3D Printing – A Brave New World

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1983 saw the introduction of many technologies, such as compact disks and camcorders, that have in this day and age either become inferior or have advanced far beyond recognition of their original capabilities. CDs have mostly been replaced with larger capacity disk formats – we were first introduced to DVDs in 1995, then in 2006 the HD DVD and Blu-Ray formats. Nowadays Camcorders are almost indistinguishable when compared with their predecessors. Having either advanced in the quality of hardware, or shrunk down in size. For sure, the “Camcorder” on my Smartphone is ten times better than any offering in the video recorder market of 1983 (when it chooses to work).

It was in 1983, that Charles W. Hull was granted the US patent for “an Apparatus for Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by Stereolithography”, or what we now know as 3D printing. In its most basic definition, 3D printing enables the production of almost anything that can be designed on a computer 3D modeling software program. From simple, small objects like an individual replacement screw for the assembly of a table, to more complex designs with many components. This revolutionary technology is now truly coming into its own with the aid of open source software and increasing reductions in initial adoption costs.

So how does it work?

In order to function, two components are absolutely essential; the 3D printing unit itself (pictured right) and a computer with computer aided design (CAD) software installed. After the object that you want printed has been designed on the software, the file is then sent to the printer as an STL (Stereolithography) file. The printer then reads the file and places successive layers of paper, sheet material, liquid or powder to form various layers. These layers are fused, joined and cut in order to form the end product. Other methods include using a laser to solidify liquid polymer and thus create layer upon layer of detailed material. 

Liquid Polymer 300x266 3D Printing    A Brave New World

3D Printing using successive layers of liquid polymer

With the price of 3D printers going down year upon year, there has never been a better time to adopt and take advantage of this technology. After the initial high start-up costs have been met businesses would benefit from a modest reduction in development, prototyping and production costs.

Thanks to this modern form of production, the time taken from having an idea to a prototype or end product in your hand is considerably less than having to go to a separate manufacturer. If used on a regular basis, the cost of the printer itself would soon be recouped with the savings that come with on-premises production.
What’s more, 3D printers enable people to create highly personalised end products. Nokia has experimented with user based customisation in their latest range of Windows 8 Lumia phones. They provided users with the online 3D blueprints to their phone cases and asked consumers to tap into their imagination and come up with extra accessories or touches of personal flair. (pictured below)

Clearly 3D printing isn’t without its drawbacks. The modern, commercial versions of this technology are still (relatively) young. Even with the many, many recent reductions in price the kit is still expensive – you can expect a Stratasys Mojo personal printer to set you back £7,300 (around $11,000) and that’s without any of the production materials.

Still, the more people that adopt this technology the cheaper it will get. Also, due to the open source nature of the CAD software, free designs will continue to evolve and increase in quality. For the large scale manufacturer this technology is most likely a waste of time, but for the independent designers out there – for the small businesses selling low quantity, high quality extremely personalised products, there is a huge opportunity; an opportunity to invest in the future and truly modernise the small to medium scale production line.

Nokia phone case 3D Printing    A Brave New World

James McClaren

James McClaren is studying Arabic & Spanish at the University of Manchester and loves learning, writing and keeping up to date with upcoming technology and gadgets.