Published on July 20, 2015
3D printing: is it really something that’s going to change the world, or will it always just be a novelty?
Despite being invented as a technology in the 1970s, 3D printing was for a long time only available to industrial processes, with machines costing sometimes hundreds of thousands to buy. But around 2005, companies like RepRap and then later MakerBot began to create smaller, more affordable home printing devices, launching a media frenzy as the latest thing to revolutionize our lives.
It’s something that often comes up in conversation, or maybe you see something cool in an article that’s been 3D printed – but is it really something that’s going to change the world, or will it always just be a novelty?
To help decide, let’s look at the state of the industry in home printing, and then some of the emerging technologies on the horizon.
Even though the industry is still young, you’re spoilt for choice in today’s market. There are hundreds of different machines available to buy, from anywhere between £200 to £2000. But generally, these are the two type of 3D printer technology:
FUSED DEPOSITION PRINTERS
These are the most common. This is where a roll of plastic filament is heated up and then squirted out like toothpaste onto a flatbed plate, layer after layer, slowly building up a model, line by line, millimetre by millimetre. They are mechanically fairly straightforward machines, made up of parts that were largely available off-the-shelf and just used in a new way.
Cheapness: Being made up of standard parts combined with the fact that they’ve been around for 10 years means that competition and manufacture have kept their cost lower.
Simplicity: They’re easy to set up and use – software and processes are now refined to make the process of printing an object very simple.
Colours: There are hundreds of different colours of filament available – including some specialist ones like polishable, real metal finishes and softer, more flexible materials; all can be used with any type of printer.
Speed: As the process relies on the cooling of hot plastic, speed is currently limited – printing something 3 or 4 inches square will take up to a couple of hours.
Finish: The process is made up layers and, as such, you always see a fine texture.
Reliability: Printing can sometimes be problematic, and knowledge of how printing behaves can affect how a model is designed, even down to how a model should be orientated during printing, can mean success or failure. As the process also prints from the base up, any part of a design that overhangs won’t print, so you need to tell the process to add support structures (a bit like scaffolding) which can sometimes affect the finish of the model.
These are slightly more recent to the home market and take a different approach. A basin of clear resin provides the material, with a flat bed plate either submerged, or just touching the liquid. A laser is then fired into the resin, travelling through it and heating and fusing the liquid to the plate. By directing the beam, a model can be printed layer by layer (just like Fused Deposition printers). The bed plate can be lowered to build the next layer, or sometimes raised upwards, so models are ‘pulled’ from the liquid and suspended upside down with their base attached to the plate.
Finish: Print quality is far higher – virtually flawless. Some of the more expensive machines can even print lenses, they are so accurate. As the process is suspended in liquid as it prints, supports are not needed as much and more complicated objects can be printed.
Speed: As the process doesn’t rely on the cooling of plastic, the speed can be faster. A recent demonstration of one of the latest printers showed a 3 or 4 inch model being printed in around 10 minutes (versus around 2 hours for Fused Deposition).
Cost: Machines are more expensive, as their parts are far more engineered. Usually, a mirror directs a laser beam in with micron accuracy, which requires more complex mechanics than a Fused Deposition printer. However, Stereolithographic printers are on the rise, so their cost will decrease in time.
Colours: As the process required a laser to be fired through a liquid, all printed models will come out with a clear finish. And the number of colours available even for these is very limited.
A number of interesting technologies are being developed. Some may be the beginnings of a new era in printing – or that may still yet be discovered. Here are a few of the more interesting developments:
As mentioned above, speed is now one of the high priorities in advancing 3D printing. At a recent TED talk, the new Carbon3D printer was demonstrated, showing impressive speeds. At the heart, the process is very much Stereolithographic, but if the demonstrations are true and the cost is right, this could be a game-changing machine.
Soft & Fluffy 3D Printing
Disney have recently demoed a 3D printer they are working on, which would allow you to print soft toys. Working in a very similar way to Fused Deposition, it builds up layers of material to make a soft toy like finish. No news as to when this might be released and to what application, but an interesting new twist on 3D creativity.
There are a number of avenues that have been explored for this, ranging from sugar and chocolate 3D printers to newer technologies that might have the abilities to create multiple type of food. It’s early days for this becoming something practical for the home but, as a first step to one day being able to print your own meals, it’s a fascinating concept.
Voxel8 have announced a technology that allows a conductive ink to be printed into 3D objects. This could allow you to print your own circuit boards, and even embed mechanicals like motors within a print ready to run when completed.
This technology is not new, but a home application is fast upon us. This is a process of milling out 3D shapes from hard materials like aluminium or wood. Home printers are now being launched, including some on Kickstarter (which is how many other 3D print technologies began).
Multi-jet fusion and Full Colour 3D Printing
This type of technology is the best way of creating high-res, flawless printing – but the machines are very costly, however. By releasing resin onto a bed of fine power, a model can be printed in amazing detail. And by introducing red, green and blue ink into the reset as it goes, the white power can be coloured – effectively giving a full-colour 3D print! This technology is becoming accessible to all people as a service, but if the messy power-based system can be adapted for home use, then this would be a new direction for home printing. Multi-jet Fusion takes this principle but can work with either metal or plastic powder, solidifying it with a laser. Chemicals are sprayed from 30,000 tiny nozzles and this, combined with UV light, speeds the hardening of the materials. The process is reported to be one-tenth of the speed of conventional printing.
3D Printed Houses & Cars
As well as home use, new applications for 3D printing extends to manufacture. Pioneers are experimenting with creating a range of 3D large-scale items, including cars and buildings. Both would use larger-scale 3D printers to create parts or building blocks, but the technology and lessons learned will perhaps shape home use in unforeseen ways.
Its clear at the moment that, whilst Fused Deposition printing is currently the most approachable and affordable, it may not be the future of home 3D printing. Unless it can be speeded up, other technology such as Stereolithography will step in and take over, bringing faster printing times and higher accuracy. Whichever technology prevails, it’s clear that speed and affordability are now the focus of new developments.
Or, perhaps we may one day see a single printer that is able to use multiple materials, so you can choose to print an object in plastic, wood, metal, soft fabrics or even as food.