We look at which 3D home printers are available to buy today and what you can print with them. We also look at the cost of online 3D printing services, how to create your own 3D models and the exciting future of 3D printing.
During the era of the PC, printers have evolved from noisy contraptions that could do little more than place a single size of black text on fan-folded paper into today’s inkjets that are able to rival conventional photographic printing. With the technology now well established, though, new developments are few and far between.
While it’s some time since we last saw any substantial improvements in print quality from desktop printers, a quite different type of printer is coming our way: 3D. Printing in two dimensions is so 2012 - what you need in 2013 to wow your friends is a 3D printer. That may be a slight exaggeration since only the wealthy can yet afford such devices, but they exist and they're going to become much more prevalent over the next few years.
First a word of explanation, though. With the recent explosion in the sale of 3D TVs and, to a lesser extent 3D displays for our PCs, we might reasonably expect the availability of printers that could reproduce on the page what we are able to see on screen. In fact, while not widely available, this technology does exist. But while we could call such devices 3D printers, they’d still output a two-dimensional sheet of paper, even though they’d fool your eyes into seeing a three-dimensional object or scene.
By way of contrast, the 3D printers that are starting to take the world by storm produce genuinely three-dimensional objects that you can pick up and hold in your hands. It may surprise you to learn that the technology has been around for a while, too.
Today's 3D printers are still fairly expensive - many times the cost of even the best A4 inkjet printers. Even so, you can still upload 3D designs to several websites and have your 3D object returned in the post without breaking the bank.
Here we’ll take a look at what you can do with 3D printing, investigate some of the lower cost models that are starting to appear, provide some practical advice on how to get your own 3D objects printed, and present a tantalising glimpse of what the future holds. The Star Trek replicator might be a lot closer than you’d thought.
3D Printing: how it works
3D printing is sometimes called additive manufacturing to contrast it with normal methods of manufacturing. If you think about single parts, as opposed to cars and washing machines which are assembled from lots of parts, manufacturing processes have generally involved either moulding or machining.
Machining processes can be though of as subtractive manufacturing because they start with a block, sheet or cylinder of material and take portions away using machine tools to leave the desired shape. Additive manufacturing, on the other hand, starts with absolutely nothing and adds material until the final shape has been created. Let’s see how this works for 3D printing.
The operation of a 3D printer has a lot in common with that of an inkjet or laser printer. Common desktop printers build up an image by printing lines of dots; 3D printers build up solid objects a layer at a time.
Imagine cutting lots of circles out a sheet of cardboard, making each circle slightly smaller than the previous one, and gluing them together, one on top of another, to make a cone. 3D printers don’t work by cutting up cardboard, of course, but this illustrates the basic principle of creating solid objects a layer at a time. It also highlights the fact that the vertical resolution of the printer, and by that we mean the thickness of the layers, affects the smoothness of the output and how close it comes to the object defined by the data. Had you used paper instead of cardboard, for example, you’d have needed many more layers but the end product would have been less jagged and been a better representation of a cone.
One of the first technologies to be used for 3D printing is called stereo-lithography or alternatively light polymerisation. In this method a thin layer of liquid chemicals is introduced into tank and a laser beam scans over the surface of the liquid.
Because the light, which is more commonly ultraviolet light, causes the liquid to turn into solid plastic by polymerisation, the laser beam is turned on and off as it scans to selectively solidify those parts of the liquid that correspond to a layer of the object. Once this first layer is complete, additional liquid is added which the laser beam scans again to create the second layer which adheres to the first.
The process continues until the solid object is finished. The disadvantage of this method is that if a layer has solid parts that were not present in the previous layers, as soon as those parts are solidified by the laser they’ll drop to the bottom of the tank because they’ll have nothing to support them. This can be overcome by adding supports that are not actually part of the object and which, therefore, have to be removed afterwards.
Fused deposition modelling
A second up-and-coming method, especially for low-cost desktop printers, goes by the rather unmemorable name of fused deposition modelling or occasionally the somewhat more descriptive title of fused filament fabrication.
