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Cheap 3D printers for the home

from the shape-of-things-to-come dept.
WillWare writes "Eugene Leitl posted this story by New Scientist to the nsg-d list, regarding recent advances in stereolithography and other 3D printing techniques, particularly the innovation of printing multiple materials in the same session. Some tantalizing quotes from the article:

Geometric complexity is largely irrelevant… You can design the internal and external geometry of a part, and its electrical, mechanical and thermal properties exactly how you want them to be.

Dickens says he knows of a number of companies who are looking at mass-producing 3D printersfor less than £1000 apiece… They could be available within a couple of years if one of the companies decided to go for it.

At the current exchange rate, £1000 is $1440. It is quite likely that such printers will be very popular. If large numbers of people buy one, much of what we normally imagine as the nanotech post-scarcity economy will appear overnight. 3D printers will offer an early preview of some of the important challenges of nanotech.

The intellectual property issues involved will be essentially identical to those of nanotechnology. Toy companies (and others previously engaged in manufacturing) will fight against the AutoCAD-file version of Napster. The status of patents and other mechanisms of IP protection will come under scrutiny.

There will doubtless be circulating CAD files for guns, knives, and other dangerous trinkets, and an associated rash of urban legends (recall Monty Python's "spring surprise"). This will provoke thought and discussion which will later pertain to military and terrorist applications of nanotechnology.

It's a good thing to see these issues come into the public eye in a context far less dangerous than nanotech. The task of public education will then require only the elucidation of what differentiates nanotechnology from 3D printer technology."

11 Responses to “Cheap 3D printers for the home”

  1. jbash Says:

    Um, let's not go overboard, here

    There will doubtless be circulating CAD files for guns,

    … made out of weak plastics…


    … made out of weak plastics with dull edges…

    and other dangerous trinkets, and an associated rash of urban legends (recall Monty Python's "spring surprise").

    … made on a machine that can't produce a stressed component (OK, yeah, you did say it'd be an urban legend).

    These machines aren't going to be nearly as capable as you're making them out to be. Useful, yes. World-changing, no. Not next year for $1500, anyway.

    … which is not to say that they're not going to be important, or that they won't improve, or that there won't someday be really nifty home fabrication capabilities that aren't nanotech, but have many of the same issues. I'm just reacting to the idea that these particular machines are a revolution in themselves. They're very flexible in the shapes they can produce, but pretty limited in terms of the materials they can use and how they can process those materials.

    A lot of the coolness of devices comes from the properties of the materials they're made of. You might be able to "print" the parts of an action figure with one of these things, but you're not going to print a game console, nor even a decent knife blade. Getting there might even take as long as getting nanotech.

  2. BryanBruns Says:

    3D copying and printing

    Perhaps it won't be more revolutionary than say, photocopying. That still could make quite a difference in leveling up access to a big subset of material goods.

    What if the material is as strong as wood? Then you could have do-it-yourself furniture, (even if some bolts have to be bought separately). If there are more people for dinner, just print a few more settings. This stuff has to be at least as strong as paper plates and plastic spoons. Instead of having abundance at WalMart this would bring aisles and aisles of choices home, available just in time for use.

    There could be some obvious analogies with home sewing, buying patterns, material and specialized hardware at the store, and doing the rest youself.

    Along with the 3D scanners, it would be good to get working on a disassembler that could reprocess this stuff. However even if they provide one, it might be a domestic equivalent of the paperless office. So maybe we get homes cluttered up with unrecycled junk that "will be useful again someday."

  3. mugwump Says:

    Er… metal not that far off, guys!

    It mentions in the article that they are having problems binding metals to ceramics. Not necessarily an indication of what will be the first to hit the market, of course.

    IANANanoengineer, but as I recall just about all substances have properties like a liquid if you treat them in small enough volumes, so they can be fed down an 'ink' jet's tube.

    I really like the idea of being able to print computer parts, though… hopefully there will be an OpenSource PC movement, and perhaps a way of recycling dud printouts back into your "ink" stores.

    I know the first thing I'd print – a wall-sized LCD screen ;-) .

