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Printed on a Maxit 3D Printer courtesy of A1 Technologies
Link cup print.jpg
YOU can print this ...
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... And you can buy these ‘Cell Cycle’ Cuff Bracelets by Nervous System; 3D Printed by Shapeways
After my previous post about challenging hype, which was followed by a week that saw a slew of new articles of the nature I challenged, it seems it is all going to get worse before it gets better. In all my years of writing about 3D printing, I have to admit that I’ve found that it is very difficult to write about the technologies, processes and applications without getting sucked in to considering future potential. And this, I think, is a contributing problem to the hype machine. When people grasp the concept of 3D printing, they become excited. Why wouldn’t they? And if they then hear about the R&D that is being undertaken around the world the potential for where 3D printing can go becomes mind-blowing. The problem is that this potential is often fused with reality now — both in marketing material and articles — which conveys the message that what will be possible with these technologies in the future is happening now. The reality is that it’s still early days (if only I had tenner for every time I’ve said that, I’d have the option to retire!) and while all of the R&D that is taking place now is vital to developing 3D printing potential for future generations, it is vital that both R&D and commentator speculation is clearly defined from what 3D printing is capable of now.
At PersonaliZe, we are working on some ideas to apply the brakes where we can, to give any interested parties the balance and the most current information they need — all in one place — to get excited about 3D printing without the disappointment of inflated expectations. In the meantime, my thoughts this week have culminated in a post that aims to provide some context for the makers and the consumers that are embracing, or want to embrace, 3D printing now.
A common topic of conversation around 3D printing is the offer of customisation — true personalisation. Rightly so, because for any user of the tech, but particularly makers and consumers, this is probably the single, most attractive advantage that 3D printing offers that persuades them to work around or look beyond the limitations of the process(es) and material choice.
The Maker Movement is already vast, and growing. It is populated by a group of creative individuals that are fighting the mass produced culture in their own way. Customisation is the key and 3D printing is an enabler that permits a true fusion of creativity with technology and ‘geekery’. That might seem a tad superficial in terms of the practicalities of using 3D printers and their aforementioned limitations, but it should not be underestimated. The limitations, for makers that want their own machine to work with, are that for a budget under £2000 the only real choice right now is a 3D printer utilising the FDM process (there are many variations) with relatively low resolution1 and parts can only be produced in plastic. This is in the process of changing as I write, with the B9Creator resin 3D printer having just drastically exceeded its funding target on kickstarter, which will be shipping to initial investors through the summer. And just this weekend past, another resin 3D printer — Sedgewick — has been highlighted by Fabbaloo on the same crowd funding site, although it doesn’t appear to be doing quite so well. The resin based 3D printers offer much higher resolution prints, but also bring the limitations of that process, namely more brittle parts that are subject to degradation in harsh environments. Lest one did not already know, there is always a trade-off!
My point here though, is that if/when you read that anyone can buy a 3D printer and get printing, that statement is not untrue, the accessibility in terms of pricing means that anyone with that sort of cash can buy one. But if/when you read that anyone can now 3D print anything their heart desires, which if not stated outright, is usually implied, then no, absolutely not and there is no real understanding of where the technology is at right now!
Even for those creative designers and makers that look to using a 3D printing service for a superior output from a commercial grade 3D printer, limitations are still imposed in terms of process selection and materials. That, even despite the possibilities with new materials that include ceramics, precious metals, bronze (as you can read about here) and, of course, chocolate. The limitations here come mainly from build parameters and part dimensions. As we stand today, even the most superior (& expensive) 3D printers, cannot print any size or shape. Even the most impressive 3D printed parts have to be designed and created with limits applied.
But what if you don’t have the time, inclination or skill set to be a maker? For the consumer right now, there are many real and exciting ways for them to embrace 3D printing — directly, indirectly and/or off-the-shelf.
As I mentioned above, customisation is the key to drawing the consumer into the world of 3D printing because of what it can offer in terms of added value. Some of the most forward-looking companies have set up a business model based on precisely this. Examples of this model include My Robot Nation (now part of the 3D Systems portfolio) and MakieLab profiled by PersonaliZe a couple of weeks back. These businesses offer their consumers direct input, via a software interface, that allows them to design their own product — within rigid parameters — that will then be 3D printed, resulting in a truly personal product. Digital Forming is another company that has grasped this potential, and has developed software that can be configured in precisely this way too, for a host of different applications.
There are also many, many consumers of 3D printing parts that may not even be aware of the fact that they are! These are what I call the indirect consumers — the people that have had customised dental crowns, teeth alignment apparatus, hearing aids and bespoke implants, all made directly by 3D printing. Whether they are aware or not, this truly does speak of the positive (and real) impact that 3D printing has had in terms of improving quality of life for the consumer. Sometimes it is dramatic, sometimes it just affords a degree of comfort that may not otherwise have been possible without 3D printing.
While customisation is one of the key advantages of 3D printing, so too is the ability to build complex forms that could not be physically created in other way. There are now multiple options for consumers to take advantage of the incredible designs available from designers that have fully grasped how 3D printing works and what it can do. Many of these designs have only come about because of this understanding with an impressive array of 3D printed products available ‘off-the-shelf’ to the consumer. Examples include many different forms of jewellery, iphone cases and other accessories, household items, and more recently, couture fashion (the bikini and the hats are my personal favourites). For any consumer that is looking for something exceptional, something different and something with an interesting back-story there is a wide variety of choice within the burgeoning design communities at Shapeways, imaterialise, Ponoko, Sculpteo and Freedom of Creation, to name but a few.
It just remains for me to repeat that there are so many real and exciting ways for anyone that wishes to, to engage with 3D printing technologies and the amazing things that it can do. Just, please, don’t buy into the mantra that it can do anything and everything. It’s good, but it’s not THAT good.
1. Relative to industrial grade FDM 3D Printers, with prices starting from £6000.