It is strange how things work out.
I have been using rapid prototyping for over 25 years. I’ve spent that time educating and encouraging my clients to embrace this fantastic technology along the way. And now, suddenly, boom! My mother-in-law is trying to educate me about how fantastic, and scary, 3D printing is.
I think that this change has come about because of the myriad of cheap and cheery printers that have hit the market. Their prices make them really attractive, with most costing less than my first laser printer. This means that the “early adopters” of this “new” technology can get into it quite easily.
It seems that the cheaper end of town, 3D printers costing less than $5,000, are mostly be FDM (fused deposition modelling) machines. This means they are basically like a glue gun on steroids that is attached to a robotic device to control what is printed.
The problem for me, as a professional designer, is that the quality I have seen from most of these gives a result similar to my first dot matrix printer. Sure, these printers do the job, but without the finesse of the bigger 3D printers. I could not pass their output on to my clients. And, I would be hesitant to test products except in their crudest form.
The bigger printers come in a really diverse range of formats such as:
- SLS (selected laser sintering) – this uses lasers and plastic or metal alloy powders to produce very strong and accurate parts or,
- SLA (stereo lithography) – this uses lasers and liquid resins to form highly accurate and well finished parts.
There are also formats that work similar to inkjet technologies but with a 3rd dimension.
In reality, when it comes to producing a quality prototype, it is hard to compete with a machine costing anything from 5 – 25 times the cost of these little machines.
However, these little machines are opening a new world to the masses. It is akin to back when we bought our first Sinclair 64 computer and had to save programs to audio cassette tapes. We were not daunted by this technology, rather, it was fun, new and challenging. We didn’t always get what we wanted, but we experimented, created and learned and, as time has moved on, machines continually evolve to do more amazing things, faster at a fraction of the price.
This is now happening in the rapid prototyping world, prices are falling, quality will start to increase and, pretty soon, we will have the equivalent of the big printers sitting on our desks but, at the low end of towns prices.
So what is my point?
If you want a high quality accurate build, without a lot of pain, you will still have to spend a little more, but if you are after a bit of fun or can accept a little less than perfect, jump on the bandwagon now and get your own little machine.
Rapid prototyping is the driving force behind any entrepreneur, especially ones creating physical products. 3D printing has the potential to create a whole new generation of entrepreneurs and inventors who can produce rough prototypes at home before moving onto more robust and intricate prototypes.
And that, is something to really look forward to.
Gary Bortz is the director of Bortz Product Design an industrial design consultancy working in a diverse range of products.