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Another dimension

Sean Byrne reviews the Ultimaker 2, the open source 3D printer making its way into classrooms around the world

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | December 23, 2014 | Business

A real 3D printer

When the big brown box that held our very own 3D printer arrived on our doorstep like a piece of futuristic technology sent back in time, I was barely able to contain my excitement as I hurried to finish off my morning emails and important tasks for the day so I could execute the “grand unveiling” of an actual 3D printer.

The grand unveiling

Unfortunately, my scheduled “grand unveiling” didn’t quite go to plan. As we were receiving a demo unit, the printer wasn’t shut down correctly so dust and other bits of non-printable material had clogged up the nozzle in transport. So I was greeted with a tiny, curling drizzle of material and, after a while, a high pitched screeching of the printer trying too hard to feed the PLA material through the clogged nozzle.

But Ultimaker is based on an open source philosophy. Meaning that if you take to the forums like I did, you will almost certainly find several (hundred) people that have encountered the same problem and will have a tried and tested solution. It turned out to be a doddle, and while unblocking the nozzle I couldn’t help but feel that I had really got stuck into the whole open source philosophy. I had asked for help and I’d found it on the other side of the globe, for free. 

Press and print

After my nozzle unblocking triumph, I immediately dived straight into creating my first 3D print simply by selecting PRINT and pressing GO. It’s literally that simple, plug and play. Pop your SD card into the slot, a couple of button presses to the control panel on the front of your Ultimaker, then sit back and be treated to a mesmerising display as 3D objects appear out of thin air.

There is an absolute treasure trove of free designs available online through YouMagine.com and Thingiverse.com where I found and printed a DNA helix complete with A, T, C and G base binding molecules and a mapped active volcano layout that could easily be placed in a Geography classroom to kinaesthetically teach kids the composition of a volcanic mountain.

3D design

I cracked open Google’s open source 3D design software Google SketchUp and set to designing my own creation. It was actually remarkably easy: there are so many free plug-ins for SketchUp that help with any problems you might encounter you’d struggle to get hung up on any one thing for a long period of time.

Printing was a little more complicated. Some of the parts of my model were required to be especially thin. Thankfully, as all the processes are open source, all it took was a little tweaking in the settings of Cura to increase detail. As the Ultimaker can print detail up to 40 microns (half the width of a human hair) it didn’t struggle at all to fabricate a complete replica of my digital 3D model into the real world.

Verdict

It’s no surprise that through my Ultimaker journey I was overcome with this amazing celestial feeling while watching the concepts and designs in my head become reality. I realised that anything I could imagine and draw, I could make and create out of nothing.

It’s this “outside of the box” thinking that kids would benefit from being practised in. Practical problem solving is an important part of day-to-day life in the real world and learning this way gives the opportunity to blur the lines between virtual and solid physical objects.

While most primary and secondary schools aren’t fully embracing 3D printing just yet, I suspect this amazing little piece of tech will be welcomed with open arms into design colleges and further education institutions.

With the Ultimaker 2 my imagination as an individual was the limit of what could be created. Every problem I encountered I was able to overcome due to the open source nature and philosophy of Ultimaker. Awarding it with anything less than five stars would be nothing short of injustice.

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