The real 3D printing revolution will not be televised
Everyone's heard of 3D printing these days. There probably hasn't been a Wired issue for about five years that doesn't mention it. A lot of publicity goes to the quirky products and art projects that use 3D printing and if I'm being cynical I would suggest that some people use 3D printing just as a way to make their projects seem more interesting.
I'm glad people have crazy ideas and do silly things with it, but for me the incredible power of 3D printing goes way deeper than that. As I've now experienced first hand, 3D printing has become an indispensable tool in the armoury of makers. Without it, the Ockham Razor Company may never have got off the back of the proverbial napkin.
3D printing has become a catch-all term for all sorts of processes that produce three-dimensional objects from various standardized raw materials such as plastic, metal or even chocolate. However, the term 3D printing was originally specific to the technique of depositing layer upon layer of solid material, in the way an inkjet printer puts down ink, to create a 3D object.
Perhaps the most familiar image we have of 3D printing is of hot plastic being squirted from a nozzle by a machine like a MakerBot which is using the technology of fused deposition modelling. For now though, I'll stick with using the term 3D printing in its broadest sense.
Compared with more traditional manufacturing techniques, 3D printing typically has lower set-up costs and faster turnarounds. Take moulded plastic for example - something we're all familiar with in the form of LEGO bricks or toy soldiers. These are made in enormous quantities and although it costs thousands of dollars to set up the machines to make each part, that works out quite well when you're making millions of the same LEGO brick. And since plastic is cheap it ends up costing almost nothing to make each LEGO brick. To make a one-off LEGO brick in the same way would cost thousands of dollars.
By contrast, if for whatever reason you wanted to make a unique piece of LEGO then to 3D print it would cost, say, a dollar. If you wanted to make a million of your newly-designed LEGO bricks like that, it would cost you a million dollars. You get the point.
Almost ten years ago, when I first came across 3D printing in a professional sense, we created parts to test the design of small components and in some cases we would make custom parts for users which special requirements. The material used was ABS plastic (which is what LEGO bricks are made from) so it's pretty tough stuff.
So although these techniques were initially associated with industrial rapid prototyping they are increasingly being used to make finished products. In high-end manufacturing 3D printing is becoming a viable way of making complex, critical components. The world of medicine too has seen plenty of inspirational applications of 3D printing because every patient is different and it's a great way of making parts to fit exactly for a particular individual, be it a hearing aid or a prosthetic limb.
3D printed razor
For our project we have used fused deposition modelling to make plastic prototype razors. The material we've been using is PLA, a bioplastic made from renewable resources which is a great way to try and reduce the environmental impact of prototyping.
We would have really struggled without the ability to make prototypes in this way. It's very hard to appreciate what something is going to be like by looking at a computer screen and, although our razor is a relatively simple product, getting the shape exactly right is critical to the success of the design. To iterate our design in this way costs us a day and a few dollars for a new version; to iterate once we get to full production in metal will cost us weeks and hundreds of dollars.
As the technology evolves, so do the innovative services around it. For our project we're taking advantage of 3D Hubs, a great service which connects you with local 3D printers. It means we can find a place down the road to get exactly the right kind of 3D printing done for exactly what we need at the time. Via 3D Hubs we have access to the latest and greatest 3D printing technology and sound advice from passionate people operating their 3D printing hub, at a relatively low unit cost. All without having to buy our own expensive equipment, which would sit idle most of the time anyway.
In my view the consumer revolution in 3D printing has been somewhat over-hyped. I find it hard to imagine everyone having a 3D printer in their home anytime soon, a vision often presented to us, mostly by 3D printer manufacturers I suppose.
People aren't going to be sitting at home dreaming up new kitchen utensils or toys for their children and printing them out. The main reason for that is that designing three dimensional objects is difficult. How many people do you know whom you'd want to design your wallpaper? Designing in two dimensions is not trivial. Designing in three is way harder. The lack of a quick way to produce solid objects at home isn't the limiting factor here.
I think there are two things that will increase the usefulness of 3D printing for consumer applications in the fairly near future.
The first is to improve access to 3D-printable designs via services such as Thingiverse. These online markets are starting to become places where you can find genuinely useful things but there's still a large quantity of gimmickry and tat. Looking forward, perhaps manufacturers will start to supply 3D-printable files for spare parts along with a warranty subscription or something.
The second really interesting area is 3D scanning. Imagine being able to photocopy three dimensional objects. Combine a 3D printer and a 3D scanner and that's pretty much what you've got. Separate the scanner and the printer and you're not far off teleportation!
While I'm sure we'll keep hearing about 3D printed hot dogs and other frivolous 3D printed projects, I believe that 3D printing is a great enabler and a powerful force for good, which is already quietly making a difference.
Ideas are cheap but execution is hard. If 3D printing makes execution just that little bit easier that means more ideas will become reality. And that is a good thing.