» Replicating A Pony: 3D Printing with Michael Perrone

Imagine if you will that you could have any pony toy created whenever you want… of whatever you want! Be it an OC or a background pony that just doesn’t have a toy, there are fans trying to make 3D printing of ponies a reality. I interviewed Michael Perrone, owner of a 3D printing service called Futuralization, on 3D printing in the My Little Pony community and the possibilities of 3D printing as a whole. Read on after the cut!

How did you get into My Little Pony?

Way back in 2010 when I still had time for such frolicsome things, I used to browse KnowYourMeme, Reddit, and 4chan for entertainment. Immersed in such internet culture, it was not hard to see the appeal of the series. And besides, I’m hardly the type to default to what’s socially accepted like a zombie instead of thinking stuff through for myself. I simply thought if Lauren Faust had a chance at tearing down gender stereotypes a little more, and making a watchable (even sometimes clever) show in the process, why not support that? I ended up marathoning all the episodes of season 1 that were out at the time a day or two after Christmas. Not that it was the best show in existence or anything – I just tend to watch shows/read books/learn things all in one go, so that I can focus intensely on one thing and get it done quickly and eficciently. After that, I followed the development of the brony community through some very interesting/entertaining times, and as it grew, I came to know a lot if nice people in the community, with whom I’ve tried to keep in touch. That said, generously MLP is maybe 5% of all the things I do these days – I lead a busy life now! But I do still try to leave some time for more whimsical internet activities, If for no other reason than to keep my finger on the pulse of internet/nerd culture, which is exceedingly clever, but fast-paced and highly referential. If you let stuff slide long enough, it’ll leave you in the dust.

How did you get into 3D printing?

I saw it in the news a bunch as it was starting up, so I had a mild interest: I’m that sort of nerd. Then when I started going to my college, WPI, I fell in with a bunch of engineering/math/physics students who’d made a Makerspace on campus, the WPI Collablab. It’s a sort of place where you just talk with people who have done awesome projects, and learn from each other. (not just about 3d printers – plenty of Quadrotors and smaller Arduino projects). The lab is a small workspace, but good things come out of it. SCOUT eventually had to move out of the lab space because their project was too large, but we hope to expand and then help make more projects like that happen. Anyways, we had some alumni with connections to Harvard, and one of us Collablabians was able to go there for REU over the summer, and help make this happen.

Were any of your friends into 3D printing, or were you the one who introduced it to the group?

By the time I got there, the lab already had at least 3 printers. I met a kid, Steve, whose been in 3D printing since almost the start of the RepRap project. As you can imagine, he’s very good at it now.

How did you get your first 3D printer?

It was easy in that sort of environment to learn what you need to know to build a 3d printer. The hard part was ordering everything and designing your Bill Of Materials. Mostly because of the variety of choices (I was like a kid in a candy store), but also a bit because of the exciting wait for everything to be shipped to where I was.

Is that the same printer you use today?

Yeah – it looks like it’s poorly constructed, but it can take a lot before it de-calibrates – somewhat impressive considering it needs sub-millimeter accuracy of calibration, yet has loose bolts and screws falling out of it from time to time. I brought it down to Bronycon and printed with it at a table.

What are the challenges in 3D printing ponies?

Organic shapes are not necessarily any harder to print than geometric ones, but ponies have thin limbs and wings spread at inconvenient angles, so no matter what position you put them in relative to the print bed, you’re probably going to end up using a lot of support material. Also they layers of the 3D-print lend it anisotropic strength properties – essentially it’s as if the print has a cleavage plane (as in a crystal) orthogonal to the z-axis. I typically try to choose my orientation of the print carefully, to optimize its strength for a print of a given geometry. Also undersurfaces that are not smooth can be an issue of support material is not done the right way – for example, the geometry of the cheek and the eye, when the print is laid on its side.

How many hours goes into modeling a pony for 3D printing?

I don’t know – the models I’ve played around with are from KP Shadowsquirrel, who’s also in the 3D-Printing Bronies DeviantArt group. The models are actually the same ones that are most commonly used in Gmod and SFM! Anyways, if you already have those to work with and you know what you’re doing, it only takes a couple minutes to modify each one for printing. KP is way better than me with modeling organic things – I have actually not modeled my own pony from scratch yet, just used existing bases. But I do plan on it, if certain things work out…

What types of things can you print?

I can print with Nylon and PLA (compostable and bio-compatible) at the moment (what I have in stock) but Fused Deposition Modelling┬ácan work with many types of plastic, like polycarbonate, polystyrene, PVA (which is water-soluble), and ABS (what legos are made of). There’s also some neat novelty materials, like laywood, a printable “wood.” I’m sure in the next few years Fused Deposition Modeling printers will master ceramics and metals, though that’s easier with Selective Laser Sintering.

Could you explain the difference between FDM printers and SLS printers?

FDM uses an extruder with a very small opening through which molten material is pushed at a controlled rate. That extruder is then moved around in 3 dimensions to deposit material where it needs to, to make a given object. SLS deposits layers of powder (of a given composition) which are sintered at a distance by a laser (presumably rotated to point in the right direction instead of mechanically moved – spherical coordinates instead of cartesian).

Twilight Sparkle Blender Model Making a Model

What type of printer do you have?

