Exploring 3D printing

Lately, everyone seems to be talking about 3D printing -- this is a process where, instead of piece of paper, your end product is a physical object, typically created by laying down many successive thin layers of a material.

3D printing's been around for a while on the manufacturing side of things; some car makers, for example, have been using the technology to 3D print car parts. There's also been a steady increase in the number of online firms who'll print 3D items for you, like Shapeways.

But it's only with the recent introduction of the first 'high street' 3D printers that it has gained wide-spread exposure amongst the general public -- they're proving so popular that printers such as the K8200 require up to a 30 day wait for delivery.

Also, recently NASA has been working to develop SpiderFab, a robotic 3D printing and assembly system that could build structures in orbit, which is very exciting (see below pic).

Tethers -spider -fab

How does 3D printing work?

There's now reams of information about 3D printing available online (there's even a dedicated 3D section on The Guardian's website), but I wanted to find out what it involves from someone who's actually tried it.

So I had a chat with one of our founders Wini, who recently got the chance to have a go at using the Makerbot Replicator 2 when he took part in the Cartridge Save 3D Print Cup Challenge -- and what immediately stood out to me is that there are lots of steps you have to go through to get the finished product!

As a summary, the print at home process involves:

1. Draw stage -- where you sketch out what you want

2. Model stage -- where you create a 3D model of your drawing ready for 3D printing

3. Print stage -- where the model is printed (but with lots of rough edges that need to be gotten rid of)

4. Sand stage -- where you carefully sand down your object

5. Paint stage -- where you add any colour or details you want with specialist paints

As you can imagine, all this takes a long time -- Wini said getting his model ready involved several late nights...

Some thoughts on 3D printing

1. It offers exciting opportunities for personalisation...

3D printing allows consumers to personalise objects in a way that they haven't necessarily been able to before. Consumers now expect more unique, customised products, and 3D printing can help them get these.

2. ... and is now more accessible than ever...

This technology is now available to more people than ever before -- it's a brand new way of helping solve problems and could help both the general public and manufacturers to innovate faster and more easily.

3. ... But let's not get carried away!

3D printing is advancing at a fast rate, but it seems some people might be getting a bit overexcited. Yes, there are highly complex 3D printing systems out there, but, to me, it seems unlikely that we'll be able to print anything especially sophisticated ourselves anytime soon.

4. And don't forget the legal implications

Another thing to consider is the pretty dodgy legal issues currently surrounding 3D printing. How can anyone regulate what's being printed? And who owns that product?

And, given that the first 3D printed gun has already been created, there's bound to be a lot of debate over where we draw the line...

Our verdict is that, although we'll see more and more people ordering 3D models from specialist 3D printing websites, the at home printing offer has a long way to go before we'll regularly be printing products ready to use in our everyday lives ourselves.

But there's some exciting possibilities ahead, particularly in areas like the children's toy market: think about how much fun it's be to be able to print your own Lego or Moshi Monsters at home...

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