An article about 3D printing construction kit Contraptor, originally published in 2010 in Scion Magazine. Interview by Eric Ducker.
The recent rise of relatively affordable 3D printers could inspire a whole a new wave of home inventors, tinkering in their garages and basements towards major innovations in manufacturing. The company Contraptor hopes to assist these aspiring industry transformers with construction kits for, as its website says, “experimental personal fabrication, desktop manufacturing, prototyping and bootstrapping.” Founder Vitally Mankevich explains how Contraptor came to be and why if you liked playing with Legos as kid, it might be the starting point for your grownup mechanical impulses:
For a long while, I’d been toying with an idea to make a 3D printer that would glue paper cutouts together to build wood like objects. The commercial rapid prototyping machines with similar functionality were prohibitively expensive for a hobbyist. While doing online research, I came across an article in Make magazine describing a homemade plastic-powder-fusing 3D printer built from what looked like a scaled up Erector Set. I immediately thought that something like this could be very helpful in my prototyping work and contacted the people behind this project (in Russia) to buy one. However, they wouldn’t start selling it internationally until a few months later. I also wanted more capabilities than what their set seemed to offer and I decided to design and build a similar prototyping system that would be inexpensive, open source and could be manufactured at home. This was November 2007 and I thought that it would only take me a few months and I’d be back working on my 3D printer.
The primary purpose of the Contraptor set is quick prototyping of Cartesian robots, and 3D printers fall mostly in this category. Let’s say you have an idea of some fabrication technique. You could test it out on a quickly assembled Contraptor 3D robot in a matter of hours, instead of taking days or weeks to build everything from scratch. I think it will help accelerate the arrival of cheap desktop fabrication machines capable of working with variety of materials.
Contraptor is an excellent tool for learning to design and control 3D Cartesian robots and CNC machines. Somebody who’s played with Meccano or Erector or Lego as a child would likely be excited about Contraptor. You don’t need to be an engineer, and actually it’s a great way to start learning about engineering and electronics hands-on, without a workshop but with a few basic tools like a screwdriver, hex keys, a couple of wrenches and a soldering iron. However, it’s not a pushbutton solution, and it will require learning some specifics about how things work.
The Contraptor project is open source, so the plans are freely available. One of the things we are thinking of doing is generating the kit products from various contraption designs uploaded by people to the Contraptor site, so that the authors of these designs could get a share of the sales of their kit. The idea is to promote functionally useful, clean and well-documented designs that we hope the community would naturally prefer, as well as stimulate the development of various machines that could be built from a Contraptor set.