I use a Prusa Mendel – a classic model at this point – especially with its great documentation. But no longer the cheapest or the highest-performance open-source printer; that’s either the Tantillus or one of the Delta printers, like the Rostock or the 3DR. Anyways the Prusa mendel has a frame that’s a triangular prism, and the print bed/extruder actuate back and forth at 90 degrees from each other (x and y). The extruder is incrementally lifted along the z-axis as it finishes each layer

What 3D printer would you recommend for beginners?

These days, the Tantillus is pretty good. As long as it’s in Cartesian coordinates, it’s easier for beginners to grasp how to build it and what’s actually going on. I’d recommend Delta printers too, but the firmware adjustments need better documentation first, I think. If you just want to play around with the software side though, printrbots are proprietary but inexpensive. And Formlabs printers/Makerbots are excellent if you can afford them. One kid in the Collablab did a .05 mm layer height print with a Makerbot last summer – you couldn’t tell it was 3D-printed! The layers were just about smaller than the eye can see.
As for what I’ve been up to… some companies sell 3D-printer extruders for $50 or more. I want to bring that down to $5.

How do you plan to do so?

In general, by cutting out a lot of the inefficiencies with their current methods of production. I may make the specifics open-source if it works well, but does not constitute a viable business model. I’ve also got a rudimentary 3D-printing service set up at http://futuralization.com. Some recent issues mean I’m not taking orders right this minute, but people are certainly free to participate in the surveys and ask questions.

What made you decide to start your own 3D printing service?

I had a 3D printer, and the easiest way to make it pay for itself is… Anyways, this particular niche market is a bidding war because everyone has that same thought – just check out MakeXYZ. It’s not just Shapeways and Sculpteo out there… In a year or two, the space won’t be profitable if you want to grow a business big. My idea for Futuralization was to offer a 3D-printing service as a way of gaining funding for R&D, so I could bring nozzles down to $5, design even cheaper, even higher-performance open-source printers, and eventually re-invest in whatever research/engineering projects I want to do… sort of like Elon Musk [ed. note: Co-founder of PayPal and founder of both Tesla Motors and SpaceX]. That’s why I call my business Futuralization – it’s about realizing/actualizing the future – making it what I want it to be – better. As it develops, and I invent cool things that people need, printing services will be more and more of a fringe thing.

Is it currently possible to 3D print circuit boards and other electronic components?

Yes… sort of. The lab at Harvard where my friend worked over the summer does it quite often. But it’s on a million-dollar printer that’s essentially a 5-ton granite slab with fancy magnetically dampened axes levitated on air bearings with position control enough to place individual transistors. They can print with engineered inks of silver, gallium arsenide, and other things. Pretty much any material they’d need to make a circuit. They’ve made LEDs, arrays of silver nano wire arrays thinner than visible wavelengths of light that may replace Indium oxides for clear, conductive touch screens… By the end of their time there, some of the grad students want to be able to print a smartphone.

How many years to you expect would need to pass before that’s available at a consumer level?

Well if I have anything to say about it, within our lifetimes XD. Realistically, the methods harvard uses would have to be re-invented to use more common materials/more easily mass-producible devices – and that could take a while. I imagine people will get bogged down for a while on the moral and ethical implications too, because printers of such high resolutions and capabilities would very nearly constitute silicon-based life. Also Copyright would have to be totally re-done. I imagine rates of information creation would become more valuable than any given piece of information… But I don’t know if people are smart enough to function in such an economy without a painful transition.

On a lighter topic, I know plushies are rather popular in the My Little Pony community. Is it possible to 3D print plushies? If not, why not?

Yeah, it should be possible – but possible does not mean easy. You’d have to create some sort of spinneret-like extruder and have some spinny bits that work with your extruder to weave the fabric in 3D. That could take a lot more development… and there are lower-hanging fruit for the open-source movement for now, so they’re not likely to be going for it soon. As for proprietary businesses, If they’re thinking about short-term profits, they won’t go for such a long-term project. But yeah, it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought.

For those of us not well-versed on the topic, what happened with Shapeways?

I’m no lawyer either, but in general, services for printing, 2D as well as 3D get a lot of files. They could check each of those files for copyright infringement, but then they’d retain liability for any mistakes they made – a potentially expensive liability at that. So what they do instead is just make sure to comply with any companies that claim users of the service have infringed their copyright, and stop producing infringing materials as soon as they are notified about an infringement. On Hasbro’s end, it was as much strategic as legal – Hasbro probably just saw that their output and quality of FIM-related stuff was sufficiently large to threaten their sales as well as infringe their copyright. The Shapeways stuff was hardly the end of 3D-printing in the brony community though. I made a DeviantArt group for that. We’re still around. Some people are even courageous enough to sell custom prints still… As for me, as soon as I saw what happened at Shapeways, I knew I had the opportunity not to make the same mistake – If I can get a permit/contract of some kind with Hasbro, I’ll print ponies for people. Otherwise it’ll just be other stuff people send. So here’s hoping!

Before I end the interview, is there anything else you want to talk about or mention?

I’ve suggested a meetup in Boston Bronies, “Comics and Science”, where the group would gather at a comic book store in Massachusetts, then I’d give ’em a tour of two local Makerspaces. And also, within the next 24 hours, a blog I’ve been running for almost a year with a bunch of other bronies (Discord’s Domain) will be hitting half a million views! Good timing for this interview, eh? There’s more neat some stuff in the works, but I’ll save it for later. Tempting to reveal stuff though.

That wraps it up, then. It was nice interviewing you!

Nice to meet you, and have a nice day! 

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