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3D pen revolution

Rob Cameron, Prague
November 7, 2013

3D printing has had loads of media attention, with advances in the technology producing ambitious - even lethal - things. But 3D pens have a way to go. And the first may yet come from Europe.

Image: Rob Cameron

We've all marveled at the things 3D printers can make. We've even been shocked - with some calling for controls on what you can and cannot make after a Texan man 3D printed a handgun. It's as if we cannot escape a future that has already arrived.

But one area of the 3D printing revolution is still very much in its infancy - 3D pens.

That's pens that "write" on a surface or even in the air using molten plastic instead of ink.

Those of us who spent hours as children gluing together plastic model airplanes or racing cars - getting more glue on our fingers than on the models - will be happy to know there is an alternative.

Why not just draw your model in the air?

"If you want to have some fun, if you want to draw a model for fun, for pleasure, then that's what the 3Dsimo is all about," says David Paskevic, a young Czech electronics student who's developed the first 3D pen to be designed in Europe.

"The only limit is your imagination," he told DW.

David Paskevic, an electronics student in Prague, is developing Europe's first 3D pen. (Photo: Rob Cameron)
David Paskevic, a fourth-year student in electronics, could be about to become a first for EuropeImage: Rob Cameron

So the sky's the limit - and some amount of artistic skill and talent, as this reporter soon found out.

Attempts to "draw" a frog in green plastic were less than impressive, but let's just put that down to experience.

It's called 3Dsimo, and it's only the third 3D pen ever to have been developed.

So how does it work?

The size and weight of a small hand-held fan, 3Dsimo draws in what look like thin pieces of raw, brightly-colored spaghetti. It melts them into a liquid "ink" that dries upon contact with the air. So you can draw plastic models - most easily on a flat surface, but also in the air.

An industry in its infancy

David Paskevic says at present there are three 3D pens in existence.

The world's first - 3Doodler - created by US developers in Boston, a Chinese-made spin-off, and now his 3Dsimo, which he claims is the most versatile 3D pen yet.

"The big advantage of our pen is that it writes in the air with both bioplastics such as PLA (polylactic acid) and thermoplastics such as ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), and indeed any other plastic material."

"The other 3D pens being developed can only handle ABS plastics," says Paskevic, "because they work at a fixed temperature and at a fixed speed. With our pen you can set the temperature anywhere from 0 to 260 degrees Celsius, and that's important because each plastic has a different melting point."

Reporter Rob Cameron's portrait drawn with the 3Dsimo (Photo: Rob Cameron)
Reporter Rob Cameron's portrait drawn with the 3DsimoImage: Rob Cameron

The pens are barely commercially available, so new is the technology.

The American 3Doodler is being sold via the main crowdfunding site Kickstarter, while the 3Dsimo is available via the smaller site, Indiegogo.

In each case there's a four month waiting period for the pens to arrive, so they won't quite be in the shops for Christmas.

Both pens have sparked a hum of media interest, however, so intriguing is their potential.

In a gleaming white room at Prague's high-tech National Technical Library, Paskevic unwraps a number of models kept in a very low-tech shoe box - a pair of glasses, a little tree, a dinosaur, a poppy, a monoplane, a copy of the Eiffel Tower and the piece de resistance - this reporter's portrait with the DW logo.

All of them, he says, were hand "drawn."

Not protected by patent

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects to this story is that the 3Dsimo is not protected by patent - as patenting an industrial design involves freezing all development and promotion activity for seven months while the patent can be registered.

In the fast-moving world of 3D printing, Paskevic says, a wait like that could be fatal.

"3D printing is developing incredibly fast. Each month you wait can cost you your idea," says Paskevic.

David Paskevic, an electronics student in Prague, is developing Europe's first 3D pen. (Photo: Rob Cameron)
David Paskevic says waiting for a patent in Europe can kill your designImage: Rob Cameron

"If we had to wait another seven months, it's possible another product would appear on the market that would resemble this one. And then it would be impossible to get this one into the shops."

More pens could appear in the future, so embryonic is the technology.

At present they are very much toys for budding artists and children.

But in the future, as the "ink" is stabilized and the technology improved, it's not hard to imagine designers "drawing" a new car in front of company bosses, or an architect "drawing" the outlines of a new house.

The future, it seems, is plastic. And fantastic.