Last week, the Blackbelt 3D printer launched on Kickstarter. What makes the Blackbelt 3D printer different than any other 3D printer on Kickstarter? This printer has an infinite build volume. It’s built for continuous production. As long as you have a large enough spool of filament, this printer will keep producing plastic parts with no downtime in between. The Blackbelt is a truly remarkable and innovative machine. Yes, it’s a bit expensive, but it’s designed for production and manufacturing, not some guy tinkering in his garage.
However, the Blackbelt 3D website includes two words that have sent the 3D printer community into an uproar. ‘Patent Pending’ is something no one in the community wants to see given the history of the industry and a few poor decisions from the first movers during the great 3D printer awakening of 2010. The idea of an infinite build volume printer that allows for continuous production is not new; we saw one last March at the Midwest RepRap Festival. The question, therefore, is what is covered by the upcoming Blackbelt patents, what is the prior art, and is it still possible to build an Open Source printer that uses these innovative techniques?
Lessons of the Automated Build Platform
Questions about the Blackbelt printer arose shortly after its soft launch last month. It was, simply, the second printer demonstrated in a few months that uses a tilted print plane and a conveyor to allow continuous production in an infinite build volume.
The first such public implementation of this design was at Rapid 2016 and at the Midwest RepRap Festival in March, a product of [Bill Steele]. [Steele] wasn’t releasing a product, this was just the culmination of an idea that began as a mechatronic middle finger to MakerBot and their Automated Build Platform (ABP).
The ABP was quite clever when it was released and was used in production by MakerBot in their salad days to manufacture parts for the Thing-O-Matic. Unfortunately, the APB was patented by MakerBot, all references to the ABP were expunged from the MakerBot site, and all development on an Open Source conveyor-based production machine stopped.
In short, the 3D printer community has seen something like this before. First, the community creates an innovative device that makes printers better, then a patent is issued. Regardless of the success of the company holding the patent, Open development on this sort of device simply stops, and we’re left waiting decades until the patent expires. This has happened before, and it’ll happen again.
Prior Art to Prior Art
[Bill Steele] first demonstrated his unnamed infinite build volume printer at Rapid 2016 and at the Midwest RepRap Festival in March of 2017. However, unbeknownst to everyone, the CEO of Blackbelt 3D has been working on a similar device for years. The Lum Printer is effectively the same machine as demonstrated by [Steele]; a conveyor belt bed over a tilted XY extrusion plane allows for prints of unbounded length. There are videos of this printer working, and while the Lum printer was never used in its full capacity — most demonstrations are very long single layer panels — it’s effectively the same printer.
The Blackbelt Patent
The Blackbelt 3D is still patent pending, and we don’t have any idea of what is claimed by these patents. However, Blackbelt was kind enough to share that they are only claiming, “the belt material, an adjustable angle for the extrusion plane, and G-Code manipulation.” For an Open Source implementer of the infinite build volume printer, everything else is fair game.
An Open Challenge To The RepRap Community
Although the Blackbelt patent will cover a variably tilted bed, the belt material, and a method to transform G-Code so any slicer can use this printer, that doesn’t mean the idea of an Open Source, infinite volume printer is out of the question. The only thing anyone needs to do is simply build one with a permissive license.
This is a challenge to the entire 3D printing community. Come up with a printer design that uses a bed tilted 45 degrees to the print plane, and find a suitable belt material. The rewards will be enormous. To get you started, [Bill Steele]’s MRRF build used Kapton and paper. I’ve done a bit of research on this, and I suspect there may be a very strange source of belt material: the pancake robots at every Holiday Inn Express use a Teflon-coated silicone belt that’s just the right size for a 3D printer. The manufacturer of these pancake robots sells the belts as replacement parts.
Apart from the belt material, the only other bit of tech needed to create a tilted bed 3D printer is a G-code manipulator. For this type of printer, a different method of slicing is not needed; the Blackbelt patent will describe a ‘warp engine’ that manipulates raw G-code. Luckily for us, [Steele] has uploaded his own G-Code Shifter. The G-Code problem for a tilted bed printer is solved, and it’s Open Source.
Really, the only thing needed for an Open Source 3D printer is a bed material and a design. Of course, buying more than 5kg of filament on a single roll will also be a problem, but if that’s the biggest problem we’re all in a great place.