Be more 3D!

This week I’m based in the middle of the rather splendid corporate headquarters of  O2/Telefónica in Slough, Berkshire.  I’ve previously only visited data centres here!

I’m helping Terence, Ruth and their crack creative IT R&D squad, The Lab (@thelab_uk), to build a 3D printer.  This follows some great conversations with the team at their BarCamp Berkshire event, where I had a stand demonstrating a RepRap to attendees, and it’s a fantastic opportunity to explore the potential for 3D printing to set imaginations on fire within a major technology company.

We have chosen to build a state of the art RepRap, the Tri-colour Mendel from RepRapPro [] – it’s a high quality British-made kit and features triple extruders for enhanced colour mixing, and I hope, multi-material experimentation.

Day 1 progress yesterday was pretty good – we got the frame together:[] – reasonable progress, as we put a lot of effort into calibrating nicely as we went using the handy supplied laser-cut template as a jig – but by far the greatest part of our time went into conversations with passing members of O2/Telefónica staff about 3D printing, which was of course the point of doing it in full view in the staff café area on the ground floor of their central atrium.

IMG_0833   IMG_0846


Next to our work area we set up my own open-source 3D printer, a heavily tweaked derivative of a Prusa Mendel originally supplied as a kit by Thames Valley RepRap User Group [ – build round 3 now open for new builders!] and printed a nice demo object – a mobile phone holder in the shape of a pair of hands.  This was a good choice, a playful and very human twist on the most obvious phone-related use case.

PAT on the back!  I wonder if this is a first – I was absurdly pleased to have my Mendel ‘Portable Appliance Tested’ and passed for electrical safety!    IMG_0829   IMG_0851

People were overwhelmingly curious about how the machine itself worked, many had previously heard of 3D printing and a few either owned one already or were thinking about it.  I described end to end several times the Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) process employed by desktop 3D printers, but also Selective Laser Sintering, Stereolithography and other techniques available via bureau services.

My staple demonstration objects, including a Chocolate extruder [], Duplo to Brio adapter [] and my own emergency kitchen sink repair, went down well and provoked plenty of debate about the customisation of objects by end users.

Several business-minded folks cut right to the chase and asked what the case is for a telecoms company to invest in rapid prototyping of physical objects.  There are a couple of ways to answer this – firstly, it’s an emerging technology in the consumer space, and it absolutely will change the way customers interact with and think about hardware products in the long term, and permanently.  In the same way that currently effort is put into tailoring customers’ user experience of the software on their Android handsets by the leading telcos, hardware manufacturers such as Nokia are already opening themselves up to the customisation of their handsets by end users [].

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly for the team at O2’s ‘The Lab’, is the need to learn as much as possible at this early stage about the ’emergent behaviour’ which occurs when you offer 3D printing capabilities, backed up by an enthusiastic team of R&D oriented geeks, to interested colleagues.  Many staff members we spoke to today will certainly have looked up tonight, which (leaving aside the open source debate) has grown from a random assortment of practical and decorative objects to a substantial repository of designs to customise, fix and ‘upcycle’ a huge variety of the objects we touch daily.  We can’t wait to see what ideas they will come back with for us to print either on my printer or The Lab’s new machine.

Day 2, today, saw steady progress in our build, with the X, Y and Z axes completed.  It’s really starting to look like a RepRap.

There was no reduction in the level of interest in our activities, if anything more folks stopped by! People were particularly interested today in how to get your digital designs in the first place.  We were able to show off yesterday’s mobile phone holder:

Hand Shaped Phone Holder 3D Printed

We printed an Android-themed USB stick case [] and used this to illustrate downloading ready-made .STL files (3D objects) and customising parametric designs made available by others.  Mash-ups of physical objects appealed to many!

I brought along an example of product customisation for accessibility – my own design of a toddler-proof grip case for an iPod touch/iPhone/Samsung phone.  It helped to entertain my 3-year-old for (parts of) a train journey to Germany without constant intervention to restart the video!


We talked about generating 3D designs from scratch in CAD software such as Sketchup, OpenSCAD, Blender… We discussed the capabilities and limitations of current 3D scanning solutions, such as structured light and laser scanning, photographic techniques such as Autodesk’s 123D Catch, and the results that can be achieved with an XBOX Kinect sensor and open source software… if you are willing to spend some time in post production tidying up your model until it is fit to be printed in 3D.  Hopefully we will have time to print a copy of Terence Eden’s head! [@edent]

Again, the reactions were thoughtful and positive.  I am looking forward to rest of our Tri-colour Mendel build over the next couple of days, and to seeing what emergent behaviour… emerges!

Check out The Lab’s blogs at, and tweet us @thelab_uk and @alexgibson3d with ideas for mobile phone related things to print.  In the spirit of O2’s ‘Be more dog’ campaign I like the look of the iWoof:

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