Printing in 3D

Printing solid objects at home or in the workplace is not science fiction – the technology is here and it is set to change our lives

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the process of taking a digital model of an object and creating a solid, three-dimensional replica of it.

With the right type of modelling software and a 3D printer, a solid object of virtually any shape, and in various colours, can be created out of layers of paper, plastic or metal to form a series of cross sections. A 3D printer extrudes these layers as the material comes through its nozzle, eventually building them into the chosen shape.

Accessible technology 

The technology is industrial in origin, and has been commonplace in sectors like manufacturing, machining, automotive construction, medicine and architecture for many years. However, recently the basics of the technology have started to commodify to the point where 3D printing now falls within the budget remit of many smaller businesses.

Even better news is that the technology has not simply become cheaper; it has also improved. At one point its main application was to create rough prototypes, not finished goods ready for sale or use. Many people have an image of contemporary 3D printed objects being similarly basic and fragile – an inferior version of a professionally constructed original. However, this is to underestimate what is possible these days.

Designs on space

The European Space Agency has just announced plans to take 3D printing into a new age by reproducing parts for jets and spacecraft. The expectation is that components created this way will be lighter, stronger and cheaper to make than conventional ones, and able to withstand exceptionally high temperatures and pressures.

"It might all sound incredible and many people probably assume that huge expertise is needed to use complex computer-aided design software. In fact, the opposite is true."

The agency also points out that 3D printing is far more ecological than traditional manufacture since it cuts waste as much as it saves money. Most manufacturing is subtractive, meaning material is removed from a larger object to create something – like a sculptor chipping away at a block of stone. Additive manufacturing builds something up using no more of the basic material than is needed, and is therefore far less wasteful. So what can be made with today’s entry-level 3D printing technology and what is just around the corner?

The range of technology is mind boggling, stretching from plastic toys to – before long – human organs using a person’s own cells. 3D printing is game changing in as much as it takes us beyond the era of mass production into a new paradigm of customisable, one-off production. If a part is required for a car or a washing machine, it no longer needs to be ordered from a vast factory where it is injection-moulded on a mammoth scale. Instead, it can be 3D printed in the workplace or at home. Making everyday objects is about to become as easy as ordering a custom T-shirt or a personalised coffee mug.

Endless opportunities

Makers of jewellery and other art will have a whole new medium to work in, while architects and construction professionals can build 3D models quickly and inexpensively – no more handcrafted models made of cardboard – and in the future, whole buildings could be made using a printer. Archaeologists and antique dealers can scan priceless and delicate objects then print copies of them so they can be handled safely and distributed easily to institutions around the world.

It might all sound incredible and many people probably assume that huge expertise is needed to use complex computer-aided design software. In fact, the opposite is true: today’s 3D printers work with simple software, much of it downloadable for free and easy to learn, such as Google SketchUp.

Cost effective solutions

If you don’t need to be an engineer to use a 3D printer, you certainly don’t have to be a millionaire to buy one. 3D printers are now available in customer retail stores like Currys and Maplin, and on Amazon. Most of these come in at under £2,000 – some much less – and have the relevant software tools you need to get started. If you don’t want to invest in a printer of your own, you can look forward to the near future when every high street will have a bureau where printing 3D models will be as simple and cheap as getting a photo printed today.

The possibilities for 3D printing cannot be underestimated as costs come down, capabilities become more refined and printing gets faster. The small business will be enabled by this technology to do what has been unimaginable to date. It puts the power to create within everyone’s reach.

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK