3D printers are incredible machines, but I’ve been told that 3D printing isn’t the hobby, it’s the maintenance of the printer that is the hobby. None of the consumer or DIY 3D printers are at the level of set it and forget it, and they may never be. If the number of times I’ve been asked to fix an ordinary 2D printer is any indication, 3D printers will always be in need of re-configuring and tune ups. It’s clear why my friends and acquaintances with 3D printers accumulate so many little models of useless but detailed objects, and more often than not, multiple prints of the exact same model. It’s a necessary step to ensure the printer is well calibrated.
Since starting at Phidgets, I’ve heard about the misery associated with these devices on multiple occasions. It turns out that before I turned up, there had been some experimentation with a consumer 3D printer, and it didn’t go well. Inspired by the results generated on professional grade printers, often costing in excess of ten thousand dollars, the decision was made to purchase a printer for use in house.
Not wanting to break the bank on a professional machine that would never see enough use to justify its cost, a Cube 3D printer from 3Dsystems was purchased. The first red flag waved when we saw the software. It just felt too… cutesy. Oh well, as long as the printer works though, right? Cue the consumer 3D printer problems. First on the list was the chronic plastic jams in the print head. It’s a common problem for many consumer 3D printers that has a whole slew of causes.
The next and largest issue was the lack of a heated print bed on the Cube printer. This meant that larger prints would contract and pull away from the base as they cooled. It caused numerous issues, especially in a particular print of a battery testing jig. The decision was made that if the final print failed, the entire printer was going to end up in the dumpster. The final print did succeed, but the whole experience had been so frustrating that the printer was abandoned not long after.
Ultimately, one major mistake was made: assuming a consumer hobby level tool would deliver the performance needed for a business. This isn’t to say that there’s no longer any interest in 3D printing at Phidgets. There is some excitement regarding the Form 1 3D printer from Formlabs. Unfortunately, the printer is still in the pre-order stage, and we don’t particularly care for pre-ordering or back-ordering products. One of the reasons that this printer seems promising is the technology it uses; stereolithography. The base material is a little pricey at $150 per litre, but the results are sometimes worth it. Stereolithography happens to be the technology behind most professional grade printers. It’s an amazingly accurate and detailed process, that can create fully functional components such as a 3D printed iPhone case with moving gears.
There are examples of companies using 3D printing to prototype and create parts successfully. One example is the Calgary based company EZ Robot. All of the white structural plastic parts were prototyped using 3D printers. Now that the design has been tested and proven to work, they’re moving onto large scale manufacturing. There are many more examples of success proving that not everyone has had the same bad luck with 3D printing as Phidgets.
Luckily, if you’re needing some good quality parts prototyped, but can’t justify that expense, there are a number of 3D printing services that can make the parts for you. These options make a whole lot more sense for businesses that don’t need 3D printed prototypes on a weekly basis. We got our jobs done at 3D Print Dimensions, a local 3D printing service provider that has since closed their doors. There are a number of other big players in the business, like Shapeways (a community where others can buy the product you’ve designed), Kraftwurx, Ponoko, i.Materialise, and Sculpteo. None of these services are cheap, with even small parts costing in excess of $25 depending on the type of material, amount of material used, and the complexity of the design. Luckily these companies have lots of experience in 3D printing, and so you’re not likely to be disappointed with the quality of a print.
But what’s the future of 3D printing? Our CEO, Chester, has been to China and seen how efficiently injection molding and machining factories operate. Seeing these successes, he is very skeptical of 3D printers for producing any viable consumer goods, especially on a large scale. He figures they’ll only ever operate a niche market creating models and objects that cannot be made with more established technologies, like injection molding and CNC machining. There’s just only so much you can do when you’re up against an injection machine producing one part every 30 seconds, at a $10/hour (or more) price tag for materials.
3D printing has its trials and successes, and there are other options out there, especially for large businesses. If you think 3D printing is for you, then give it a shot, just be aware that it’s not for everyone.