By now, I imagine you’ve heard the word 3D printing knocking around for a while, however, if you haven’t then you’re about to experience a new wave of technology that’s set to have an impact as big as the Internet has been.  Yes, it’s that big and in simple terms a 3D printer allows you to print an infinite amount of objects from a bike, phone holder, bionic hand, replacement parts for your hoover or perhaps a humanoid robot!  The list is literally endless and the possibilities are simply what your imagination is capable of.  The inevitable mind you is that the imagination of some seek to exploit the possibilities of printing weapons and there is a strong realisation that printing guns is going to be hard to police when all it takes is a file to be downloaded from the Pirate Bay.

The industry is now going from future trending predictions to commercial realisation and becoming fully accessible to those interested.  It’s predicted that in the near future a 3D printer will be like having a microwave in your kitchen, i.e. very common.  For the time being, however, it’s either a hobby enthusiast product or used by professionals.  The gap is blurring however and you’ll now find one lurking on the desk of an Architect student or product design school teacher.  It’s at that stage now where it’s being drip fed into society, much like the days where it was news that you’re local high school had just invested in a Desktop Computer running Windows 95 and stocked with the latest Encarta Encyclopaedia (yes I remember that exciting day I got to try it all huddled round taking it in turns).

For now 3D printing is mainly about printing in plastic as this has allowed the most flexibility and driven costs down to allow the tech to be accessible to the masses.  There’s certainly a wide array of plastics and colours to choose from and is starting to gain commercial traction.  Nokia may be one of the first large commercial giants to step into the arena as they’re offering their phone’s 3D blueprints to be downloaded to allow users to design and print their own phone covers.  But don’t be fooled into thinking this is limited to plastic and gimmicky goods.  This is simply the beginning and the testing phase of what’s to come.  3D printers are already emerging that go beyond these initial capabilities.  We are already seeing printers with 100+ materials in it’s library and then there’s the printers that can print electronic circuit boards, in metals and even glass.  Plastics are just the start and it won’t be long till we see the advancements take place that’ll will see printers capable of anything and everything.

Although I’ve been keeping up with the technology from an outsiders perspective for the last few years, it’s now come to that time where I’m now contemplating purchasing one due to the costs being affordable and the capabilities ever increasing.  However, I’ve got to say I wasn’t prepared for the mind blowing choices available to me and this is an industry that hasn’t really got going yet.  The 3D printing industry is about to explode and as each day passes the trends are moving faster than the manufacturers can handle.  It’s for the reason that I believe we’re on the forefront of the new industrial revolution and many other’s have written the same words.  A revolution which brings manufacturing into everyone’s homes and could see China’s powerful position of the world’s factory come to a swift conclusion.  Why buy that watch from your high street shop when you can customise the colour, have your face etched into the face and initial the underside all from a few clicks on a website which is then downloaded and sent to your 3D printer.  @Home-Manufactuing is a realistic proposition might I add that instead of arriving on containers from China and taking months to go through the supply chain is suddenly removed and instead replaced by a process that could take as little as 10 minutes and cost even less.

Once you put your mind to the possibilities you soon realise what a profound impact this technology is going to have.  For the time being we are presented with an unprecedented array of concepts and emerging companies all looking to positions themselves in the future of this industry.  With the technology still taking giant leaps it’s hard to know what 3D printer average Joe should buy.  Either way however, I’ve come to the realisation that whatever I buy today will be outdated in as little as year’s time so do you take the plunge now and get stuck in, or wait a little longer and let the strongest contenders emerge from the market place.

For the time being, www.3ders.org have neatly listed in a comparison chart the 100’s of currently available 3D printers.  So now you can compare your ‘Build Envelope’ with your ‘Micron Resolutions’, but then don’t forget your ‘Print Speeds’.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as you’ve yet to even consider what material you’re going to print in!

For now, I think a good all rounder and one of the most popular 3D printers available which I’d be tempted to purchase on my quest to find the best one is the MakerBot Replicator 2 which is available RepRap Central.  Have a look at the video below.  Hmm… but do I need dual materials thinking about it… I’ll be back with my final choice!


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