There has been much interest in the media of late about 3D printers. The advent of ‘budget’ 3D printers being sold by the likes of Maplin has allowed some journalists imaginations to run away with them.
The idea is that every home could have a 3D printer to produce items from designs that could be downloaded from the internet. As with any new technology that has its origins in industrial applications, the majority of 3D printing projects are slightly gimmicky. For more practical applications, such as printing replacement parts or complete products, it doesn’t take much thought to realise it is not simply a case of downloading a file and pressing a button.
PLASTICS IN THE HOME
How many products do you have at home that contain plastic are solely plastic? Many contain electrical components, screws, other metal parts, etc. It would not be enough to print just the plastic parts, other components would need to be sourced and then you would need to be able to assemble the final product. Furthermore, a number of different materials and grades are used – many of which are not available for these home printers.
The parts produced on these home printers do not have the strength of an homogenous moulded part, for instance. The world’s only range of multi-material 3D printers, the Objet Connex, is far too expensive for home use. Furthermore, the cost of more advanced 3D printing materials and methods make it suited to specialist applications.
3D PRINTING IN MANUFACTURING
The excitement has not been confined to home use. There have been suggestions that there could be factories containing several 3D printers producing to order. This would cut down on transport costs, lead times and storage. However, resulting parts would still be more expensive than their mass produced equivalents so would have limited, specialist applications. The idea that 3D printing could replace traditional mass manufacture is probably unrealistic, more likely is that it could become an integral part so changing and enhancing production.
3D printing is an exciting new technology and it will doubtless develop considerably over the coming years. As it becomes more widespread costs will fall as has happened with other new technologies. It would be wrong to say it will never have a practical application in the home but the vision of people sitting in front of their computers printing household items for their own use remains the stuff of science fiction for the foreseeable future. However, outlets on the high street offering this service using more expensive and sophisticated equipment (similar to printing shops now) could be the next stage.
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Different types of prototype explained.