How hard is 3D printing?
Modelling technology takes shape
If you want to make your own gun or harboured a desire to make a boat perhaps the device you need is a 3D Printer. In principle it sounds easy: just download a 3D model from the net, throw it at the printer, and whatever you desire comes out the other end.
MakerBot's The Replicator
The truth is, it’s not quite that straightforward. We used a Makerbot Replicator to build a physical manifestation of the El Reg vulture. The first challenge was to find an existing model of a vulture, online. All the decent-looking ones and quite a lot of the rubbish ones were expensive.
The Pirate Bay has a section called Physibles but there isn’t much there other than bits of guns and a model of Mark Zuckerberg’s head. Even the much richer model stream of Thingiverse only yielded an eagle.
El Reg vulture in Sketchup
This meant that the only viable option was to build something from modelled on The Register logo. I imported The Register masthead bitmap into SketchUp – the free 3D modelling application Google recently sold to Trimble – and traced around the outline of the vulture head with the line and arc tools. This gave me a modelled, albeit, flat head.
Next, using the push tool I lofted it into a 3D shape, choosing a round eye rather than an accurate Reg Vulture eye because of something I had planned for later where a complicated intrusive shape wouldn’t have worked. So with a simple 3D shape modelled it was time to meet the Maker. The Replicator uses the STL file format (alternatively standing for STereoLithography or Standard Tessellation Language depending on who you ask). Fortunately, there is a plug-in for Sketchup which generates .STL files.
Greplicator software showing model
The file can then be read into the Makerbot software called ReplicatorG which produces the GCode script the model is built from. ReplicatorG helps make the model suitable for printing by positioning the shape on the platform and scaling it to fit, all the way up to the maximum size the Replicator can handle.
Next page: Crash and burn?
Re: Christmas crackers and cornflake packets
Metal support is already here.
I was at one of the trade shows a while ago, there is at least one company doing additive manufacturing with metals. The machine uses a different process, fusing a bed of powder with a high-power laser (no sign of any sharks in the model I saw, sadly). This allows for some fascinating light-weight metal structures to be made.
I think the company I spoke to are only leasing machines currently, and they are at the eye-watering, if-Sir-needs-to-ask end of the cost range, but they do exist.
Even home 2d printing isn't all that great
3d printing used to be known mainly as "rapid prototyping", it's now being used ever more for "rapid manufacturing" and this makes a lot of sense for low volume products.
Various parts of the media, from geek websites to the FT, have been putting forward the notion that 3d printing will revolutionise manufacturing by putting a 3d printer in everyone's home and allowing for decentralised manufacturing. I don't see how this is even remotely plausible.
I always think of home inkject/ laser printers when the notion is put forward. Would anyone seriously consider printing and binding a book at home to be preferable to ordering it online and having it delivered the next day. Consider the cost, time, reliability and hassle. Even for a custom book you would still be better off going with something like blurb.co.uk (think about the difference in quality, TCO and cost of you own time). And this is with technology which is fundamentally a lot simpler to 3d printing and has had decades to mature and become dirt cheap.
I can imagine industrial scale 3d printers, which would be the equivalent of the printing machinery used by the likes of blurb, being used more widely for spare parts and such but the notion of it being done at home seems fanciful to me.
An obvious example of something useful would be the spare parts that white goods manufacturers charge for... A door latch component on our tumble-drier failed, it has warped in the heat (poor material choice). The Whirlpool website was very slick, and smoothly offered to take £18 off us a replacement latch, a part that really could have cost no more than 20p to make.
Were 3D printers more common place, this business model (be competitively priced at retail, charge plenty for spares) could be dented.
I gave a shout to Ben Heck the other day, (in relation to an article about Valve exploring new games controllers) and I will do so again: he routinely uses 3D printers and CNC machine for a variety of projects that I am sure Reg readers will approve of (such as a C64 style case for a Raspberry Pi), and produces videos about his exploits. You can do worse than Google his name and check out his website.