3d printing has really taken off these days. I remember outsourcing 3d prototyping work almost ten years ago. Now 3d prototyping and 3d printing has exploded, with the 3d printer now fairly accessible for at-home users. Recently there has been huge debate with 3d printed guns (note a full gun can not be printed and used over and over again yet). For those of you that don’t know much about 3d printing, I’ve done a bit of research and have put together the need-to-know guide for you right here.
What is 3d printing?
3d printing is the process for ‘printing’ a physical object from a 3d digital model. There are a ton of programs that allow you to model stuff in 3d. AutoCAD, SolidWorks, and Pro Engineer are some of the big names that use parametric modelling, however there are also NURBS based modellers (such as Rhino).
How is 3d printing done?
Basically once you have a 3d model modelled up using one of the aforementioned software programs, you need some sort of CAD/CAM software that wil translate the data for your 3d printing machine. 3d printing cost varies. It used to be much cheaper to print multiple items at once, in effect taking up the whole printing bed. Printing one item given current 3d printing technology actually does not cost a lot more as there is a lot of wasted material as printers nowadays only print the item needed from an STL file.
A 3d printer prints in layers, much like how a brick wall/ house goes up (one layer at a time). 3d printers now have very high resolutions. Typically in the range of 250 DPI, with professional series printers able to attain resolutions as high as 1600 DPI. The thinner the layer (higher resolution) the better, as it means that the surfaces will come out extremely smooth, which requires no surface finishing.
There are already some solid options for desktop printers. The popularity of home printing is also emphasized by the flood of pirated models that you can potentially download and print. You can also purchase 3d models to print at home; although this hasn’t reached critical mass yet.
3d printing services vs an at home machine
At the moment there are a ton of cool and affordable machines you can get. The $300 Printrbot is a simple smaller machine that can be connected via. usb for printing (however it is extremely small at 3.5″ x 3.5″ x 3.5″. Prices vary for the consumer grade level, up to $3300 for a Formalabs Form 1. This printer started out in Kickstarter and hit almost $3 million in pledged money as of October 2012. This machine is a fairly high resolution desktop printer.
The one thing to be wary of is the level of support that you will be getting with your own machine. Even though we are now in 2014, home 3d printing is still young and there aren’t a lot of great machines that have a track history in customer service. Only time will tell with this stuff. That’s why going with a potential 3d printing company could be a goer.
There are TONS of companies that will jump at the chance to do your 3d printing/ prototyping for you. I have always used a company called GL Model in China (this is not a paid endorsement in any way). I have outsourced stuff to these guys as far back as 2007. I still see more pros than cons here. First of all, when you outsource you get the best in resolution (even the Form 1 is approximately 85 dpi). You also don’t have to maintain a machine. Costs for shipping is also relatively cheap.
Materials for 3d printing – Is 3d printing metal possible?
Long story short, technically this has been done, but it won’t be household any time soon. The heat and pressure involved to print with metal powder is highly expensive and would need to be done in a controlled environment – definitely not beside your laptop at home. In 1911 a team of engineers at Solid Concepts did manage to print a gun and fire it using powdered metals.
Online 3d printing possibility?
Yes, if we are talking about outsourcing then there are many vendors available in China. There is also a growing base of Etsy sellers that do some really cool things like 3d printed cookie cutters, jewellery, and custom 3d printed pens.
For commercial stuff I would outsource to a cheaper country (locally is always more expensive even after taxes and shipping costs) or head on over to Etsy for some really cool custom 3d printed gift ideas. The prices are very reasonable considering how much it would cost for professional printing or getting and maintaining your own set-up.
The future of 3d printing
No doubt it is exciting times in the world of 3d printing, especially for at-home-use. I see 3d printing becoming more and more popular, but not as mainstream as regular printers. This is because of all the digital tech we have these days.
Stuff still needs to get printed, but with everyone owning an electronic device, there isn’t much need to print off things to show to other people. As the power and complexity of 3d printers continues we may start to see more and more users start to print things at home, however the price point will have to come down a lot.