3D printers are here to stay, no doubt about that. We hear news regarding this technology almost everywhere; they tell us they make planes with them, and prosthesis and jewellery and almost any kind of product, we can buy them cheap at any commercial centre, we hear they’ll the next big thing this Christmas…
This is a recent boom… or not? For how long have 3D printers been around? Why are we hearing now so much about the subject?
Just recently, we heard that in the future 99% of the production will be via 3D printing. That sounded like some weird data and, without forgetting that this can of predictions sometimes are worth less than a football bet, we decided to ask: will it be like this?
There are many questions around this technology and we found answers… to almost all of them.
When were 3D printers created?
First 3D printer appeared in 1984, so it has rained a lot since then. Actually, it was called stereolithography at the time; today we use the term additive manufacturing.
You can find the History and all its details in any article. But there’s something not mentioned very often when talking about this subject, and this something can explain this boom happening now:
From 2013 onwards, the most important patents affecting this technology expired.
- First one, in 2013, limited the use of FDM or fused deposition modelling (that’s the basic of the technology).
- At the end of 2014, a patent titled Simultaneous multiple layer curing in stereolithography got free.
- In 2015, the one called Method and apparatus for prototyping a three-dimensional object.
- In 2016 it was the turn for Method and apparatus for production of three-dimensional objects by stereolithography.
That had another effect. Suddenly, somebody liked 3D printed, and very fast that “somebody” turned into a massive worldwide community that worked, sometimes underground, sharing information related with this technology. The used open source codes most of the time, and the knowledge developed and spread really fast.
It’s easy to build a 3D printer: just take a look at those DIY kits under 300 euros. The software, on the other hand, requires a wider knowledge, and that’s where this community has been more influential, allowing that open source to reach almost any corner of our society.
Can we build anything using 3D printing?
The answer is no… now. Yet. For the time being. It seems like some materials will never accept 3D printing, like wood… but there’s already a printer that states can work with wood!
Maybe unexpectedly, houses are being built with this technology (even using cement). And airplanes: General Electric provides printed spare parts for its engines, same quality a “classic” ones. Titanium is very frequent material in 3D printing. Jewellery accepts this as well, even with gold and silver. Firestone is doing its first steps as well; maybe sometime soon, when buying some tires for our cars, we’ll be able to choose the shape and drawing of them…
Multimaterials are widespread in 3D printers as well. You can also make flexible prosthesis for hands, and even create surfaces with similar touch as human skin. Biocompatible materials are not complicated either (those ones our body will not reject when introduced).
What will happen when you want to manufacture a 20-metre-long metallic structure? Today, the answer is clear: you cannot do that via 3D printing. It doesn’t make sense from a quality, production or cost point of view. We still believe that each technology has its space and its area of application where it will be better than others. But if we take a look at how fast this 3D printing technology is developing… we won’t say anything about the future, just in case.
Will we reach that 99% mentioned on the news? Our answer: we don’t know. But we’ll be watching. Close.
Are 3D printers eco-friendly?
Yes… and not. The have positive and negative things, just like any other technology. Here you have some of them; obviously, we’re only comparing materials that accept additive and another manufacturing process, no point in doing a comparison otherwise.
- Minimal material waste (only in support structures)
- Biodegradable materials accept the technology
- Allows service optimization, especially when it comes to delivery and packaging.
- Reduction of problems associated with spare parts (makes products life longer)
- High energetic consumption in big production lines.
- High percentages of wrong pieces (even with high standard printers)
- Variations on raw materials, not always uniform
- Many break downs in machines (sometimes small and simple, but break downs)
Should I buy one?
Not an easy answer. Let’s start from the basic answer: do you really need it? It won’t be another gadget stored in the deeps of a wardrobe, won’t it?
A clearer answer. Let’s assume that an average, non-industrial user will be interested in printing plastics, not titanium nor anything like that.
- You can achieve a good quality with most of the machines (even with some cheap ones), as long as they are properly calibrated. You can obtain very “pretty” parts. And in colour! 🙂
- If your budget is around 200 to 500 euros, you better have some ability in your hands: most likely, you’ll need to build them up yourself and maybe carry some small reparations frequently. You don’t need any special knowledge to assembly them anyway, and neither in the repairs, but you will need some ability.
- If your budget goes to 1000 euros, you can obtain products with a really smooth finishing, but you won’t be free of minor repairs on the machines every now and then (not every day, though!)
- Careful with the material the printer uses, especially with the price: it can start at 20 euros per kilogram (quite common these days for materials like PLA) to 300 euro/kg. Careful also with the application: if you’re building a component that will stand the weather, do not choose any biodegradable one!
- It is recommended to be able to use (and to have) a 3D design software in order to achieve full power from your machine.
- It feels like a toy and it can be addictive… as long as you have some (very) basic notions as to where to start from. You don’t need much, but you still need it.
Ready to give it a try?[We develop this knowledge in our degrees, in subjects such as Environmental optimization of processes: plastics and composites, or Efficient use and recycling of materials]
PS For those of you TV-series lovers: did you guess what’s the technology shown during the intro of Westworld? 😉