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Omote 3-D

6 Crazy Things You Can Make with 3D Printers

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Omote 3-D

Printing your movie ticket or boarding pass is nice, but what if you could print an action figure of yourself? Or print a new cell phone antenna? Or a protein cage to trap individual living cells?

You can—if you can afford the right equipment.

"Printing" technology has quietly evolved over the past few decades to allow users to create—on demand, from files—everything from gun parts to DNA. Here are six examples.

1. Print a Pose(able)

Harvard researcher Moritz Bacher developed an algorithm that should induce glee in children and adult hobbyists alike. His code takes any video game avatar and turns it into an instant, poseable action figure. Pick your avatar, click print, and the algorithm figures out what kinds of joints should go where. This opens two possibilities. First, it lets World of Warcraft players get poseables of their in-game characters. Second, it lets kids build their own, custom action figures.

2. Scrawling Circuits


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If you happen across one of Dimatix Fujifilm’s printers and it’s building a metallic pattern on a sheet of plastic, it just might be a cell phone antenna—or, really, any kind of circuit. The system uses metals in suspended solution to print just about any kind of circuit you need. Customers use the Dimatix printer for rapid prototyping.

3. Mini-me (or you!)

Remember those photo booths people visited before everyone had a camera-enabled cell phone? The Omote 3-D does them one better. The booth combines a 3D scanner with a 3D printer to xerox its customers. Pay your money, step inside and choose a pose. Moments later, the machine produces a tiny, full-color statue of you.

4. Tiny Cages

Yes, any 3D printer can build a cage, but NanoInk Inc. sells a system that can print with individual proteins. The system lines up the molecular chains to build microscopic cages to hold individual living cells. Why would anyone do that? Ruby Lam, a scientist with the company, said that researchers pen off the cells so that they can test chemicals and medications without worrying about cell-to-cell interactions.

5. Pre-medicated implants

Human bodies have an irritating habit of rejecting things you put in them. Uncle Joe may really need that stent to keep his artery open, but his body doesn’t want to play nice. Doctors usually respond to this problem with immunosuppressants, but they have the downside of, well, suppressing the immune system. MicroFab Technologies Inc. has a printer that solves that problem. Their system can print tiny 3D structures with just about any kind of material you like. This has allowed them to print a stent with embedded medicine that prevents rejection locally, without wrecking the rest of Uncle Joe’s body.

6. Print Life

For years, scientists have demonstrated their ability to manipulate things on a small scale, but researchers can now print with DNA. Harvard researcher George Church showed off what he’s capable of last year by printing a draft of his book in DNA. Not long after that, bio entrepreneur Craig Venter announced that his company is working on a printer that could print vaccines on demand.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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