Monday, May 02, 2011



I had a great time down at the 3D DC event last week. It was organized by Michael Weinberg of Public Knowledge; the purpose was to educate the US government about 3d printing and personal fabrication, in an effort to try and avoid repeating the legal mess that has embroiled the music and video industries. Lots of interesting folks there, some superstar hackers, and even free beer at the end! I put up a few photos here:

and what follows is a more detailed account of how it went down. Enjoy!


I was a bit concerned when I first met Andy.

He had mentioned via email that his RepRap could use a little tuning up before the 3D DC event, so we arranged to have a little meet up in the garage of my dad's old college room mate Dick, at whose house I was staying in while in DC.

Andy, a young guy who works at the Baltimore FabLab, turned up with a box (a very nice box with a huge RepRap logo engraved on the front) of assorted electronics and RepRap parts, and a three day old Prusa Mendel with no electronics, X carriage, or build surface, in a state that looked to me like it would take several days of work to get it anywhere near it's first print. The event was the next morning, so we got to work, assembling testing, tweaking, hacksawing, and wiring.

For someone like me, used to the original Mendel (and Darwin before that), it went together surprisingly quickly. We were doing test prints by 11 pm, when I had to beg off and get some sleep, being quite jetlagged. Figuring that we were close enough at that point, and besides, we had my Mendel ready to go – the Prusa was really a backup, a 'nice to have' extra, so we (well, I did at least) figured sleep was more important than a perfectly running pair of RepRaps.

Arriving at the Capitol the next morning our large, wooden, wheeled crates raised a lot of eyebrows from security and congressmen/women alike. As we set up in the foyer of the Rayburn House, directly South of the Capitol building, we immediately hit a few snags – Andy's computer's screen went dark. It would only flash briefly at boot, but then stay completely dark, despite much swearing, prodding and pounding. Bad timing, but no problem; we still had my Mendel.

Unfortunately, despite almost year of reliable service, my extruder (a Wade's Extruder of course, something I'm fairly proud of) chose that moment to jam up. Hmm. After a quick on-site disassembly and cleaning, and not so quick reassembly during which I had ample time to reflect on the poor design choices I made in the mounting arrangement of my extruder, I got it running again, only to have the extruder heater short out repeatedly at 70 deg C. Oops. Should have finished that resistor based extruder. At this point another exhibitor mentioned something about an unusually high gremlin population here at the Capitol...

By this time it was time for the panel meeting, so we adjourned upstairs to listen to a fairly interesting panel talk. The point of this entire event, organized by Michael Weinberg of Public Knowledge, was to try and expose the US government to 3d printing and personal fabrication. Existing copyright law and how it relates to things like the Internet and file sharing could be considered one giant legal mess; the Public Knowledge guys were trying to get a head start on how digital fabrication is going to be received by the American legal system, in the hope that some of the pitfalls that are looming may be avoided.

Lots of interesting points were brought up about IP, trademarking, lawsuits, copyright etc, but not much in the way of solutions just yet. It was entertaining to see Bre up there in his black t shirt among all the suit and tie folks. Everyone agreed that something should be done, but what exactly that something was, no one was quite sure. Except for Bre – he was quite sure what needed to be done – get more printers out there ASAP, and make more stuff. His enthusiasm was, as always, contagious, and really put a positive spin on the event. Good times! I snuck in a blurry cellphone photo of the panel members, but since I could see 6 expensive looking CCTV cameras looking at me, and a lot of large security guys looking around purposefully, I didn't think taking a proper photo was appropriate.

Back downstairs, Andy, after a few quick google searches, ruled out memory problems on his laptop, and figured out that the backlight had failed. We tried downloading his host software onto my laptop via my Canadian cell phone, in order to run his Prusa off my laptop, but AT&T didn't seem to like the 13 MB file and wouldn't give us more than a kb/s or two, unlike the 100's of kb I usually get back home, despite having signed up for a temporary US data account.

Thinking quickly, Andy used my flashlight to see small portions of his computer screen, just enough to get his host software running and started up a print – awesome! People starting filing in at this point for the hands-on demonstration, so Andy took the helm, showing off his 3 day old machine, proudly printing away, while I smiled, answered questions, and madly re-wired my extruder's hot end. Luckily, I got it running fairly quickly, and we had two RepRaps running smoothly to show off. We were both very happy campers, and had a chance to mingle with the rest of the attendees, and answered many questions. I passed out a few gears I customized with my email address in lieu of a business card, and everyone loved the set of Heart Gears I'd printed out from Thingiverse.

I was amazed at how many people understood immediately the concept of how RepRap prints itself, but then I realized this was a pretty smart crowd, and that I actually had a banner in front of me that spelled it out in big, easy to read letters: “RepRap – the 3D printer that prints itself”. Right. That really made things a lot easier, much less explaining to do on my part than last time. A few people even picked up the handouts, and a couple of them looked like they might actually read it. Quite a few people asked me why my partner kept shining a flashlight at his computer screen – they thought he was up to something funky like the guys doing free-form printing via a hacked Kinect at the next table over.

After much printing, looking at printers printing, and fondling cool printed objects, it was time to wrap things up and head out for free beer (really! free as in beer!) down at the Pour House, where I was able to spend a good bit of time talking with Michael Weinberg, along with a lot of other great folks. Michael, who put the whole event together, was extremely pleased with the event. Apparently, in addition to all the 3D printing folks that showed up, almost all of the people from the Patent and Trademark offices and other government types that he was gunning for had shown up as well, so he felt we had really accomplished something. If he was happy, I was happy, so all in all, it was a good event!

I also met all sorts of RepRap luminaries I'd only ever met on IRC before, including DrGone, Dr Mark Ganter, and the newly renamed DigitalWonderBoy (Andy!), as well as Jeff Moss, the founder of DefCon, the yearly hacker convention where everyone plays the game “Spot the Fed”. All in all, it was a very fun, successful event. Although, I must admit, after shlepping a full Mendel across several airports and a few public transit systems, I suddenly have a renewed interest in the Huxley.

A big thank you to Bath University for paying my way down to DC for the event, thanks to Dick and Helen Podolske for providing a roof over my head and a garage to tinker away in late into the night, and Adrian and the rest of the RepRap community for making this all possible. And thanks to Andy Ta for helping out – it was really fun, and I'm really glad you were there with your working RepRap!


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