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Al Williams

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The Klutzy Engineer, or Why I Want a 3D Printer

September 06, 2010

Although I like to think of myself as a hardware guy, I'm not handy like some of my mentors always were (I'm thinking of guys like Terry Towles or Randy McIver whoh could explain why a MOSFET worked and then repair an outboard motor with a paper clip). That's probably why I gravitated to software -- being klutzy isn't a problem for a software guy.

On the other hand, software has made me more capable at hardware. I remember once in the early 1980's my boss was on my back for a deadline and the lady who laid our our printed circuit boards was busy doing an even more important board. In those days, board lay out was like art and a puzzle -- you mocked up the board with large pieces of plastic on a drafting table and then "shot it down" photographically on the theory that a 0.25 inch error shot down by 10 times becomes a 0.025 inch error.

I decided to lay the board out myself. It worked but it was a monstrosity. My boss forbid me to do it again. But with modern computer software, I can easily lay out boards that would have made my board lady in 1981 green with envy. I even wrote a book about that a few years ago (the software, not the lady).

Same goes for FPGAs and their accompanying software. A CPU like One-Der (that I wrote about a year or so ago in Dr. Dobb's) would be a nightmare to build by hand -- I doubt I could do it. But I can tell the computer to make the microscopic connections in the FPGA and I'm done.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could define any sort of real object and have the computer pop it out -- sort of like the replicators on Star Trek? We are a way from ordering a hot cup of tea, but there are printers that can create solid objects using a variety of techniques. The problem is -- so far -- the cost.

I saw a YouTube video of a simple-looking 3d printer that prints using a spool of ABS "wire" and supposedly costs about US$1500. That's not bad. Looking at it, it wasn't immediately obvious to me why it couldn't be even cheaper.

On the other hand, I remember paying $1000 for my first laser printer. It won't be long and Office Depot will have 3d printers for $50 after mail in rebate. I can't wait.

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