By this point, prototyping machines like 3-D printers have taken their place alongside hammers, sewing machines and screwdrivers on the DIYer’s tool bench. Melted plastic and burning wood are as common a workshop smell as that of sawdust, grease, and metal.
But despite their mainstream adoption and the promises of how they’ll transform manufacturing, there’s one thing that these new machines still suck at.
“3-D printers and CNC [lathes] are well suited for volumes, while laser cutters are all suited for planes,” says Marco Perry, Partner and Engineering Director at design consultancy Pensa. “However, when you only want to print lines, they are inefficient, slow, weak and expensive.”
Pensa demonstrated their solution to this problem in last weekend’s World Maker Faire 3-D printer pavilion. And unlike the majority of the devices on display, their machine doesn’t involve plastic at all. It’s a 3-D wire bender, aptly named the D.I.Wire Bender, and its functionality opens new doors of fabrication for many desktop designers.
The enormous benefits of a wire-bending machine may not be immediately obvious, but that’s because bent wires tend to be so ubiquitous that they’re invisible.
Shaped wires are used in baskets, chain link fences, shopping carts, fancy light fixtures, ornate gratings, stands, hooks, paperclips, springs, egg-beaters, and earrings. They are useful for creating structures and scaffolding. You can use a mixture of friction and welding to combine wires into incredibly complex shapes, or artistically useful designs like modernist chairs.
It’s a domain that, until now, has been out of reach for the independent crafter.
This type of system has the potential to allow users to design or download a specific wire-based project and precisely create its individual components. And it creates the possibility to create skeletal frameworks for 3-D printers to build on, although this would require additional software and hardware development.
D.I.Wire is designed to be easy to program and affordable to set up. “CNC wire and rod benders have existed for many years, but only at the mass-production level,” says Perry. “We wondered: Would ‘regular’ people have a use for a 3-D wire bender? What would happen if benders were easily accessible?”
According to Perry, the development of the device came from in-house need. Pensa’s wide-ranging portfolio spans from housewares to street furniture, and their designs often involve a lot of physical prototyping. The tools they had weren’t quite cutting it.
“Wire and rod forms come up often in our work,” says Perry. “Our 3-D printer was ill-suited for this kind of prototype — it used more material for the scaffold than for the model itself. It was very slow, the max print volume was limiting, and the material was too weak for some thicknesses.”
Announced in May, the D.I.Wire Bender is still a relatively early prototype, but Pensa has already made the plans available online for people to make their own. And yesterday they displayed images of a second-generation version, called D.I.Wire 2.0, that mounts flush on a workbench and has more powerful motors for bending thicker material. (It can only output 2-D wire shapes, however).
Their goal with the project is to maximize its user-friendliness, as seen in the range of input that the device is intended to accept. “Our software can read vector files (e.g., Adobe Illustrator files), Rhino or Wavefront OBJ 3-D files, text files of commands (e.g., feed 50 mm, bend 90° to right…) or pure coordinates (from 0,0,0 to 0,10,10 to….).”
Perry says they’ve been blown away by the interest and early ideas that people have suggested. “Some have told us they wanted to use it to make fractal antennas, marble roll sculptures, wire shelves, while others wanted to use it to make lamp shade frames, puppets and large mobiles. The possibilities are endless.”