3D printing seems to big news at the moment. 'One day...' they say, 'we'll all be downloading our shoes from the internet.' The idea of little domestic robots manufacturing stuff for us is certainly intriguing, so yesterday I made a trip to the London 3D Print Show to find out more...
Makerbot were promoting the UK launch of the Makerbot Replicator 2, and had four of the machines in action. This device (like most of the entry level 3D printers) uses extruded molten plastic to 'draw' the image layer by layer. The Makerbot 2 uses PLA plastic which has a lower melting temperature than other plastics, PLA is sourced from corn and is claimed to be biodegradable too.
The UK price of the Makerbot 2 will be £1800. Makerbot seem to be the most-established of the pro-sumer level 3D printer firms, and this could be the release which begins to capture wider public awareness of 3D printing.
Around the halls, there were many other 3D printers on show of course, and there are many smaller operators in this field hawking their contaptions too. It'll be interesting to see if the larger printer manufacturers (HP, Epson, Canon etc.) ever decide to bring this technology to the mass market, or if it remains something of a niche technology served by smaller specialist suppliers.
Many exhibitors had 3D printed samples on display and in some cases it was great to be able to pick up and handle the objects.
Most of the exhibitors were showing plastic objects, but certain machines offer the possibility of working with resin materials with ceramic or metallic finishes too. 3D printed models can also be used as moulds, so even bronze sculptures can ultimately be cast from your 3D data.
For those looking to get something printed but not ready to buy into the hardware, there are many online service facilities available, and these were represented at the show too. Companies such as Sculpteo will take your 3D .stl files, print them on their machines and send you back your model through the post. You can even create your 3D model using simplified online software like Tinkercad and Sketchup.
As well as 3D printing, some vendors were showing 3D scanning technology; the ability to scan people or objects and instantly create detailed CGI models from the captured data. Europac 3D had a scanning tent which included four DSLR cameras for capturing human subjects from every angle simultaneously.
Combining the 3D scanner and 3D printing technologies obviously leads us to the 3D copier; a device for replicating things...
3D printing is already proven as an invaluable prototyping tool for product developers, architects and model-makers, but will this ever become a consumer-level technology?
I got the impression that this is an industry on the cusp; offering interesting creative possibilities to design professionals, whilst not quite ready for mainstream use just yet.
Like personal jet-packs and moon holidays we could be waiting a while longer for the promise of 'home manufacturing' to fully materialize... But I can't help thinking there is potentially something in this for some of my projects.