3D Printing, what’s it all about?

There has been a steady stream of press regarding this technology and for good reason. 3D printing is the next big thing and it’s no fad; it’s here to stay. But you may ask, why, what’s it good for, and why are our children learning about it in school?

If you grew up in the eighties like me, you will remember Walkmans, CDs, and DVD players as the new tech. I still remember using a fixed line phone with a circle dial, but much has changed since then.


Printing is one of those technologies that has made dramatic leaps in the past 20 or so years. Affordable short run printing is now the standard, and most of us have a printer on our desks or close by. Inkjet printing was probably the defining technology in the last decade, giving everyone from home users and up the capability of instant colour prints.

This decade, it will be desktop 3D printing. Whilst the technology has been around for some time, affordable desktop 3D printers are just coming into range for the standard user. In many ways, just like smartphones, we all lived happily without them; yet now, most would feel like a limb was missing if you’re without one. The same will be said for desktop 3D printers in the very near future. Which now begs the questions of: do I need it and what would I use it for? If you have been asking, read on for the answer.

Let’s start with what they are. 3D printers use a filament, a simple wire made of plastic, and by melting that via a fine nozzle they build up a 3D model layer by layer. The mechanics of these machines is very similar to inkjet printers moving back and forth over a defined area. The plastic sets very quickly and as the nozzle moves over that defined area (the plate it builds on), the nozzle is positioned exactly in the right place, and on each pass adds a very thin layer to the last. This way it builds the model layer by layer at about a quarter of a millimetre at a time.

There are a few other technologies in which these machines can make 3D models, but the layered method, called Extrusion Deposition, has become the standard. So by using this method, you can build a model, layer by layer into almost any shape you desire. All that’s needed is a file in STL format, which is industry standard for CAD and most 3D designing software.

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But don’t get scared off by this. You don’t have to be a master in the 3D digital world. Manufacturers realised very quickly that to make these machines user-friendly, they needed to simplify this process and understood that most of us don’t have the time or patience to learn complex software. Makerbot provides simple, yet powerful software with their printers that give even young kids with an iPad the ability to create 3D models in just a few clicks. In fact, they have an online library of hundreds of thousands of designs you can just download and print.

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This coupled with hundreds of colours of filaments, even wood, marble, steel, bronze, and the ability to be painted, the finished results can literally mimic any material.

So now the tech is simple, easy to use and available, but what do we do with it?

Rapid Prototyping is probably the most prolific use for 3D printers. Giving designers the ability to make parts and models quickly and affordably. If you are an engineer who needs to test a part for size and function before making a few thousand using traditional methods, 3D printing is the ultimate tool. But what about the rest of us? You may ask,”In my daily life do I need one?

Well, here are some examples, see if any fit you:

Fishermen: make your own lures, floats, etc. I have even seen customised hand reels, bait holders, and even rod holders built with 3D printers. Make your own hard bodied lure prototypes and be a master at the next fishing tournament.

Arts and Crafts: flowers, stems, buttons, shapes, light fittings, lamp shades; in fact anything you use that is made of plastic can be created on a 3D printer.

Model Makers: are you into quad copters, remote control cars, action figures, model vehicles, planes, or trains? How many times do you wish you could find the exact piece you want or make something customised? If it’s in plastic or could be, a 3D printer will be just the thing.

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Kitchen Masters: love cooking, and wish you had a customised cookie cutter or cool new icing nozzle? What about a customised knife rack or wine bottle holder? Or maybe something just as simple as a table cloth clip in a certain colour to match your Xmas décor?

Or maybe, just like me, you broke the timer lever on your toaster and you know if you glue it back it will just break again. So you take it off, scan it and make a new one. Or decide to create a chess set based on your own family members. What about…

When you start imagining all the possibilities, it starts to get scary. I could see this being labelled “the mistress” by the wife and only leaving my garage for food and water, rarely seeing the sun whilst my inner inventor takes hold. Realistically, however, do we need one? Will we use it? You bet you will. I have a list months long of all the things I want to use a 3D printer for.

Now take a minute or two and just imagine, if you had a machine that could make anything you wanted, what would you make?

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