What you need to know about…3D printing

Pulling a rabbit out of a, er hat...

3D printing is either the new bogey technology of the mainstream media that will see our children printing off the guns to kill us from the cupboard under the stairs, or the saviour of civilisation that will have us printing all our domestic goods from said cupboard, including a good set of handcuffs too presumably. It is though undoubtedly going to change many industries, including the broadcast one. 

3D printing? That’s all science fiction and Kickstarter hype, right?

Nope, it’s very much in the here and now. Yes, there is a lot of hype and hoopla attached to it, but this is really happening. Start ups are attracting serious investment, there are persistent rumours that the big Asian CEs are poised to enter the market, the parcel delivery giants are investigating using their decentralised facilities to become printing centres for larger, more complex parts if it all takes off, and you can buy machines on Amazon right now if you’re interested.

Really? What can I get?

Amazon.com’s best selling model is XYZPrinting’s Da Vinci 1.0 which costs $499 and gives a 7.8in cube build volume, while the newer 2.0 model meanwhile adds dual extruders for duo-colour objects and bumps the price up to $649. 600g filament cartridges are $28 each.

That seems expensive.

It is. If you thought the printer cartridge market was a rip-off, that was small potatoes compared to how this might work out. Autodesk, which is entering the market with its $6k Ember printer soon though, has just open sourced the recipe for its own filament, so there is a chance that prices might fall.

How do these things work anyway?

A bit like an ink jet printer but, rather obviously, in 3D. Stereolithography creates 3D objects via downloadable cross-sectional patterns, building them up layer upon layer using an array of different materials and methods. Materials include thermoplastics, photopolymers (hardening upon exposure to light), metal alloys and even paper; while methods involved include Fused Deposition Modelling, which passes thermoplastic material through a heated nozzle an powers most current consumer machines; Laminated Object Modelling where layers of adhesive-coated paper, plastic, or metal laminates are glues together layers of adhesive coated material and cuts it to shape with a knife or laser cutter; and Stereolithography which cures a photo-reactive resin with a UV laser or similar and disposes of unused material as it goes.

Didn’t I read something about Terminator 2 recently?

Yup, Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) features a moving platform that lifts printed objects out of a reservoir of liquid resin using pulses of light to solidify it as it goes. It builds strong objects quickly, rather than crap ones slowly and has got a number of people rather excited.

So current 3D printing is a) rubbish and b) slow

That pretty much sums it up. As one of the developers of the CLIP process put it, “There are mushrooms that grow faster than 3D printed parts.”. Autodesk’s Ember will build objects within a 64mm x 40mm x 134mm cube at 15mm per hour, and that’s considered speedy. Parts can be brittle too. For all the column inches generated by the prospect of 3D printed guns, they are far more likely explode than fire.

So why is everyone so excited by it?

It’s all about the potential. For industry, 3D printing brings the ability to prototype things (relatively) quickly and a quicker and more efficient way of making things that need to be rapidly customisable such as prosthetics and medical implants. For the rest of us, it could change capitalism, simple as that. Proponents of a Maker-led future see houses all having a printer and making many of their domestic goods from them, especially as the number of materials that can be used or convincingly recreated expands. Wood has already been quite successfully imitated, and the machines capable of printing circuit boards and electronics are getting better all the time. Assembly is always probably going to be an issue, but that’s not insurmountable.

And the broadcast industry?

Camera rigs, lens mounts, cases, adaptors…at the moment it’s all about peripherals. But again, it’s the potential that is getting people excited. Have a look at the OpenReflex camera, an analogue camera with a mirror viewfinder and a mechanical shutter that captures frames at approximately 1/60 of a second. All parts are separate files (the lens is bought as the printed lenses produced so far have been awful) that can be downloaded from Thingiverse and print time is approximately 15 hours, with under an hour of assembly promised.

On the one hand it’s fairly amazing: A working camera! Printed at home! On the other it’s a bit disappointing: Where’s the design sensibility? I’m sorry, did you say 15 hours? But it’s a good marker of where we are in the here and now and the next decade or so of development could certainly prove to be fascinating. Especially when you consider that Marius produced the OpenReflex camera as a Graduation project.

According to research firm Gartner, 2.3m printers will ship in 2018…