3D printing: the myths and the reality

If you believe the hype, 3D printing is set to revolutionise our relationship with consumer goods. Whatever physical items we need for our daily lives, we’ll soon be able to produce them cheaply and easily in our own homes. Traditional manufacturing industries will be turned upside down, and a whole new front in the piracy war will open up as it becomes possible to duplicate not only digital media, but also material goods.

Such predictions are certainly thought-provoking, but they’re a long way from reality. We’ve spent a month test-driving a domestic 3D printer – that is, one designed for personal use, rather than one of the heavyweight industrial devices used for prototyping commercial designs. And while the technology clearly has huge potential, we’ve found the industry is very much in its infancy. 3D printing has plenty of hurdles to leap before it can take over the world.

Competing systems

For anyone interested in purchasing a 3D printer, the first challenge is choosing which of the competing systems to invest in. Options include the MakerBot Replicator, the RepRap project, printrbot and the Ultimaker. For our purposes, we’ve chosen the Afinia H-Series (marketed in some countries as the Up! Plus). Although it isn’t the most advanced model available, it’s fairly compact and relatively affordable – you can buy one in the UK for around £1,200 exc VAT.

Despite the proliferation of different printer types, things aren’t as fragmented as you might fear. All these domestic models work in the same way, by piping layers of molten plastic onto a base to build up a three-dimensional object. Most 3D printers use the same raw materials, filaments of either polylactide (PLA) or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), as these “thermoplastics” soften and re-solidify cleanly.

There’s also a standard file format for defining printable 3D shapes – STL, short for stereolithography – which can be read and printed by all these printers. No matter which model you choose, you can draw on the same libraries of pre-designed 3D items and print them using the same materials.

The options aren’t identical, however. Different printer types can produce models of different sizes at different speeds and to differing levels of precision. Each platform comes with its own printing software, too, the quality and ease of use of which varies from printer to printer. And if you run into difficulties and go looking for help online, the spread of different approaches only confuses matters.

The practicalities of printing

Once you’ve selected and taken delivery of your 3D printer, there are a few technical hoops to jump through before you can start printing. For one, installing the Afinia drivers on our 64-bit Windows 8 system was hardly a smooth process: we ended up having to reboot with digital signature enforcement disabled and then manually direct Windows to the correct driver files.

Our printer also required assembly and calibration. This involved screwing various components into place, feeding one end of a long spool of ABS into the drive mechanism, fixing the print platform to the lower plate with four bulldog clips, and attempting – somehow – to ensure the platform was set perfectly level at an even distance of 0.2mm from the nozzle at all points.

It’s easy to imagine that, in a few generations’ time, 3D printers will install automatically and calibrate themselves without fuss. For now, however, setting up the hardware feels like a job for an engineer rather than the average consumer.

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