Mar 8, 2018 3:00 AM

Arduino plus 3D printing: The next big developer wave

3D printing will likely change manufacturing and even how products reach the home. Meanwhile, Arduino devices make electronic creation accessible to anyone with a laptop computer


One of the next big waves coming is the massive effect on the marketplace that 3D printing will have. 3D printing lets you to make things at home. You can download designs from Thingiverse and similar sites and print them. However, in an electronic and digital world, what good is a #D-printed body with no brains?

If 3D printing lets you make the brawn, Arduino is how you make the brain. Arduino devices are small and inexpensive. You can buy Arduino kits that come with parts familiar to those kits: resistors, LED lights, and breadboards. They are the logical evolution of those electronics kits we had as kids from Radio Shack.

However, Arduino kits go much further than those old Radio Shack kits. These usually include programmable controller boards. You can write code and upload it via your USB port.

The language that you use to code these is basically a library of C code, but don’t let that scare you. Arduino has a very simple IDE that makes writing device control code a snap. The following is an excerpt from one of the tutorial exercises to blink a light on high and low:

void loop() {
// turn the LED on (HIGH is the voltage level)
  digitalWrite(LED_BUILTIN, HIGH);
// wait for a second
// turn the LED off by making the voltage LOW
  digitalWrite(LED_BUILTIN, LOW);
// wait for a second

While this is fun, it is the combination of 3D printing and Arduino that may bring about the next wave of homegrown innovation. For example, people are combining the two and building their own quadcopters; you can download forms and instructions on Thingiverse. Yet the potential for bringing home-created devices to life goes well beyond toys.

For now, most desktop 3D printers are limited to relatively small plastic forms. You can assemble more complicated forms, but still just out of small 3D-printed plastic parts. However, the price for more sophisticated 3D printers is coming down. Moreover, 3D printers capable of printing metal are already in the luxury-car price range. In just a few years those will be available at home.

Still, how many useful devices do you have that are small, made pretty much of plastic and a circuit board? Probably quite a few. Now is a good time to learn; after all, more than one major success story started in a garage with a newly inexpensive piece of technology and a circuit board. If you have kids, it seems obvious that they should be learning about this next great wave.

If you want to kick the tires first, consider joining one of your local makerspaces. They generally have all of these tools available for their members to tinker with. Think of it as a gym for geeks. In my hometown we have two that I know of. The first, Splatspace, is mainly adults tinkering with Arduinos, 3D printers, and other tools like laser cutters. The other is Blackspace which caters to black and brown youth and combines tech with the arts; it runs workshops and teaches code along with 3D printing. You may be able to find either type in your hometown.

In short, 3D printing and the technologies it involves will likely change manufacturing and even how products reach the home. Meanwhile, Arduino devices make electronic creation accessible to anyone with a laptop computer. The combination of these enable home tinkering on a level never before seen.