Here a thin plastic filament is heated and extruded through a nozzle which moves around to build up each layer. Like light polymerisation, parts of objects that are not supported by lower layers can cause problems although the plastic solidifies quickly enough that small overhangs can be tolerated.
It is also possible, with those printers that have multiple nozzles and can therefore print in more than one material, to print supports using a different type of material such as PVA that is soluble in water and can, therefore, be washed away once the model is complete.
Selective laser sintering
The final common method, and one of the most commonly used by 3D printing bureaux, is called selective laser sintering. This works in a similar way to light polymerisation except that powder is used rather than liquid. When heated by the laser, the powder sinters or, in other words, it fuses together to form a solid. Various types of material can be used and the list continues to grow.
Common materials include plastic, metal and ceramic. Because the un-sintered powder in each layer can support solidified material in the layer above, there are no problems with unsupported portions of the object.
3D printing: what can you print?
Using these various technologies the potential is limited only by your imagination. Using libraries of designs you could make household objects such as cups and saucers or, if you have creative talents, you could design similar objects yourself using 3D CAD software. You could even print small plastic parts to repair equipment that’s been damaged (let's hope companies get on board and allow you to buy the 3D files for home appliance parts) and already you can print out customised replacement cases for mobile phones. 3D printing even been used by sculptors. And because you can print using ceramics and metals as well as plastics, you’re not necessarily producing cheap copies but objects that could be as good and strong as if they were manufactured using more conventional methods.
Needless to say there are limitations to what can be produced and size is one of the major restrictions. Improvements are coming thick and fast, though, and while you’re not going to be printing out a full-size Jaguar XKR any time soon, desktop printers can now produce objects as large as a loaf of bread, and if you use the services of a 3D printing bureaux you could go bigger still. Perhaps the other main restriction is on intricate mechanical objects, especially if they are composed of separate moving parts. Although this would be possible by printing the individual parts and assembling them by hand, it’ll be some time before we’re able to print a pocket watch as a single object. If we were writing this just a couple of years ago we’d also be saying that you can only print things that are a single colour but, as testimony to the rapid rate of change, you can now print out objects in full colour.
Many of the 3D printers on the market aren’t exactly cheap. These are the printers used by 3D printing bureaux and, for example, by Formula One teams who have used them to print out new parts for their cars while at the track using a design emailed by their engineers back at the factory.
Chances are, you can't afford the tens of thousands of pounds for one of these, so we'll concentrate on the increasing number of 'budget' 3D printers that have become available recently. The prices still aren’t low enough for them to find a place in every home but they could be soon.
Most of the manufacturers are American and, as yet, they tend not to have offices in the UK, nor are their many resellers here. If you do decide to import one yourself, there’ll be a hefty shipping charge and you’ll also be liable to VAT at 20 percent.
Formlabs Form 1
Form 1, from Formlabs offers a very respectable resolution of 25 microns (0.025mm) but a fairly modest print size of 125mm x 125mm x 165mm. Unlike nearly all other budget printers that are based on the fused filament fabrication method, though, the Form 1 is a light polymerisation printer.
So far it’s only been produced in batches and Formlabs is currently accepting orders at the discounted price of $3,299 (approximately £2,000) for delivery in May. However, whether or not Formlab’s aim of bringing 3D printing to the masses succeeds will depend, to no small extent, on the success or otherwise with a lawsuit for patent infringement that has been brought against the company.
Makerbot Replicator 2
In just the same way that some of the earliest home computers were sold in kit form, some budget 3D printers are supplied as kits but already things are changing. Makerbot, for example, sold a DIY printer called the Thing-O-Matic but this has now been discontinued in favour of the pre-assembled Replicator 2 that can be yours for around £1,799 (typical UK price including VAT).
