3D printers: five things I’ve learnt

This week, I’ve been playing with a 3D printer. The Afinia H-Series – also known as the Up! Plus – arrived on Monday, and I’ve been fiddling with it more or less non-stop since then. There will be a full dissection of the technology in a future issue of PC Pro, but here are some of my initial impressions from my first few days of tinkering.

1. Everybody wants to know about 3D printing

From the moment I unpacked the printer and placed it on my desk, I’ve had a steady stream of visitors stopping by to gawk at it – not only from PC Pro, but from all around Dennis Publishing. I honestly don’t remember the last time a device attracted this much attention; it might have been the iPhone back in 2007.

To be honest, I’ve been surprised by this. I had assumed 3D printing was currently on only the geekiest of radars. But based on this (admittedly rarefied) sample, it appears there’s a much more general curiosity and even a sense of excitement attached to 3D printing. That alone suggests the technology may have a big future ahead of it.

2. Today’s 3D printers aren’t consumer devices

It’s quickly become apparent, however, that the device on my desk isn’t something that’s ready for the average home. Setting it up involved screwdrivers, slow downloads, badly translated manuals and – as my desk-neighbours will confirm – a lot of very loud beeping. I also had to calibrate the unit, which means trying to manually set the height of the extrusion nozzle to an accuracy of a tenth of a millimetre, and to set the printing platform level to a similar degree of precision. This is stuff engineers do, not consumers.

Even once you’re up and running, the 3D printer feels more like an industrial machine than a domestic device. In use, the print platform and extrusion head are heated to around 100°C and 260°C respectively, so warning stickers and heatproof gloves are the order of the day. I wouldn’t feel terribly happy operating one of these devices in a building containing pets or kids.

As a bonus, when the nozzle became blocked, the only way I could find to clear it was by burning out the solidified plastic – a process which, I later learnt, exposed me to a bracing dose of carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. I think it’s fair to say that, before 3D printers are ready for prime time, they’ll want better thermal protection – and, hopefully, a less toxic way of dealing with blockages.

3. Designing 3D models is a professional job

I had airily assumed that owning a 3D printer would allow me to produce any sort of item I could imagine. Somehow I forgot that realising ideas as 3D models is a decidedly esoteric skill. I’m not saying an amateur can’t create decent models, with a certain investment of time and experimentation; but to put things in context, this branch of design is commonly taught at university diploma level. If you’re not already a qualified CAD artist,  you’re probably going to spend most of your time printing out other people’s designs.

This isn’t a disaster, as repositories such as the Thingiverse or 3Dvia offer literally tens of thousands of models, which you can freely download and reproduce. Unfortunately, it seems the vast majority of these are produced by hobbyists, and it’s fair to say that the average level of usefulness and quality isn’t terrifically high. To be sure, there are some practical designs on offer: we were quite excited to find we could print out a replacement for our office camera’s lost lens cap. However, such handy models are greatly outnumbered by solid plastic gnomes and perfunctory stands for phones and tablets – disappointingly trivial applications for a device costing £1,000 or more.

4. 3D printing is slow

The idea of building up physical objects by stacking progressive layers of molten plastic immediately captures the imagination. Unless you have a dully practical mind, however, you’ve probably never stopped to think about how long this process actually takes. I can tell you now that it isn’t fast. Laying down a pseudo-solid layer of plastic involves much time-consuming cross-hatching; and since the Afinia printer works to a vertical resolution of 0.15mm, a feature that stands 1cm tall represents 67 individual layers.

This takes some time to accrete. Our lens cap – which, the Afinia software helpfully tells me, has a plastic volume of just over 9cm³ – took around an hour to print. The time-lapse video at the top of this post shows you just what was involved.

Printing a simple shell for an iPhone 4 took nearly twice as long. Even printing something as small and simple as a Lego-style brick took 25 minutes. For sure, this is faster than tooling up a production line, or sending your designs away to a specialist prototyping agency – but unless you’re working with tiny models, it’s slow enough to put the kibosh on playful experimentation.

5. 3D printed objects can be of iffy quality

Pawn-131x175When you think of plastic objects, you likely picture smooth and shiny surfaces. Well, if that’s what you want from your own designs, I’m afraid you’ll have to invest in an industrial injection-moulding machine. The plastic items I’ve produced with the Afinia printer have a definite “grain” to them, reflecting the way they’ve been built up from layers of plastic. There’s also a visible roughness to curved features, arising from the printer’s limited resolution.

On top of this, in order to prevent models from sliding around while they’re being printed, the printing platform is dotted with small perforations. As a result, the bottom faces of printed objects come out covered in nodules. If you prefer, you can print out a plastic “raft” for your model to rest on during the printing process – but this must then be manually trimmed away with a knife or a pair of snips, leaving marks and rough edges.

It’s also worth noting that the Afinia software automatically adds support material beneath any overhanging parts of your model, to ensure it doesn’t collapse during printing. This, too, must be trimmed away – leaving your model with yet more scars and promontories.

It’s clear that my immediate experiences with 3D printing have been almost uniformly disappointing. Yet I’m upbeat about the future – because it seems that none of these problems ought to be insurmountable. We have the technology today to allow 3D printers to calibrate themselves, and to work with greater degrees of speed and precision: all we need is for the required optical sensors and motors to fall in price to viable levels. In time the library of 3D models available to download can only grow, and I even dare to imagine that software developers will find ways to bring creating and editing models within reach of the man in the street.

In short, what I’ve seen this week has made it glaringly apparent to me that 3D printing won’t be taking over the world in 2013, or in 2014 for that matter. But I’ve also seen so much potential that, in the long run, I wouldn’t like to bet against a 3D printer ending up in every home.

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