3D Printing: Exciting Technology Advances for Consumers
An Exciting and Promising Technology
3D printing is an exciting technology that is rapidly increasing in popularity and affordability. A few years ago, 3D printers cost many thousands of dollars. While printers with advanced capabilities are still expensive, consumer-oriented printers are now affordable for many people. These printers can create a wide variety of useful, artistic and fun objects.
The most exciting aspect of a home 3D printer is that it's so versatile. Some examples from the huge range of items that can be printed include cups, vases, cookie cutters, napkin rings, bracelets, pendants, rings, ornaments, tools and even clothing. Artists can create sculptures and parents - or children - can create toys.
A model of the object to be printed must be created in a 3D art program. Information from the model is then sent to the printer. People can create their own unique object designs or they can download designs from websites. Some companies print 3D objects for people. Some of these companies also let people create their own online store to sell objects that they've designed.
A pen that creates 3D objects is available for purchase and costs considerably less than a printer. People are finding creative uses for the pen. It's an interesting device for creating three dimensional art and sculpture, although the resulting objects don't look like those created by a printer.
What is 3D Printing?
How Do 3D Printers Work?
The first step in the creation of a 3D printed object is to design the object. This is done in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) or animation program. The computer model is then exported as an STL file. A second program, known as a slicing program, reads the STL file and converts it to G code. This code tells the printer to produce the object in a series of horizontal layers. The printer then prints these layers one at a time, starting with the bottom layer.
Most 3D printers aimed at consumers are plastic extrusion or FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) printers. High-end FDM printers are available, but the less expensive ones are most likely to be purchased by consumers. The printers create objects by melting plastic filament and then extruding the hot liquid on to a platform. The plastic solidifies almost immediately after it's released from the extrusion nozzle of the printer on to the build platform. The nozzle moves in different directions to create the object and the platform moves downwards as the object grows in depth. Each new layer of plastic that is extruded fuses with the one below. This process is sometimes known as additive manufacturing.
3D Printers Today
Consumer-oriented FDM printers are dropping in price and are becoming more affordable. It's no longer necessary to spend thousands of dollars to buy a 3D printer for the home. In fact, there are several printers that cost under US $1000. Some models cost only a few hundred dollars. The cheaper models usually print smaller objects than the bigger ones, however.
In addition to the price, another thing to consider when buying a 3D printer is its abillity to create thin layers. The thinner the layers, the less obvious they are in the printout and the smoother the appearance and feel of the object. The thinness of the layers is known as the resolution of the printer. Generally, the higher the resolution, the more expensive the printer.
Some people who work with 3D printers predict that within a few years FDM printers will become the 3D equivalent of today's inkjet printers - popular, inexpensive and able to produce a product of good to very good quality.
New 3D Printing Filaments That Mimic Natural Materials
Creating or Downloading 3D Models
Free 3D modeling programs are available for the different computer operating systems. Many of these programs can create STL files. Free G code creation programs are also available. It's not necessary for someone to create their own models, however, unless they enjoy the process and want to create unique designs. A wide variety of models can be downloaded from the Internet.
One site with a large number of downloadable models is Thingiverse. The models are free and the community is active. It's a fun site to explore. The file format and the license of a model should be checked carefully before it's downloaded. The license may allow an object to be created for personal use but not for commercial use.
Making an iPhone Case with a 3D Printer
3D Print-On-Demand Websites
Several online companies print 3D objects for consumers who don't have a printer. Some of these companies also allow people to set up an online store to sell products that they've designed.
Shapeways is a popular website for people looking for a 3D printing solution. Objects can be printed in different media, including plastic, metal, food-safe ceramics and sandstone. The printouts have a better quality than objects printed from a consumer-oriented printer. People can upload their designs and sell products based on the designs via the company's website. Shapeways is located in New York but ships to most countries around the world.
Sculpteo is another online company that prints objects for people and also lets them run a store. Sculpteo is based in France, but like Shapeways it ships around the world.
Shapeways: A Website for Printing 3D Objects
Drawing With a 3D Pen: The 3Doodler
For some people, even the cheapest 3D printer is too expensive. A new and comparatively inexpensive product should enable many more people to create 3D objects and have fun at the same time.
A company called WobbleWorks has developed a pen that lets people draw with extruded plastic on a flat surface or in the air. Both one dimensional objects with a raised surface and true 3D objects can be created with the pen. No computer or software are needed. The pen does require an electrical outlet, however.
The company provides free stencils that can be downloaded. A person can draw over the stencil with the pen. The tracing can then be moved into an upright position. Different tracings can be attached to each other with the pen in order to create a complex object. The 3Doodler website has an interesting blog showing what people have created with the pen.
3Doodler Pen Versions One and Two
Plastic in the Environment
As much as I love to read about the exciting advances in 3D printing technology, one thing worries me. All the consumer-oriented printers that I've seen have used ABS plastic as a printing medium. ABS plastic, or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, is a tough, impact-resistant material that has many useful applications. Like most plastics, it degrades when it's exposed to ultraviolet light. This is a slow process, however. ABS plastic is recyclable, but not all recycling plants accept it.
Plastic pollution is a serious environmental problem. The thought of people discarding unsatisfactory 3D printouts is scary, especially as 3D printing becomes more popular. Consumers need to be encouraged to recycle their plastic or to use a more environmentally friendly material for printing.
ABS or PLA Plastic
The 3Doodler and some 3D printers can use either ABS plastic or PLA plastic as their "ink". ABS plastic is made from petroleum. PLA (polyactic acid) plastic is made from corn or soy beans and is biodegradable. Some people choose PLA filament for their printer for this reason. However, being biodegradable doesn't mean that PLA plastic can be thrown into a landfill and left for microbes such as bacteria and fungi to break down, as the term implies. The microbial decomposition of PLA requires exposure to a high temperature, light and oxygen for two or three months, conditions which are only found in a commercial compost centre.
ABS plastic has better properties than PLA plastic with respect to the creation of 3D models. It's less brittle, more bendable, less sticky and less susceptible to drooping when the temperature rises. The 3Doodler maker recommends that people start with ABS plastic and then try PLA plastic later.
Potential Uses of 3D Printers
The Future of 3D Printing Technology for Consumers
Some people predict that a 3D printing revolution will take place in the near future. The printers are rapidly gaining acceptance in manufacturing and have exciting applications in medicine. In the future, people may make more of the products that they need at home instead of buying them in a store. Consumer printer technology seems to be advancing more slowly than manufacturing and medical printer technology, however.
The current state of 3D printing is certainly interesting and provides great scope for creativity. In order to become a more mainstream technology, though, 3D printing technology needs to be improved. 3D printers for consumers need to have at least some of the following features in order to be successful. They should be able to:
- create useful items more conveniently or more cheaply than the same item made by other methods
- create high-quality objects
- make improved versions of objects manufactured by other methods
- make objects that couldn't be created in any other way
3D printers aimed at consumers should also be easy to use and be relatively inexpensive to buy and operate. The problem of finding strong but environmentally safe printing media also needs to be solved. I'm optimistic about the future of 3D printing, though. The technology is very promising as well as exciting.
Buying a 3D Printer - A Poll
Would you like to buy a consumer-oriented 3D printer for your home?
© 2013 Linda Crampton