Using the fused filament method of 3D printing with a layer resolution of 100 microns (0.1mm), Replicator 2 has a surprisingly large build volume of 284mm long by 152mm wide by 155mm high. If you’re prepared to pay a bit more – around £2,290 – you could avail yourself of the newly-released Replicator 2X. Similar to the Replicator 2 in many ways, the 2X has two extruders which means that you can create objects in a couple of different colours, but at the expense of a slightly smaller build volume.
RepRap Huxley and Prusa Mendel
Despite the demise of the Thing-O-Matic, you could still try your hand at building a 3D printer and make a considerable saving in the process. RepRap, which comes in two current variants – Huxley if you’re happy to print small objects, Prusa Mendel for larger objects – is a fused filament printer.
As an open source project, the design, including full assembly instructions, is freely available. In fact, the designs of many of the RepRap parts are available as 3D models for download which means that once you have a RepRap printer you can print parts to make another printer. Accordingly, these parts are widely available from multiple sources including amateur RepRap owners.
Exactly how much you’d pay depends on whether you buy a complete kit or track down each of the individual components separately at the lowest cost but there are reports of units being built for less than £300. People have built RepRaps in as little as 20 hours but it could take you considerably longer, especially if you’re not experienced in mechanical assembly or soldering electronic components. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing option, especially in the light of the rather sinister science fiction theme of machines that are able to self-replicate.
Bits from Bytes RapMan
RapMan from Bits from Bytes is a kit based on the original RepRap (the Darwin) but it has different electronics which means that it doesn’t have to be connected to a PC. Instead it allows models to be printed directly from a USB memory stick. In its single print-head form, it has a large 270mm x 205mm x 210mm build volume and a vertical resolution of 0.125mm.
RapMan is available in various configurations from £954 to £1,486 – note that these prices differ from those shown on the website because we’ve added VAT.
For a low-cost solution that you don’t have to build yourself, you could try the Cube from Cubify that costs $1,532 (approx. £965).Another fused filament printer, Cube has a rather modest resolution of 0.2mm and can produce objects up to 140mm x 140mm x 140mm in size.
As a hint of things to come, though, and unlike many of the other low-cost 3D printers, Cubify have given due thought to the Cube’s appearance and, as a result, it wouldn’t look out of place on your desk next to the PC.
The manufacturers claim that it’s the only 3D printer certified for safe at-home use by adults and children and the Wi-Fi interface means it’s not encumbered by wires. A slightly more up-market printer from Cubify is the CubeX which has up to three print heads, thereby allowing you to print in one, two or three colours of plastic.
It also has a higher 0.125mm resolution, and a larger 275mm x 275mm x 275mm build volume, reducing somewhat for the two and three print head variants. CubeX costs $2,662 (£1,687), $3,227 (£2,045) or $4,276 (£2,709) depending on whether you want one, two or three print heads.
Bits from Bytes 3DTouch
3DTouch, which is also available from RapMan manufacturer Bits from Bytes, is a fused filament fabrication printer that comes in various configurations (one, two or three print heads) starting at £2,394 (including VAT) for the single print head version.
The product sounds very similar to the RapMan kit in many ways although the 3DTouch is fully assembled.
3D printing services
It has to be admitted that in the world of 3D printers, the word “budget” is a relative one and even the cheapest models have a price tag that’s a lot more than most home users will be prepared to pay.
Undoubtedly this will change in the coming years but you don’t have to wait for prices to fall further before taking your first steps in 3D printing. Just as photo processing companies provided a service for making photographic prints before photo-quality inkjets were affordable (for top-notch results many people still use these services instead of printing at home), the same is true of 3D printing.
The web is now awash with 3D printing companies and several have launched services - even apps - which will appeal specifically to home users. In addition to being cheaper than buying your own 3D printer, these bureaux use more expensive equipment so the quality of the output will be better than with DIY printing. In addition, you’ll probably be offered a wider choice of materials and the size of the output will often be less of a limitation.
At its simplest, the process is similar to ordering photographic prints online. You upload a file that defines the 3D object, a check is carried out to ensure that the model is printable, you select the size and other options such as material and colour, and finally you make a payment. Now all you have to do is wait, normally just a few days, for your 3D print to arrive in the post. However, as we’ll see when we look at specific companies, some of these services offer a lot more.
