3D printing for all!

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3D printing is by no means a new technology, its application in industry is vast and varied. Here Tanya Weaver grapples with the notion of 3D printing moving from the workshop and factory floor into our homes
If you believe what’s been written about in the press we are in the throes of a 3D printing revolution. And it’s not just in trade magazines and ‘techie’ rapid prototyping publications but recent articles have appeared in very mainstream newspapers such as The Independent on Sunday and the New York Times.

What I can’t quite get my head around though is this notion of 3D printing in the home. Will I really be able to design and print my own products from a desktop 3D printer? What will I print… shoes, mugs,
plates, maybe a new handbag?

I also have to question whether it is feasible and, more importantly, do people really need and want it? In answer to my question I decided to delve a bit deeper into this 3D world.

Not a week (I’m tempted to say a day) goes by when we don’t see a new application for 3D printing. Just this week I read that a team at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany has made artificial blood vessels using a 3D printer.

In the July/August issue of DEVELOP3D we featured stories on a 3D printer that prints in chocolate and a company, Bespoke Innovations, who is printing bespoke fairings for artificial limbs.

I have also just been to an exhibition at the V&A museum as part of the London Design Festival entitled ‘Industrial Revolution 2.0: How the Material World Will Newly Materialise’ that brings additive manufacturing to the attention of the public.

Curated by Murray Moss, design entrepreneur and gallery owner, it features eight exhibits that range from tables and chairs through to lighting and clothing, all of which have been produced on one of Materialise’s 3D printers.

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3D printing is of course not a new technology, it has been around for over 20 years. Initially used by manufacturers and designers to build prototypes, more recently it has been used by industries such
as aerospace, automotive and medical to create bespoke components and parts that can be printed in a single go.

Basically, a 3D model of an object is produced in CAD. This file is then sent to a 3D printer, much like you would send a document to a laserjet printer. However, unlike the laserjet that only prints in 2D, the object that emerges from the 3D printer is a fully formed and assembled 3D object.

What is really interesting is when people claim that instead of these printers existing in workshops or bureaus for use by designers and engineers only, they can be downsized and located on our desktops at home for all the family to use.

Essentially whatever a child can doodle up will be brought to life in front of their eyes in the living room

Is this really feasible? Surely you need to learn how to design in CAD first or will this software become simplified so everybody can use it? There will also need to be more variety in the types and colours of materials that the object can be printed in.

Then of course there are all the issues of intellectual property if you are copying someone else’s designs or creating your own. Also, what about the safety concerns having a machine like that in your home?

There are some small companies and individuals that have been tinkering away helping us imagine what can be done with this technology. One of the most interesting I came across in my search into desktop 3D printing is Origo – a reliable and easy to use 3D printer concept.

The idea was thought up by two guys – Artur Tchoukanov and Joris Peels – who have spent many years working in the 3D printing industry.

They imagined what a desktop 3D printer could look like and after thinking, sketching and modelling they came up with a 3D printer that they say is the size of three Xbox 360s and aimed at children, specifically ten year olds. They also created the software to go along with it.

Called 3Dtin this online application eliminates the 3D modelling and design constraints of using CAD. So, essentially whatever a child can doodle up will be brought to life in front of their eyes in their living room.

Very cool if they can pull it off (in fact, it’s piqued my interest so look out for an article on Origo in DEVELOP3D soon. There are desktop 3D printers for the home that are already available to buy such as New York based company Makerbot Industries’ Thing-O-Matic machine. But it is a rather expensive and somewhat clunky bit of kit.

However, with a recent cash injection of $10 million dollars from venture capitalists Foundry Group, MakerBot is now working on improving the capabilities of this technology.

Walking around the V&A exhibition, I found another really cool application of 3D printing in the home – clothing. Although the outfits on display were rather bizarre to say the least, with 3D printing it means that you can have your outfit completely bespoke to your shape and it will emerge from the printer as a complete garment with no sewing or stitching needed.

As your children grow or your tastes change you can just print off new clothes. Ok, I might be getting carried away with myself but the potential is there. 3D printing has been around for 20 years, who nows what we’ll be using it for by the end of the next 20 years.

Although many remain sceptical and wonder whether there is indeed a need for it in the home, it reminds me of what the then president of IBM, Thomas John Watson, allegedly said in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

How wrong he was and how ubiquitous the home computer is now. Could it be the same for the home 3D printer?

3D printing from the comfort of your home is now a possibility
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