The folks at Proto Labs saw a comment piece I ran in our DEVELOP3D publication on why I felt that some realism was need amongst all the hyperbole and misinformation about the rise of the 3D printing revolution – and they liked it. They liked it so much in fact, that they asked me to write a short guest blog post on what the background was to the piece and why I felt inspired to write it. So here I am!
Before becoming a writer and editor, I spent years as a product designer, specialising in plastic part design and mould development. Part of that involved the development of new products and testing manufacturing form. And as with many designers, I came across the nascent world of rapid prototyping. Nifty stuff that. Send them an STL file, wait a few days (or in some cases, weeks), and back comes a prototype. Built in layers in various ways, it prints in 3D. Hence the name. Clever eh?
Look up the word prototype in a dictionary (or at least Google it). It means the first of something. Typically, the prototype is the first time a product was physically realised. As designers we’ve always created models, either by hand, with an X-acto blade and a block of foam, with a CNC machine or a stereolithography machine. Then came a change. No, wait. Three changes.
The first was that manufacturers decided to experiment with using the various rapid prototyping systems to try making end use stuff. We’re resourceful types, designers and engineers. And it worked and worked a treat, but it’s just another manufacturing process. Just like injection moulding, just like machining, just like wire EDM. The process, the material and the function and form of the part as well as unit requirements all intermingle to almost self-select the right process.
The second change was big and the catalyst was when the historically patent enforcement heavy brigade in the rapid prototyping industry started to lose one of their key assets - patents. With both SLA and FDM being over 30 years old, the patents expired.
Around the same time the third change happened. A small team in Bath in the UK started to develop the RepRap project. This was an open source redevelopment of the same core technology at the heart of the FDM machine – plastic filament, extruded in layers to build up a 3D form. Everything was done in the open, all documented and available to anyone. One might imagine the lawyers went ballistic.
That was 8 years ago. Today, we have a wealth of 3D printing machines, all dramatically lower cost, starting at a couple of hundred bucks and working upwards. MakerBot brought it to the masses with a mix of a slick and affordable machine, an attitude of “we’re the little guys and we rock” but many have jumped on the movement. Not a day goes by without a new 3D printer hitting KickStarter. Makers. It’s a new word apparently. Or something.
So am I cynical?
I have a 3D printer on my desk. It’s printing something now. And it’s glorious. As a tinkerer by nature, the ability to print something I’m working directly, wait a few hours for it to finish and it’s there is an incredible boost to the ideation process. And frankly, I like freaking my salty old naval engineer of a Dad out when he comes around to visit (the reality is, he’s there to steal my spanners, so any distraction is welcome).
But I’ve also got a training and background in design and manufacturing. I know that what this little machine is doing is building a simulacrum, a rough approximation. It’s not an exact replica of a production intent part. The ABS is sketchy, the layers… well, they delaminate on occasion.
I would never confuse this with being able to create production intent parts required at a volume. I would never even consider swapping this production method out with something that will give me a homogeneous part. If I can model something up, it’s done with the full knowledge of the limitations of the machine, the material and the build process. And quite often it works.
Unfortunately, we’re now seeing that first wave of over hype of 3D printing as the unaware confuse what these machines can do with dramatically more costly machines that build in metals using powdered aluminium and titanium. Why? Because they don’t get the basics.
They’re predicting that there’s a shift coming in manufacturing, that there’s an industrial revolution coming. There might be. I’m no fortune teller. But I can’t see it. This is another tool, to do a specific job, where suitable. Just like machining, just like injection moulding, just like forging. Given the right requirements in terms of functionality, of material performance, unit volume and customisation requirements, yes, we could see mass market products be 3D printed – but we sure as hell aren’t going to be doing it in the home.
But that’s said with one caveat. In 10 years’ time, if I’m proved wrong, I’ll be a happy bunny. I’ll have my raw atomic level material fed into the house and I’ll be printing my tea and biscuits. I just hope it speeds up. I’m not waiting 6 hours to watch a chocolate digestive materialise before my eyes. That would just be painful. And the tea would be cold.
Al Dean, Editor in Chief, DEVELOP3D Magazine