One of the first companies to target 3D printing at consumers, and still one of the leading suppliers, is French-based Sculpteo. The basic service is much as we described above although there’s a bewildering array of materials to choose from including plastics and resins in various colours, full-colour, and even plastic with a silver coloured plating.
Before you place an order you’re able to see and manipulate a virtual model of your creation so you can view it from all angles and you can fine tune the output size, observing how the price alters as you move the size slider.
In addition to printing your own unique design, Sculpteo also offers various semi-customised designs allowing you, for example, to print 3D geometrical shapes or even your own iPhone case.
The Sculpteo website includes a huge library of objects that others have designed that you can have printed in your chosen material. Included here is anything and everything from down-to-earth practical items such as lampshades and tableware, through games including chess sets and dice, to decorative objects and jewellery.
The maximum size depends on which machine is used and your choice of material, but can be as large as 677mm x 368mm x 565mm. It’s hard to say how much a design will cost because the bottom line depends on the overall size of the object, the amount of material used (so a hollow object will cost less than a solid one), and the material that you choose. However, to take the iPhone 5 case as an example, this would cost from around £20.
If you’d prefer to work with a company that’s closer to home – although, in reality, there really aren’t any drawbacks to ordering online from a European company – there is no shortage of companies based in the UK as a Google search for “3D printing service UK” will reveal.
However, few offer the same range of materials as Sculpteo and many are set up primarily to provide a service to companies rather than individuals. This means that some of the convenience and ease of a consumer-oriented online service might not be available.
However, one UK-based company that does deserve a mention is Replicator Warehouse.
Pricing is competitive with small prints starting from £2.95 and you can choose from a couple of types of plastic in a wide range of colours including glow in the dark blue. However, the main reason for choosing this company – so long as you live in London – is the walk-in shop at the Elephant & Castle shopping centre.
The benefit of using a retail store in preference to a web-based service is marginal for photographic prints, unless you're in a real hurry. With 3D printing, the advantage of being able to chat through your requirements face-to-face before placing your order is not to be under-estimated. In addition, the shop sells parts for those intent on building the RepRap as well as offering courses on building it. Plus, there are plans to offer fully built RepRap printers in the near future.
3D printing Resources
Whether you buy a 3D printer, assemble one from a kit or use the services of a 3D printing company, before you can start printing you need a 3D software model. There are various ways of getting hold of 3D models for all levels of expertise.
First of all, just as you can find photographs of pretty much anything online, the same is true of 3D models. A lot of these libraries were set up for people who wanted to manipulate three-dimensional images on-screen but many are also suitable for 3D printing. To start, though, we suggest that you turn your attention to those online resources that cater specifically for the growing demand for 3D models for printing.
We’ve already seen that 3D printing company Sculpteo’s site has a large library of 3D models but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps the biggest online resource is the Thingiverse which is owned by Makerbot. Described as “a place for you to share your digital designs with the world”, the Thingiverse is also the converse, namely a place for the world to share their digital designs with you.
According to Makerbot, the Thingiverse currently holds designs for 36,000 ‘things’ and reports that the number of items is growing rapidly. To help you find your way around this huge collection of 3D models they are grouped into nine categories – art, fashion, gadgets, hobby, household, learning, models, tools, and toys & games.
An alternative that requires minimal work, yet still allows you to create something that's your own, is to use one of the online utilities provided by some 3D printing bureaux. Sculpteo is well ahead of the game here in providing utilities for printing customised iPhone cases, geometrical models, 3D text and much more.
Similarly, Makerbot has just launched the Thingiverse Customizer that lets you customise 3D designs in your browser. As an example suggested by Makerbot, “you can take a snowflake that you find on Thingiverse, bring it into the MakerBot Customizer, determine how many points and stars it has, and then print that custom, one-of-a-kind item”.
