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PvE Portland

Back in early 2014, I created a short lived website covering all things nerdy in and around Portland. While PVE Portland is now a thing of the past, the posts are preserved here.

Dustin Cram and Alex Dick of Proto Pasta

3D printing is so hot right now – scientists have printed organs, NASA's talking about printing pizzas, and the price for at-home printers could soon drop to as low as $250. But even as 3D printers increase in popularity and affordability, the materials available for lower grade printers remain pretty limited.

Enter Proto Plant: a Vancouver-based 3D printing innovation company lead by Dustin Cram and Alex Dick. Funded by Kickstarter, Proto Plant is making waves with its revolutionary line of 3D printing filaments.

Like their less-exciting 2D cousins, 3D printers require ink to function, but in their case, the “ink” is filament made from materials like plastic or rubber. The printer deposits the filament in layers to create a 3D result.

Proto Pasta's filaments – like most filaments on the market – utilize a thermoplastic base that becomes moldable when heated and solid once cooled, but it's the unique additives in Proto Pasta that set it apart. The company offers carbon-reinforced, heat resistant, and polycarbonate alloy filaments, each engineered to work in at-home, desktop 3D printers. 

“We began experimenting with as much plastic as we could buy in 3 mm sticks," says Dustin. “At first we wanted to do something really exotic, but found pretty quickly that there is a lot to printable materials - not just anything will print well, or at all. We narrowed it down by what we could achieve using the same basic materials but with different additives.”

“And we were limited by the technology that is out there on the market,” Alex adds.

“And it had to be affordable and accessible to people using lower grade, commercial printers,” says Dustin.

Accessibility was the driving force behind Proto Pasta and its 500 Kickstarter backers.

“Historically, the [3D] machines were so inaccessible and expensive and only the crème de la crème had them,”  explains Alex, who worked for 10 years in laser sintering technology. “And if you wanted to use specialized materials, well, the [manufacturers] who owned these machines were only willing to do that if you were going to produce millions of goods (and they would probably want to lock you out and just have you use their materials anyway)."

“Now 3D printers are becoming more accessible and we are able to connect people to a niche material, that is something really special and it allows people to do new and exciting things with their machines,” Alex says.

The two work out of a small warehouse on the east side of Vancouver, WA. One of the walls is taken up by a large, narrow machine that includes a conveyer belt and touch screen display – it's an extruder designed and built by Dustin, used to produce the Proto Pasta filaments.

The machine starts up and, after a moment, begins spewing a string of bright blue plastic – part of their newest product line – Independence Day PLA (out just in time for the 4th of July). It starts to slide off the conveyer belt and Dustin reaches over to guide the string into a device that measures diameter. The whole process is carefully monitored to ensure quality and consistency.

“What is really unique about Proto Pasta – and what made it stand out from other efforts on Kickstarter – is that Dustin designed and built his own extruder,” Alex says. “ It was a real grassroots effort - Dustin created it all.”

Another aspect that made the Proto Pasta popular on Kickstarter was Dustin's meticulous data reporting. He published a collection of data – complete with graphs and a lot of numbers –  on various aspects of the filaments' performance.

“Everything we did was by trial and error,” says Dustin, “including the extruder. We are always trying to improve on what we've done so far.”

Now that the two have polished their production process and begun work on a second extruder, they are able to produce custom-made filaments and 3D printing solutions. They are currently developing several unique filaments with very specific properties. While much of that work is under NDA, Dustin hinted at a specialized filament with conductive properties for use in interactive technologies.

Desktop 3D printing is possible thanks in large part to the huge open source community such as ThingVerse, as well as the support, expertise, and tutorials available from the many 3D printing blogs, websites, and forums. Proto Pasta takes its place in the 3D printing sphere by combining the spirit of community and innovation found on the internet (as well as using it as a source of funding) with the technical know-how and engineering mindset to create a truly unique line of products.

"Part of what makes 3D printing such an exciting field to be in is community aspect," says Alex.

Proto Pasta has already teamed up with Portland's 3D Printing Group and hopes to continue to be involved in community efforts such as the E-nable Project.

We can't wait to see what they come up with next!

You can learn more about Proto Pasta at their website, here. When you're there, be sure to check out their webcomic, drawn by Alex!

Dustin and Alex answered some specific questions regarding their filaments from Reddit users, posted here on our blog.