When developing a prototype, it is important to be able to produce components cheaply, quickly, and precisely. Unfortunately, making highly custom components inexpensively and on a shortened timeline is very hard to achieve when working through a vendor. However, he advent of 3D printing technology has allowed inventors and makers to turn their designs into reality while meeting these three criteria. The cost of 3D printers has come way down in the last several years, allowing small businesses or project teams to acquire a printer and begin making their own components. Even better, I was able to build a 3D printer by sourcing off the shelf components and if you can believe it, 3D printing parts on a friends printer in order to complete the build. This allowed me to build a working 3D printer for about a tenth of the price of a commercial version. Since then, I have been making small upgrades to increase the resolution and accuracy of the printer, which has given me the ability to use it in the development of MantaRay.
3D printers use Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology to lay very small layers of plastic on top of one another to create a 3-dimensional part. The plastic that I use for most of my parts is PLA, which is a corn-based polymer that has been developed by chemists to meet structural and sustainable needs for themarket. The 3D printer has been absolutely crucial in the fabrication of the latest MantaRay prototype by allowing me to create fixtures, braces, and even gears for use on MantaRay. Stay tuned for another blog post with an updated video showing the 3D printer in action.