3D Printing Preface

3D Printing Preface


The key point to remember about 3D printing is that it’s constantly evolving. And whilst it’s a technology which has been used by the scientific community and manufacturing industries for a long time, consumer level* 3d printing has only been available fairly recently.

The first and foremost thing to bear in mind is that any content on the site, which discusses 3D printing, is subject to obsolescence as the technology evolves.

As I write this, it’s March 2016 and to date, there are only 8 commercially available printers which are – under US$1000, fully assembled and easy to use**. Why is this important? Barrier to the adoption of technology is the second consideration to bear in mind. Although 3D printing is very much in the minds of consumers from constant media attention, the cost and usability of 3D printers at a consumer level has not really dropped. There are cheap, sub-US$1000, 3d printers who almost certainly require you to assemble, tinker and constantly maintain in order to achieve decent results. We have some way to go to a sub-$1000 printer which is good to go right out of the box, despite manufacturers claims.

Added to this is the fact that even all of the printers which fall under the acceptable consumer standards, offer ease of use ONLY if you download already made 3d models off the internet. They do not preclude you from making your own models and printing those, but unless you are already used to 3d modeling packages you’re in for a fairly steep learning curve and lots of time invested.

There are many other, smaller, barriers and those mentioned keep becoming smaller barriers but they are and will continue to be barriers if and until 3d printing or some form of self-manufacturing becomes as common as the household microwave. Just think of how much those used to cost, how uncommon and big they used to be. If you have no idea of what a VCR is, just completely ignore the last sentence.

The third and perhaps the most important thing to consider is time. 3D printers are slow. No getting around that elephant in the room. I own a 3D printer because of this. The person I bought it off had backed a Kickstarter project only to find out it took him a full day to print a 3D model replica of a Fabrage egg. He hadn’t done his homework and the thought of having to bear the noise of a 3D printer printing 24hrs in his cramped apartment, was akin to torture to him.

Printers themselves will get faster but there’s a theoretical limit to how fast the current 3D printer technologies can print objects. The two consumer 3D printing technologies Fused Filament Fusion (FFF) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) have limits. FFF which basically melts a filament of 3D printing material (it’s not always plastic!) needs to account the cooling off the layer being laid down before it can deposit another layer on top. SLS is up to 20x faster than FFF and works by exposing intense heat, typically laser, to cure translucent liquid resin in a container for a certain amount of time (micro seconds) to solidify or by exposing a (different type of) resin to UV light from a source such as a projector. There is a limit to how fast the resin can be made to cure as the quicker it takes the more sensitive it is to UV light and more difficult it will be to control against general external sources such as sunlight and ambient heat.

The short of it is, if you want to 3D print you’re going to have to invest time. Time to learn the software to build 3d models. To print and re-print. To grind and sand.

Not put off yet? Good. Because I can see a day when all we have to do to buy or replace most things will mean jumping into your (flying) car, popping into a convenience store for the appropriate printing material/s. Once home, you’d download an encrypted file, which would verify that, the material is suitable and begins printing a basketball size object in 5 minutes. That object would be encoded at a molecular level with an identifier, which will indicate time printed, personal, security and other anti-counterfeiting measures.

Am I sure? Yes. Because we need to. There’s only a finite amount of raw materials on earth and that’s already stretch as it is. We’ve faced this issue before. With water. If you live in an urban area in a major city, chances are you’re drinking recycled water and think nothing of it. Personal manufacturing will solve a lot of our issues with waste, if not overconsumption.

I hope I live long enough to witness this. Meanwhile, I’ll have fun printing out things which I’ve imagined and build virtually in the comfort of my own home. There’s a real sense of empowerment when you see this and the feeling doesn’t fade.

Until you realize that you could have probably gone out and bought something similar back from town for a lot less in cost and time…