3D Printers, what’s all the fuss about?

Iris Van Herpen
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Whatever your creative passion, be it fashion or any other aspect of design, the prospect of turning your vision into something tangible has recently become quicker and cheaper than ever before thanks to the 3D printer innovation.

If you’re a creative professional thinking about investing in a 3D printer, this article will highlight some important aspects of this exciting technology for you to consider before you spend any money.

So, what are they?

Nowadays the inkjet printer can be found in pretty much every office and just about every home, certainly those with a PC/laptop. An inkjet printer enables us to create an image by propelling droplets of ink onto paper, for example, and by layering the primary colours (and black) in combination a richly coloured image is printed out.

Using similar principles and technology pioneered by 2D inkjet printers, 3D printers come in a variety of forms and formats depending on the materials being used but essentially they follow a method of layering rapidly hardening streams of material one on top of another. Guided by an “image” file, layer by layer the printer builds the artifact.

YouTube: Baby Groot – 3D Printing Time Lapse

What are they good for?

First and foremost, 3D printing is a way to take a 2D concept from the page/screen and turn it into something you can hold and examine allowing greater insight into your proposed design, for this reason 3D printing is often referred to as “rapid prototyping”.

Traditionally, once happy with a design it could take weeks before the first prototype came back from your manufacturer, or if you were undertaking the manufacturing yourself, making a prototype means you’re obligated to that task before continuing with additional projects. Allowing the production of a prototype in hours, rather than weeks, on site and much cheaper than traditional methods is an immediate cost benefit to your business.

Not happy with your design, make a correction and print it again.

It’s often said an image is worth a thousand words, imagine visiting a client with a 3D image of your proposed product and/or giving them an example to pass around their team in your absence. Clearly defined by the thing your client has in their hand, confusion and waste through miscommunication is easily reduced.

Once happy with your design the 3D printer allows for limitless reprinting of your product, where it really comes into its own though is one-off designs or simple customisation of existing designs, ideal for fashion accessories for example.

 Pros and Cons

We’ve already looked at some of the positive aspects of 3D printing above. In addition to the already mentioned; savings can be expected in labour costs, after all manufacturing is mostly automated although it should be noted that complex designs may require some clean-up of a supporting “scaffold”.

Design freedom, because of the way the object is built up in layers manufacturing intricate and previously near impossible designs is within reach. 3D printing goes a long way towards removing concerns around tool access and considerations around undercuts and spiral holes, for example, are mitigated.

Of course, new technology always comes at a price, to start with there is the financial cost. High-spec’ 3D printers aren’t cheap and as is often the case you get what you pay for, both in quality of the finished product and additional features supported by the device.

Added to the price of the 3D printer, at least you’re going to need; a pretty powerful computer, computer-aided design (CAD) software and the materials to produce your designs, so you can see how the cost of getting up and running can quickly rocket into £1000’s.

An important overhead to factor in is your time; technology always comes with a learning curve, depending on your experience there is going to be a machine to learn and new software to understand.

I’m still not put off, but where do I start?

Before you invest your hard earned money and precious time there are some things you can do to ease your way towards a final decision, assuming you already have a laptop/PC, search online for “free CAD software”. Chances are you’ll quickly outgrow the capabilities of any software you can get for free but it will certainly give you a feel for whether computer design is for you without spending any money.

YouTube!! There are loads of videos to help and inform you, covering all aspects of 3D printing and presented at every level of interest and expertise … if there’s one thing techno-geeks love more than gadgets it’s making movies about gadgets!

And finally, the sort of 3D printer you’re going to end up using commercially will probably be expensive; however there are machines for a wide variety of budgets, even as cheap as £100-£200 for very basic models. While the cheaper end of the range have questionable reliability and limited features they could allow you to get a feel for the capabilities of the technology for a modest overhead.

We hope this article has given you plenty to think about, as always we’d love to hear your opinion regarding this, and any future topics, especially if you have personal experience that you’d like to share with all our members.

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