistor) in Brooklyn, N.Y. They had begun selling their first 3-D printers (known as Cupcakes) aimed toward fellow hackers/tinkerers. One of our members, Marty McGuire, decided to bite the bullet and order a Cupcake, as we were all enthralled by the idea of a machine that could make our digital designs a reality.
These early hobby 3-D printers were not reliable, trusty machines like the typical home appliances we are used to. Instead, a lot of time was spent fixing, upgrading and tinkering to try to keep the machine working and improve its output. To many this was frustrating, but to some of us this became a learning experience that drew our interest further. By the following year, I had ordered and built my own Cupcake to dig deeper into the hobby.
In late 2011 my friend Marty, who was then working for MakerBot, recruited me to join their team as well. I worked on Web development for them and was able to work mostly remotely, so instead of moving to New York, I moved here to Rhode Island where I had family. Working for MakerBot I met other amazing 3-D printing gurus and expanded my knowledge greatly.
For numerous reasons, MakerBot ended up not being the kind of place I wanted to continue my career with, and so six months after starting, I left the company. This freed me to reach out and form a community here in Rhode Island. I wanted to do more than just teach people how to use the machines and send them on their way; I wanted to create a group of 3-D printing enthusiasts who were sharing ideas and skills in a way I had become familiar with while running a Hackerspace.
AS220 Labs was a good jumping off point for starting the community - since they already had 3-D printers and some members interested in the technology, they just needed more community. Now we are a year and a half in, and our monthly meetings routinely pack AS220 Labs, with our core members coming together weekly to work on various projects. I’m excited to see where we are in another year and a half.
PBN: How does a community such as 3DPPVD encourage and challenge 3-D print designers to find innovative uses for the technology?
STULTZ: The old adage says “Two heads are better than one,” but I believe that 30 nerds in a Hackerspace are better than one nerd alone in his garage. Our members include software developers, engineers, sculptors, toy designers and numerous other professionals with diverse skills. Bringing all of these skill sets together, we are able to teach each other new techniques and challenge each other with new ideas.
This not only makes us better 3-D printing enthusiasts, it helps make us better software developers, engineers, sculptors, toy designers, etc. The 3DPPVD community is also pushing the boundaries of what is possible in world of desktop 3-D printing. In February 2013, I released research on our blog explaining how to use HIPS as a soluble support material for desktop 3-D printers. This technology has since been adopted by MakerBot and other 3-D printer manufacturers. The research that our team is doing has also been featured on numerous 3-D printing and technology blogs such as 3Ders, Makezine and Adafruit.
PBN: How much does it cost to invest in 3-D printing as a hobby?
STULTZ: To join our community you don’t even need a printer, you can come to our meetings and learn about how all of this works. You can talk to our members and find out what printers they are using, hear what they are excited about, and use all of this to become a better-informed shopper when you are ready to hop on the market.
The past few years have seen a rapid decrease in the cost of 3-D printers, along with an increase in quality and reliability. Now there is a printer for nearly every budget. I am a very big fan of (and also own as part of my collection of printers) the Printrbot Simple. This little guy starts at $299 for a kit and goes up to $399 for a fully assembled printer. Not only is it affordable, it’s a great little starter printer for those interested in getting into the hobby (or secondary or tertiary printer for those of us that are really into it).
This past year our team also developed a printer based off of a popular open source printer, the MendelMax, that we dubbed the CastMax. We used traditional casting techniques and some design optimization to make the printer much easier and cheaper to manufacture. I then ran two weekend classes where group members were able to build their own printers, with my help, for only the cost of materials. This gave 10 members of our group - who didn’t have printers of their own - printers that they knew every inch of and now had the skills to work on and improve.
PBN: Do you draw a distinction between 3-D printing enthusiasts who experiment with the technology as a hobby and 3-D printing professionals who make a living off it?
STULTZ: It really depends on how the individual looks at the technology and what their interests are. 3-D printing isn’t a new technology, it has been in the hands of industry and professionals for decades. The recent explosion that we have seen has been caused by patents expiring, combined with hackers and forward-thinking entrepreneurs bringing these devices to the masses at a price point many can afford.
Our community has numerous professionals who use this technology for their daily jobs and also see it as a wonderful thing that we have 3-D printers in our homes, and are interested in pushing this tech forward. We also run into pros that have been dealing with this for so long that it’s old hat to them and they can’t see a reason why anyone would want it in their homes. Of course, 30 years ago some people said the same thing about personal computers!
PBN: What is the ultimate potential of 3-D printing?
STULTZ: I believe that 3-D printing has the potential to change our lives as equally as personal computers and the Internet have. 3-D printers are not for mass-manufacturing things and warehousing loads of widgets that may never sell. 3-D printers are for making what you need when you need it. A product no longer needs to have a customer base of thousands to make up for the tooling and manufacturing costs. “One size fits most” becomes personalization. Things become less throw away because replacement parts that commonly don’t exist can be quickly manufactured at home.
The world became smaller when the Internet allowed us to send emails that were delivered almost instantly and video calls placed family members across continents in the same room. In 2009 a German designer created a 3-D printable whistle that printed with the pea (the rattly bit) inside the whistle so it would work with zero assembly right out of the printer. Twenty minutes later that whistle was printed on a printer in Brooklyn. Let’s see USPS beat those shipping speeds!