The Making of the 3D Printed, Liquid-Cooled Computer

Computers have always played a critical role in 3D printing. It’s no coincidence that as soon as Chuck Hull invented the technology in 1983, he immediately assembled a team to create and share the STL file format—which remains the most widely used file format for 3D printing today.

Over the years, advances in computational power have helped drive parallel innovation in 3D technologies, from complex 3D design tools to high throughput industrial printers. To celebrate this relationship, we took it upon ourselves to pay tribute to this fellow technology by creating a custom, liquid-cooled computer using our full suite of 3D solutions.custom_computer

With vacuum tubes as their inspiration, a group of our engineers sat down to redesign the computer. For those that don’t know, vacuum tubes are what made the first generation of modern computers possible.

Because we only had six weeks if we wanted to complete the project in time to share it in early January at CES, our team started the smartest way they knew how by reverse engineering the housing for our off-the-shelf components. Using the Geomagic Capture 3D Scanner, we collected 3D data from the motherboard, graphics card, etc., to convert it into CAD models with Geomagic Design X. These models were then moved into Geomagic Design CAD software and Geomagic Freeform, where we created an assembly of sculpted parts to house and cool the computer.

From here, our design team coordinated with our experts at Quickparts and GibbsCAM, our On Demand Manufacturing Service and CNC machining professionals, respectively. With these powers combined, we were within a click of nearly every manufacturing process and material in our arsenal.

“This turned out to be a great project for our team because it not only showcases individual technologies, it shows how they all work together to solve complex design and engineering problems,” said Cyle Caplinger, Business Development Manager, Software, 3D Systems. “We’re fortunate to have a really flexible, powerful portfolio that enables us and our customers to find and use the best possible manufacturing method for the parts and performance they need.”

With the aim of creating a truly one-of-a-kind computer, we reimagined critical components like the reservoir, fan, water block and radiator for a truly avant-garde machine. “The combination of 3D printing processes and traditional manufacturing that we chose allowed us to match our design intentions with material performance,” said Sean Perkins, Global Benchmark Manager, On Demand Parts, 3D Systems. And no obstacle was too great. “We knew the thermal transfer properties of copper would make it a great material for the water block, so we 3D printed the casting pattern in QuickCast material on our ProX 800 SLA printer to be cast in copper. We complemented this with GibbsCAM CNC machining to get the fine interior details that wouldn’t have withstood casting.”

To achieve a transparent reservoir compatible with the chemical properties of the coolant, we printed a master pattern using our ProX 800, from which we derived a silicone mold for casting in lexan-like urethane. Finally, in order to centrally mount the fan without the need for added assembly and hardware, we deconstructed an off-the-shelf unit and placed it in a custom framework. Alongside this, we placed the radiator, which was 3D printed in SLS.

“Everything was going really well in keeping to our timeline until the radiator broke during shipping,” said Cyle. “However, because we had the full range of our 3D printers at CES, this accident worked out in our favor: we were able to demonstrate in real time just how easy it is to go from file to part to product, right from the show floor. Within a day, we had printed ourselves a replacement radiator and had the computer up and running!”