3D printing: five things you need to know

Is 3D printing an overhyped, niche hobby for geeks with too much disposable income or is it the beginning of a revolution in the democratisation of home manufacturing, asks Marc Curtis, emerging technology lead at TMW.

1. There are several different types of this technology

3D printers come in a variety of forms. Some extrude melted plastic and some create objects by firing lasers into a fine resin powder. The technology is at the VHS vs Betamax phase, and is moving rapidly. For the home market, extruding plastic (a process known as Fused Deposition Modelling) is the simplest method and pipes layer upon layer of melted plastic to build up the shape. Newer (more expensive) printers can use two or three different colours or types of plastic to create objects with complex features.

2. You can print a gun with it, but there are plenty of better things to print

The first thing people ask when you show them a 3D printer is, "what can you make with it?" 3D printers are a technology whose possibility far exceeds the limits of its creators. Just as mobile phone companies never saw the possibilities offered by SMS, and 1980s computer manufacturers never saw the point of home computers, 3D printing is an idea that is waiting to really hit home.

Some things we’ve printed with ours are: a camera lens adapter, a replacement foot for a Microsoft keyboard, a helmet mount for a Sony Action Cam, a trophy and brackets for a fake greenhouse. Check out www.thingiverse.com for a bewildering amount of open source models for printing.

3. The revolution is going to change almost every part of the supply chain, from factory through to consumer

Imagine you are a plumber. Rather than visiting a trade centre to buy a fitting for a central heating system, you simply go online and download the object you need and print it out.

The hospital that needs a specific piece of IV tubing, the car repair shop that needs a new bumper, the school that needs an educational toy…

The real challenge is going to be monetising the 3D models. We may see 3D print businesses springing up, in the same way that copy shops were popular before home printers and scanners were affordable.

4. 3D printing is just one of a number of digital fabrication technologies 

(That includes laser cutting, engraving and 3D sculpting). However it’s the only one that can be additive rather than subtractive. Many parts for consumer units can be made using other digital fabrication technologies (our 3D printer is made from laser cut plywood).

5. Numbers around 3D printing:

*A home unit costs between £900 and £3000.

*Plastic filament costs £30 a spool, which equates to roughly £1 per mobile phone sized printed object. However, costs are already coming down.

*1981 – the year the first 3D printed model was created.

*2010 the point at which domestic units started becoming affordable.

*Two hours – about the time it takes to print out a moderately complex, camera sized object.

This article was first published on The Wall Blog

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