  4. Jay Dugger Says:

    But, let's give credit where it's due

    "There will doubtless be circulating CAD files for guns,
    … made out of weak plastics…"

    …which make zip guns trivial…

    … made out of weak plastics with dull edges…"
    …one could easily sharpen with abrasives and stiffen with scrap metal or wood.

    jbash's point that material properties strongly influence devices matters a great deal with this story. So does voxel resolution. If you haven't the resolution to make a fine edge for knife, post-processing still can give you a razor.

    Even if these gadgets prove more capable than jbash expects, I doubt they would prove terribly popular. How many home users would want to stock a variety of materials for their fabricator? Toy manufacture, just as New Scientist suggests, will probably show up as a "killer app." (How much would you have pestered your parents for an infinite Lego set?) Another useful application might appear after the Rutgers' group develops their conductive ceramic process to greater utility. I'd pay a good deal for the ability to print out complex electronic circuits from schematics and routing software. We might see not just circulating CAD files of knives and guns, but also cattle prods, lasers (just add diodes), and so on..

  5. WillWare Says:

    Re:Um, let's not go overboard, here

    [guns and knives made out of weak plastics...]

    You might be able to "print" the parts of an action figure with one of these things, but you're not going to print a game console, nor even a decent knife blade.

    In fact, these techniques are not limited to weak plastics: A variety of these technologies are commercially available to produce complexly shaped, three-dimensional (3-D) parts and tooling in a wide range of materials, including paper, polymers, wax, sand, ceramics, and metals. One of the recent areas of innovation has been printers that will use several materials in building a single object.

    What limits the possibility of building a game console or a PC is not the range of materials but the spatial resolution: transistors and other semiconductor features are vastly smaller than what can be achieved with these machines, which I believe have resolutions in the fractional millimeters. But that's still enough to make the case, pushbuttons, and printed circuit boards. You'd still have to buy the chips from somebody else.

    The prospect of large-scale economic dislocations is likely to be limited if the cost of making stuff (even after the cost of the printer itself has already been amortized) is significantly greater than that of buying it through today's channels. It will also be limited if operating the thing takes unreasonably large amounts of expertise, beyond what the average consumer is comfortable with. If you don't mind a large investment in tools and self-education, you can make wooden toys and furniture for cheaper than you can buy them, but among even those who can easily afford the initial investment, few bother.

  6. PatGratton Says:

    Technical and Market Limitations


    • Structural integrity. Especially with parts using multiple materials.
    • Still essentially a sintering process. It's not that you have all metal here, or all plastic here. Rather, you have plastic glued with one material in one place and another material in another place.
    • Limited range of materials. The glue material must be something that can stored as a liquid (or quickly turned into a liquid), have the right viscous properties so that it can be squirted through a jet (without abrading or clogging the jet nozzle) and that acts like a glue.
    • Thermal differential contraction. As mentioned in the article, it tend to rip the product apart.
    • Resolution. Parts are built in layers. Imagine gluing the pages of a book together and then carving a shape out of it. A major problem is detail features, which tend to degrade (at least when the sprayed material is hot, and thus has thermal leakage.)
    • Limited commercial application. Sounds really cool, but it's really only useful for low volume production ñ and since the overhead of low volume production is high (mainly design costs). This is not something that you use for high production, for which much cheaper, more accurate, better quality production methods already exist. (E.g., circuit boards: lithographic production would be much faster than printing each board voxel by voxel.)
    • $1440/printer? Big difference between "looking at it" and doing it. Realistically, this is not going to happen until most of the technical problems have been worked out, and even then only if it makes sense as a business venture. (Think of it: machines would innately be 100's of times more mechanically complex than a desktop 2D printer, and selling into a market with much smaller production (people will not be printing out 3D parts at nearly the rate that they print pages).)

    This is not even close to a print-anything technology. Which is not to say that you can't do cool and unique things with it ñ but in doing those things you'll have to be intimately aware of the strong limitations of the technology.

