The 3D printing phenomenon

3D printing is the hot new thing. I have not used one myself but a colleague of mine says that the cost of such things is dropping rapidly (you can now get one for less than $1000) and he has several in his lab because the cost of repairing the older, more expensive ones is now often greater than the cost of buying a newer and better one. He says that they come in extremely useful for creating customized items for his research.

This video explains how 3D printing works, what it can do, what issues are involved, and where it is going.


  1. slc1 says

    My laser printer, an HP MP4, cost $1400 18 years ago. It’s a 4 page/minute 600/600 dpi black and white printer. Today, one can buy a color HP printer for about 1/4 the cost. A 3D printer for 1000. Mind boggling.

  2. curcuminoid says

    I was talking with an expert about how 3D printers can make advanced shapes with an expert, and I brought up the Devil’s Work Ball (essentially a solid piece of ivory carved into spheres-within-spheres from the outside in; it gets its name from how insanely difficult they are to make). To paraphrase what he said “You could spend thousands of hours making that by hand–or you could do it in an afternoon with a 3D printer. Welcome to the future.”

  3. Michael Busch says

    The 3D printing company I’ve been ordering from does a lot of work in custom jewelry. In addition to the bonded nylon plastic I get prints of asteroid shapes made from, they have printers that work in steel and in silver and have an option on gold plating.

    These are significantly more expensive to buy than some of the other designs, so unless you’re interested in mass production it is still easier to do print-to-order. Prices are per cubic centimeter.

    Have fun.

  4. Seeing/analyzing says

    I saw a 3-D printer in action at a science convention in Washington DC last spring. It is indeed a brave new world; I started my work life printing to those dot-matrix printers that were as big as as those electronic organs people used to have in their homes.

  5. cweigold says

    As a product design engineer who designs consumer household goods (think vacuum cleaners, soap bottles, kitchen utensils), I constantly use 3D printing to assure that my designs feel right in the user’s hand and work right from an assembly or usage perspective.

    I’ve had projects on which I would print my design overnight, look at it and discuss it with the project team the next morning, modify the design during the day and then send the next iteration to print overnight again. It really helps to speed up successive iterations and reduce overall time spent in the design phase.

    Depending on the method, some 3D printed parts can be used in the real world as very good replacements/substitutions for things made via traditional manufacturing methods. However, because they are built on layers they are often weaker or have structural limitations. This is definitely true for anything that cycles. Actually, one of the prototyping machines at work has a component that breaks every so often. Once we got tired of paying for a replacement from the factory, we scanned a new part, printed a copy and were able to replace it the next time it broke. I like the idea of a machine building its own replacement components.

  6. Mano Singham says

    One question I have is what the limits are of this technology. For example, how do 3D printers deal with devices that have parts that move with respect to each other, like say pliers? Do you have to make each rigid part separately and then assemble the device? Of is there a clever work around?

  7. The Lorax says

    Fantastic. I really hope this trend continues, and gets down to the level of the average consumer. I’m not very clever with my hands, but I can make AutoCAD sing like a canary. If I could just hook that puppy up to a 3D printer, I’d be set…

  8. cweigold says

    That depends on the technique used.

    Some background. Most of the video showed plastic being deposited from a thing like a print head. The parts are built on a platform which moves down, while the head (fixed in a plane) prints each layer. Whenever the next highest layer has a larger footprint than the layer below it, scaffolding (that can later be broken away) is needed to support the structure and keep it from collapsing.

    However, the video briefly showed a crescent wrench which had been 3D printed. That part was likely made as an assembly by Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), in which, because a laser is sintering material in a vat of fairly compact powder, does not require any sort of support scaffolding as the powder itself is sufficient. The powder can be blown away after the part is done building and voila! you have a functional assembly. You can make similar assemblies with Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), which is printed like I described above (regular printer-esque), but uses a different material for the scaffolding which can be dissolved away chemically.

    So the answer is yes you can build entire assemblies. But there’s a catch. Recall that these things are being built in layers, so a problem arises whenever you have two surfaces sliding across one another. If they are built at an angle relative to the plane of the print head/laser, or in the case of the crescent wrench, are helical, the surfaces will not be smooth and may have too much friction to be functional. There are also issues of tolerance in the machine and file translation, so it is possible that two parts meant to be independent will in fact be fused together at some points or along a surface where they were not meant to be.

    For those reasons, and because we are also interested in how a product will ultimately be manufactured and assembled, we almost always build parts separately and then assemble them.

  9. Thorne says

    I used to work with AutoCAD, too. Self taught. Figured out how to do 3D design, then used it to design fixtures for our shop. Many of those fixtures could easily have been done using 3D printing, a lot faster and more accurately than by machining steel blocks. The only question would have been strength, but for most of those fixtures that probably would not have been an issue.

  10. Jared A says

    3D printing is jaw-droppingly cool. It ignites it me a deep sense of ambivalence, though, because of oil and land fills.

  11. Skip White says

    I just hope that in my lifetime, I’ll be able to walk up to a machine and say “tea, Earl Grey, hot,” and not get funny looks from people around me.

  12. sithrazer says

    Had a long rant about a company that made DIY kit 3D printers a few years back (but has since crapped on the consumer-level market it started in), but instead I deleted it and found something positive to share. Long story short, you could get one for under $800 5 years ago if you were willing to do a little bit of assembly yourself (and I mean comparable to a piece of Ikea furniture).

    Fortunately, there are people and companies that have picked up the slack. One quick google search turned up this one at the $500 mark: portabee

    I imagine it’s got a lower ‘resolution’ than high-end commercial 3D printers and is limited in the materials with which it can print.

  13. kyoseki says

    You should probably make sure it’s a replicator, saying that to a bulldozer is still likely to draw some concern.

  14. Mano Singham says

    The news that someone was going to freely distribute the software to print a handgun was what made me curious as to how it handled moving parts. After all, a gun has a trigger and hammer and other parts that must move freely on hinges and I could not understand how that would work. cweigold’s answer above explained the issues.

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