3D printers have been around for the past 25 years, but until now, they’ve only been used for industrial purposes. When RepRap, the first general-purpose, self-replicating manufacturing machine (otherwise known as a 3D printer) came along, things began to change.
Kevin Wixson, an instructor at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, built the first RepRap 3D printer in Kalamazoo and formed the Kalamazoo Makers Guild for the purpose of exploring 3D printing. Wixson also is leading the KIA in being the first art program in Kalamazoo to incorporate 3D printing.
“The Kalamazoo Makers Guild is a community of makers meeting together and patterning ourselves after the Homebrew Computer Club, which started meeting in a small garage,” Wixson said. The Homebrew Computer Club included members who went on to form Silicon Valley.
But while the Homebrew Computer Club formed up around kit computers, The Kalamazoo Makers Guild formed around 3D printers.
“I started the group on Meetup, and then about eight months ago, Al Hollaway from the Kalamazoo Air Zoo got involved, and we started meeting there. We talk about RepRap, but now it’s expanding into anything you might find in Make Magazine,” Wixson said.
Members of the guild are working on a wide variety of projects, including assistant devices for the blind that use sonar; a prototype of a computer interface built into a shoe box; a working DIY segway; and Wixson himself is building a laser etcher and a 3D laser scanner.
According to Wixson, the group has more than 20 members, but the number increases every month. He formed the group with the intent of not having a work space, at least for the group’s early stages, to eliminate the logistical problems and costs associated with having a physical space.
Wixson noted that 3D printing is kind of like shopping online for things that you want, like a pop bottle opener or a dog tag, but instead of going out to the store and buying them, you download them and print them out on your printer using either plastic or resin. There is little to no waste.
“The ones that had heard about it did just recently, and almost all of them said they couldn’t understand it until they saw it,” Wixson said.
He noted that 3D printers, at least the home versions, are at the dot matrix (early) stage of technology.
“We expect them, in the next few years, to really rapidly advance. You’ll be able to go to a store and buy a box with a 3D printer in it,” he said. “It’s got the potential to make life a lot easier. When your vacuum cleaner breaks, you will go online and download the part and print it as the replacement part. That’s five years away.”
This fall Wixson is introducing two classes at the KIA, a three-week class that gets people qualified on the printer, and an eight-week class that covers creating designs on the computer.
As for the Kalamazoo Makers Guild, Wixson sees the group expanding rapidly in the future and eventually opening a hacker space. He also expects that the members will go off and take their ideas and start other specific interest groups or businesses. At some point, he’d like to organize a maker fair for his group, and that likely will happen when a number of the members in the group have finished projects.
“Makers aren’t hacking new technologies; we’re hacking a new economy,” Wixson said. “We’re trying to live in a world without scarcity. There’s no scarcity when you have a file that you can download and print out [in 3D].”