Material World: What’s next for 3D printing?
There’s a collection of plastic skulls in the Alphr office – they’ve become the go-to shape for testing 3D printers, and that highlights one of the main issues with the machines: unless you plan to stage a unique twist on Hamlet, there aren’t many genuinely useful things you can print with cheap plastic.
That could be set to change. At CES in January 2015, 3D printer giant MakerBot revealed it was working on new composite filaments – the materials its printers splurt out to build users’ designs. In addition to brightly coloured plastics, by the end of this year MakerBot’s line-up of materials will include simulated limestone, maple wood, bronze and iron. Not only do these look better, they mimic the properties of those materials too; the metals, for example, can be polished to a shine for making jewellery, while the wood composites can be sanded down.
MakerBot isn’t the only company to offer new materials. Dutch firm colorFabb has wood and bronze composites similar to those MakerBot is working on, and Shapeways offers printing materials such as steel and wax. Plus, there are Kickstarter projects such as Polymakr, which is working on soft and flexible materials. Other initiatives include the MarkForged printer, which can use carbon fibre, fibreglass and even Kevlar.
Alex Chausovsky, an analyst at IHS Technology, weighed up whether new materials will be a game-changer for 3D printers. “I saw a very cool presentation at the Innovations in 3D Printing conference in California, where an architect was talking about using some really interesting materials that I hadn’t heard of – such as salt, sand, various ceramics – to open up the portfolio for in-home decorative blinds and room dividers, all the way to full houses and structures,” he said.
“Is it a huge deal that MakerBot is introducing these new composite materials? Probably not,” he told us. “But it’s supporting this idea that the more materials that 3D printing can utilise, the more potential applications will open up, and that’s really the key with additive manufacturing.”
The materials do add an extra layer of complication, however. MakerBot has had to develop a new “smart” extruder – the piece of hardware that sprays the composite to build your design – that will need swapping out for each material used.
Image above: Makerbot’s Smart Extruder
These complications won’t help make 3D printers more popular, and Chausovsky thinks they’re already too fiddly for mainstream users. “There are certainly those who are makers at heart, people who are going to use this technology to come up with creative MacGyver-like solutions for their home – to fix their broken knobs or handles for example,” he said. “For the rest of us, 3D printing is still relatively complicated.”
3D printers will become easier to use, Chausovsky predicted, but in the near future he expects the focus will be on making them print faster – they remain slow compared to traditional methods of manufacturing – and on extending their capabilities with materials. The handful of new composite materials from MakerBot and other manufacturers are only the start, Chausovsky said: the few hundred different materials that can be used with additive manufacturing are a limited selection compared to the hundreds of thousands that can be used in traditional manufacturing.
“We need to continue to increase the availability of materials, while at the same time driving down the cost of those materials; right now, many printers are using this ‘razor-and-blade’ model, where they’re charging a 10x multiplier on what it costs them to actually produce the material,” he said. “We need to move towards a model that’s more open-source, using lower-cost materials.”
More, and cheaper, materials isn’t the only change Chausovsky would like to see. Since most current printers can build with only a single material at one time, Chausovsky predicted that combining materials will be the next big leap forward. “The ability to print in multiple material categories – plastics, wiring, metals, ceramics, composites – in one go is what I’d like to see,” he said.
While we’re unlikely to see this happen industry-wide in the next couple of years, there are companies out there that have made a start. “There’s a neat machine I saw called the Voxel8, which is able to print plastic and silver conductive ink in one print job,” he said. “This company did a drone print where it printed the wiring for the drone and the plastics all at once.” And once that’s possible, the sky’s the limit – literally. Chausovsky points to Star Trek’s replicator as the future of 3D printing: push one button to get what you need, with plastics, metals and integrated electronics all in one.
“It will be at the point when I say I want a cup of coffee or I want an apple, and the printer is able to deliver, that these devices will permeate into every house,” he said. “Until that happens, I think it’s a technology that will be limited to those tinkerer, creative types – and the rest of us are either going to farm out the work to a 3D printing bureau or just continue to buy goods and services in the regular way.”
The hardware: Printing electronics
Forget plastic models, faux-wood chess pieces or almost-ceramic vases – if you want to print your own electronics, these companies’ 3D printers will let you do just that.
Voxel8 makes 3D printers that can create objects from plastic and silver ink. For example, the developers like to show off a 3D-printed drone, with only the motor added after the shell is built. The idea is a result of years of research by Jennifer Lewis and colleagues at Harvard. The Voxel8 printers will start shipping at the end of 2015 and cost $8,499 (around £5,746).
This machine won’t print a fully working electronics device, but it will print the circuitry. Funded on Kickstarter, the Argentum lets you print silver particles onto paper, plastic, glass or other surfaces to build a circuit board. The developer, Cartesian Co, says the system will make it easier to test ideas, but will also let you make wearable electronics by printing onto fabric.
This is another Kickstarter project, albeit one that didn’t hit its funding target. The company has instead found a partner manufacturer and is now taking orders via functionalize.com/shop. Rather than a new printer, these folks are making a filament – the material you print with – that’s conductive and works with many existing consumer 3D printers.