How some former NASA employees are reshaping how things get made
By Nicole Beckley
Photographs by Robert Gomez
Peer into a crystal ball and you might see a future where your furniture, décor and even your house itself has been created by a 3D printer. How far in the future? Some of it is happening now.
While working at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston and volunteering abroad with Engineers Without Borders, Samantha Snabes and Matthew Fiedler began talking about what it would be like if people in various corners of the world could make their own stuff. “The maker movement was just starting and Matthew had one of the early open source printers at his house,” Snabes says. “He was like, man, this is going to be the next big thing. He was teaching all of us to print at night.”
Snabes started polling NGOs, asking what people would make if they had a 3D printer. People wanted to produce prosthetics and tools, larger objects than what small consumer printers could accommodate, and they wanted a printer with a smaller price tag. Fiedler began working nights and weekends in his garage and in eight weeks produced what would become the Gigabot, a large-format 3D printer the size of a chest of drawers (or as Snabes says, “toilet-sized”). In 2013, they debuted Re:3D’s newly created Gigabot on Kickstarter and at SXSW, where it caught the attention of TechCrunch. “It was on TechCrunch literally within an hour or two of going live and we hit our funding goal in 27 hours,” Snabes says.
From there orders rolled in, and while Fiedler built bots in his garage, Snabes would make deliveries — to Los Angeles, northern Michigan, or the Appalachian Mountain region of Kentucky. “I would personally deliver them and shake these people’s hands,” Snabes says. “[They were] a microinvestor in our company.”
Since then, Re:3D has grown to a team of around 20, working in their E. 5th Street office, and in their Houston factory, and they’ve won a number of awards, including the second largest prize at June’s WeWork Creator Awards. And their technology has been adopted by Fortune 500 companies, universities, hospitals, vet clinics, and DIY enthusiasts. About the people using their machines, “I’d say they’re problem-solvers,” Snabes says. “I think the underlying thing is that they know they need a printer. It’s like a complement to their CNC or their laser cutter, or they have a very specific problem that they’re trying to address.”
To address these problems, or work on any creation, 3D printing begins with a Computer Aided Design (CAD) file and slicing software. The model rendering of the final product — for instance, a surfboard or a floral vase — is put on a micro SD card that’s inserted into the Gigabot. The machine’s bed starts as a blank canvas, heated to help the print stick. Spools of printing material, commonly corn-based PLA plastic or nylon, are pulled in, melted and distributed over the bed in the designed pattern. The first layer provides the foundation and the print gets built up layer by layer. For something like a small vase, the printing time would be a couple of hours. “Really 3D printing is just putting things together,” Snabes says.
Through this process, Re:3D is also seeing new tools and companies being built. For instance, MediPrint’s Novacast. “It’s a cast that would be custom-fit for every situation,” explains Re:3D’s Mike Strong. Using measurements taken by the doctor, a customized, easily removed cast is printed with patterned air holes for breathability. “It’s like the hottest startup right now in Mexico,” Snabes says. Or the locally made Stump Armour. Created by an amputee who’d lost both legs, the kneecap-sized bowl is a modified “foot” that allows mobility in situations where traditional prosthetics can be more cumbersome, like climbing a ladder or carrying heavy objects. When it comes to what 3D printing can create, “really you’re only limited by your imagination,” Snabes says.
The flip side of that is that there are few checks on the emerging industry. “There’s a lot of dialogue that still has to happen, particularly in the realm of safety and policy, and just real science,” Snabes says. As 3D printing finds its way into homebuilding and hospitals, and consumers explore what they can build, which could include weapons, new rules will have to be defined. “On the technical side, it’s scaling very fast, but I think culturally, people haven’t wrapped their minds around it. With the self-driving car, it’s out on the road, we’re going to have to figure it out… And with [the 3D printer], it’s not just a hobbyist tool anymore,” Snabes says.
While it might be a while before we live in a 3D printed house, the technology is moving fast and Re:3D is a startup on the ground floor of a new industry. “We taught some kids at the Thinkery and brought some stools and every hand went up when we said, ‘who wants to sit on a 3D printed stool?’ They all wanted to sit on it,” Strong says. We’re ready to pull up a 3D printed chair.
Read more from the Makers Issue | August 2017