If you want to create something truly original from scratch, you’ll need to turn to a 3D CAD (Computer Aided Design) package. While this isn’t for the faint-hearted, if you persevere there’s every chance that you’ll succeed in making your own 3D models that you can view and manipulate on screen and ultimately turn into a real world object.
One option here is to try your hand at using SketchUp. This is basically a free CAD program for beginners.
Alternatively, if you want to print a real-world object, you can take lots of photographs of it and use software to stitch them together to automatically generate a 3D model.
3D file formats
On thing to be aware of in choosing or creating your own 3D models is the question of file formats. Just as there are several file formats for photographs, of which Jpeg is the most common, there are several formats for 3D models and you should choose a format that is compatible with your printer or which your chosen 3D printing service can accept. However, if you find something that you like that’s in the wrong format, you’ll probably be able to convert it yourself. MeshLab, for example, is a free package for editing 3D models but since it can both import and export nearly all the common formats, you could easily use it for format conversion.
A final thing to bear in mind is that while even the cheapest 3D printers are suitable for producing decorative items and curiosities of various types, you might be disappointed if you need something with structural strength.
Certainly 3D printers have been used to create very durable objects for use in engineering projects but this can’t be guaranteed for selective laser sintering printers working with plastics. This was demonstrated recently by The Verge who tried printing customised cases for the Lumina 820 following Nokia’s decision to release the 3D designs of its own case.
The cases were printed by two bureaux who both expressed doubt that it was appropriate to 3D print a design that had been intended for conventional plastic manufacturing techniques such as injection moulding. In particular they had misgivings that parts of the case were thick enough for selective laser sintering. This view was confirmed by the fact that weak spots on both cases broke when attempting to remove the cases from the phone.
The future of 3D printing
With 3D printing only just starting to hit the big time, we can be pretty sure that many new developments are going to be coming our way in the near future. Although some of the larger consumer-oriented 3D services claim they can print your creation in a huge number of different materials, in reality most of those materials are plastics of various types and in various colours.
But a much broader range of materials has been used, with others under development, and we can reasonably expect that these exciting new materials will soon be available to us all.
If little plastic ornaments don’t really hit the spot, you’ll soon be able to print in a broad range of much classier materials including pewter, glass, wood (actually a plastic wood mixture but supposedly it looks like real wood), fabrics, and even precious metals. Printing in chocolate is a reality too so we can bet that customised confectionaries will soon be on offer.
On a more serious note, we’re also going to see the greater availability of steel and tungsten alloys for printing parts that are stronger than plastic and could be used, for example, to repair a car or bicycle. Perhaps one of the most innovative possibilities, though, is printable electronics and scientists at Warwick University have already printed a game controller.
A major limitation of budget 3D printers is that they can only print small items. Printing bureaux tend to have bigger machines so they can print larger objects but using conventional printers you’re not going to get a lot larger than a one metre cube. The size of the output doesn’t have to be limited by the size of the printer, though, and scientists have developed 3D printers that can move around, like industrial robots, to create objects larger than the printers themselves.
Aircraft manufacturer EADS is developing a method of printing wings for jet airliners, while Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars of Universe Architecture has recently revealed plans for an entire house, built as a never-ending Möbius Strip that will be built in concrete using a huge 3D printer.
Impressive as all these innovations might be, an even more ground-breaking development could, according to some experts, be every bit as revolutionary as the invention of the Internet. Earlier this year, music and movie retailer HMV went into receivership due, to no small extent, to the growth in music downloads.
Yet if being able to download music tracks, rather than buying a disk from a high street store, has proved so fundamental to the music industry, just imagine the impact of being able to download pretty much anything you want and printing it out at home. OK, so we’re going out on a limb here and we honestly doubt that this will ever come to fruition.
Nevertheless, imagine, if you will, that Apple has just launched the much awaited iPhone 17. But you’re not going to be queuing outside an electronics store to be the first to own this latest 9G model with its holographic display and 1,024-core processor. Instead, all you’d need to do is download it from Apple's website and print it out on your desktop 3D printer. Now that’s what we call convenience.