I get asked quite often about 3D printing and where things are going. I thought I’d put down some thoughts and some predictions which may be fun to revisit in a year or two.
First of all, let’s explain a few things.
Most of all the 3D printing I’m involved with is something called FDM which is fused deposition modeling. This involve melting plastic and drawing layers with it to build up a three dimensional object from a digital model. Other common types of 3D printing include laser sintering (which involves a bed of heated powder that a laser then fuses, layer by layer) or some form of stereolithography which uses resin that is optically fused to a previous layer, typically with some kind of projected image or laser. There are many variations on these themes and they traditionally have been either far too expensive for the home hobbyist (which is the category I seem to fall into) or a more industrial process that the average person wouldn’t even want in their home unless they like toxic chemicals and wearing hazmat suits. But that is starting to change.
There is no question that this is an exciting time for 3D printing technology. Every day another Kickstarter project pops up with a new design for one of the processes mentioned above. Often these designs are considered clever because of the strong patent protection many of the processes currently have that date back over 30 years. Thanks in great part to the openness of the internet, plentiful photos and descriptions of those processes (both closed and open sourced) as well as cheap microcontrollers and other necessary hardware to build and run these machines, just about anyone can build their own machine.
The process these machines uses is different but ultimately they both make objects out of a liquid resin. To me, this technology represents a true science fiction experience – the objects literally grow out of the resin goo before your eyes (albeit slowly) and isn’t constrained by some of the limitations that the current MakerBot and RepRap style printers have.
Due to the proliferation of 3d printers (of all types) the cost of the raw materials used to make objects (plastic filament) has come down, as has the cost of the machines themselves. People are also experimenting with all kinds of different materials than the typical ABS or PLA plastic used. These new materials include wood (Laywoo-D3 which is 40% recycled wood and can be sanded and painted), brick, various nylons including a food grade version, and more all the time. Just this week, MakerBot made new flexible and dissolvable filaments available just this week.
Metal printing is still only possible with a sintering process with an industrial class machine but many service providers offer metal printing options in numerous materials. It’s just a matter of time before someone figures out an easier, cheaper and safer method for the hobby user. This Vader printer looks promising on that front.
After you have a 3D model you want to print, you need to create it in some kind of CAD software. Previously this was an arduous task that required formal training. I’ve noticed in the last three years I’ve been following this that the software has gotten more and more accessible. There is a lot of different applications out there that the average user can pick up and start using with minimal guidance. There are Youtube videos galore on how to do 3D modelling and many are specific to a given tool. The book I’m currently working on is meant to assist with this by walking you through creating your first models, with no previous experience.
Even free, web based tools like Tinkercad.com (my personal favorite for quick mockups) can output very high quality models, quite easily.
Getting an idea from your brain to a 3D model is a limitation for many people. 3D scanning’s promise is to remove this barrier by allowing you to scan just about any object.
What used to be a very expensive piece of hardware (starting at $5000 and going way up) can now be done with a consumer videogame peripheral like the Xbox Kinect and some free software. Autodesk also has 123D Catch which lets you use nearly any camera (including your smartphone) to photograph an object, building, etc from many angles and it will create a surprisingly high resolution model in minutes. Kickstarter is filled with many scanning options (I backed one that attaches to an iPad to scan a room sized object) as well and MakerBot also just released a $1500 desktop scanner.
This space is definitely an interesting one to watch as the technology improves and the copyright implications start to unfold.
So where do we go from here?
Everyday in the news there are reports of a new use for the technology, a new material that can be used and a new way it will change your life in nearly every sector of industry, medicine and science. NASA is even sending them into space to help with repairs and they are looking at 3D printing food.
There was a time when I thought everyone would have a 3D printer in their home. I’m not so sure anymore…at least with the current crop of machines we have. There is no doubt they are getting more popular as people discover the technolgy. I take great joy in showing my machines to people that had no idea these things were possible and not science fiction. But eventually that conversation turns to “what can I do with one?” which is difficult to answer. It depends.
The average starting price of a decent 3D printer (which I usually set at ~$1000 for quality & reliable output) still doesn’t put it into the ‘coffee maker’ category of household appliances. I often equate owning a 3D printer as being similar to having a table saw in your workshop. It’s just another tool to help you make something. It requires a certain learning curve to understand what it can do and make. It’s also a machine that requires maintenance and upkeep. Most people that own a table saw, do so because they have a need for it and not just for a one time thing.
If you like to tinker, make things and experiment, then a 3D printer would make sense to own. Once you have your own, you start seeing the possibilities in places you didn’t expect. But it takes a bit of faith and curiosity to make the jump and drop $1k on a robot that you usually have to put together yourself.
Many have equated the current state of 3D printing with the early days of computers (the Apple 1 era). Recently while visiting the hackspace in Seattle, a bunch of us talked about this. It was suggested that it’s more like the wild west with everyone trying new things and hoping it takes off. The early days of computers were a very precise and highly engineered time. Many current 3D printers are made out of laser cut wood, recycled motors from 2D printers and sometimes even fishing line. Many creators of these 3D printers have no formal background in robotics, mechanical engineering or similar fields of study. They just like making things and experimenting.
Having built a number of my own 3D printers from scratch with spare parts and cobbled together instructions (or even just eyeballing it from photos of a bleeding edge design), it definitely feels less precise than it could be…although that could be my lack of engineering background. In many ways, it feels like many are just winging it (not necessarily a bad thing) with lots of great & crazy ideas on how something could work better and just trying it. Not being afraid of making mistakes is part of the fun.
Because of this, it’s still very exciting and interesting to me to be an active part of.