    The mass market play seems very unlikely due to cost of design and competing methods of production. A price-point of $20,000/printer would almost certainly be more lucrative and much safer as a business play. (Gives you time to test new technologies, while charging the customer moderate to high dollars for upgrades and repairs.)

  7. MarkGubrud Says:

    Must be the season

    Guys, this is silly. 200 microns is not a sufficiently smooth surface for seals or sliding parts, nor is it small enough for microelectronics. (The article says you could custom-design your next motherboard, if you had some burning desire to do so. Then I suppose you could get out the old soldering iron and start laying down those surface-mount chips a tab at a time.) They have not said how they would make parts that are not stuck together, or how they would get the excess powders out of enclosed spaces. The materials used are going to be limited and optimized for printability rather than for useful properties. No way is it going to be cheaper to print plastic and metal parts than to mold or cast them. The data burden, which the typically gee-whiz New Scientist article admits is already a strain, increases as the cube of spatial resolution. So will the time it takes to make a part. The machines will be printing a pat at a time; we're not talking about moles of assemblers working in parallel here. They will have to maintain registration in 3D to the desired precision, so they are going to be heavy and bulky and complicated and require maintenance and they will not be cheap if they are to make large parts to high precision at reasonable speeds.

    The bottom line: these processes are going to be useful for rapid model-building and prototyping, and perhaps for some flexible manufacturing and even production-line applications (in combination with traditional shaping, cutting, polishing, and assembly processes). No way are they going to lead to a revolution in home-manufacturing of products downloaded from the internet. A small-scale novelty, maybe. Nothing more.

  8. redbird Says:

    Still Waiting

    I see some fundamental problems in the way this system works. Some of them have been mentioned above, but I want to hilight just a few:

    - everything is molded together

    - low resolution

    - not self replicating

    The first two have been well expanded upon, but basically they make the printers useless for anything more than modeling or as a novelty item. Come back in five years and show me what you've got by then (after all, if someone had told me in the 1960s that computers were going to change me life (disclaimer: I wasn't even born yet), I would have said come back when you have something that looks like it might).

    Now, the last point is an important one. If these printers aren't self replicating, then the scarcity of property will not be eliminated: printers will just cost more. Even with nanotech, resources are still required to assemble things out of, and only so much of one metal or this mineral exist in the universe (assuming the universe is finite). Nanotech certianly attacks scarcity, but it doesn't create a common (which is a good thing). I'm digressing a bit, but the point is that we'll pay just as much for stuff as we do now with these kinds of printers, it's just that we'll pay for it all at once when we buy a printer rather than each time we buy something.

  9. bcousert Says:

    Re:Still Waiting

    Assuming that 3D printers can be self-replicating, could such a printer create a better printer, that could in turn create an even better printer, repeating the process until we get down to the atomic level?

  10. redbird Says:

    Re:Still Waiting

    Possibly, but the resolution could cause limits to the advancement, so that at some point one printer cannot print small enough parts for a higher resolution printer.

  11. Anonymous Coward Says:

    Re:Um, let's not go overboard, here

    In regard to knives and guns circulating as stereolithographic files. Its a few steps from producing geometry for a thing, and producing that thing. example: transfer castings from the stereolithographic core leads to interesting possibilities in metalforming – we've moved from plastic (more realistically, clay since existing cheap photolithogray fast prototypers use this material) to metal in one additional step. any low precision process may be able to use the clay model. And any low precision part can fall into this classification (today). Any concern for this possibility, however seems misplaced in light of the fact that national governments possesing digitally controled munitions are the chief threat to personal saftey on earth, from a statistical point of view. And antiquated social systems such as we as a species currently posses are all much more likely to impinge on your personal affairs than the ability to create a knife (walmart, 3.99) or a gun (mail order, gunshows, gunshops, the shifty characters 8,10,6 houses down, a block away, two neighborhoods over… out in the country, etc. the real concern is that fear mongering makes it more likely that this technology might be banned or restricted by paranoid governments who spot real or imagined dangers in technology and act accordingly. Government needs an upgrade. A less user hostile interface would be better. interoperability, look and feel need some work too.

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