Curious about 3-D printers? Want to learn how to use one? Then drop by one of Burlington's 3-D Printing and Modeling meet-ups. The informal gatherings have been happening monthly since March; the most recent one took place last Wednesday at Logic Supply in South Burlington.

Software developer and maker Jon Bondy organized the group; about 20 of his fellow 3-D printing hobbyists showed up on Wednesday to hear him explain how to use the design program SketchUp.

IBM software engineer Alex Clay was one of them. Clay pointed out that 3-D printers aren't exactly new. “They’ve been around for a long time," he said. "It’s just now gotten cheap enough to have at home."

Clay owns a MakerBot Replicator 2, which he brought to the meet-up (pictured). It costs about $2400; Bondy has a Solidoodle, which retails for about $800. Why did Clay buy a 3-D printer? "Because it was cool," he said. 


During the meet-up, Bondy covered the basics of SketchUp, which enables users to design 3-D objects before sending them to print. It was programmed for
architects, Bondy explained, while a 3-D image of his house spun wildly on the
overhead screen. 

Bondy passed around a palm-sized, hinged object he'd printed before showing the group how he modeled it in SketchUp. Bondy's tutorial included an overview of 3-D models, as well as practical advice — i.e. make sure you scale your model to millimeters before you print. He also tried to help newcomers feel at home.

"Many of us don’t think about these kind of shapes
mathematically, we think of them physically,” he added, motioning towards Meg
Walker, a sculptor who was in the audience for the first time.

Later, Walker said the meet-up had appealed to her because of the 3-D printer’s
ability to replicate a specific unit. But after spending some time learning about SketchUp, she said the program seemed “too
architectural." She said she'd keep trying to figure it out, though.

“Don’t be too discouraged,” Kerime Toksu, a web developer
and writer, advised. She suggested connecting with a company such as New York-based Shapeways that will turn 2-D
designs into 3-D objects. 

Bondy agreed that there are other options, but he's optimistic that even beginners can learn SketchUp, especially with the
vast number of tutorials online.

Makerbot“I’ve noticed people compete on forums to give you the best
advice," he said. "So if you have a particular problem you want to solve and you can
express it without revealing the intellectual property you want to protect,
other people can help you. These days the support of the community is more
important than anything else."

As the clock struck 9 p.m., the group began to stir
and someone in the crowd asked, “Jon, how far along the trajectory are we towards
the Star Trek replicators?”

Bondy laughed.

“Well," Clay interjected, "NASA wants to start printing pizza for astronauts."

Catch up with this techie, (Trekkie?) crew next month; they'll be discussing printer filament at the Champlain College Miller Center on Wednesday, July 17.

*This article was revised on 6/27/13 to correct factual errors.